By Anamika Barua

Dialogue and Water Cooperation in the Brahmaputra River Basin

Sep. 22, 2016  |     |  0 comments

More than 90 percent of the world’s population live in countries that share watercourses, and almost every country with land borders shares some waters with its neighbors (Benjamin et al., 2014). Since water plays a vital role in the lives, livelihoods, production, and ecosystems of the region, the amount of water available will therefore have an impact on the social, political, economic and environmental conditions of each country. The resultant interdependencies (political, economic, social and environmental) on shared waters makes transboundary water management inherently a political process and an issue of state sovereignty.

While the availability of freshwater in the world has roughly remained the same, the demand for water from environmental, domestic, and economic users is growing annually, putting pressure on international river basins. Although so far water scarcity has not led to water wars, there is evidence across the world that shows that water scarcity can lead to intense political instability (Wolf, Yoffe & Giordana, 2003). Such instability is further fueled by upstream/hegemonic riparian plans for infrastructure development which may result in structural and physical scarcity of water for the downstream/weaker riparian states. As such, allocation, access to, and control over resources seems to be the most important cause of conflict in the case of transboundary waters. Thus, getting transboundary water management “right” is both important and urgent for the environment and livelihood security.

However, the interdependencies of riparian countries on shared waters can also create grounds for cooperation. There is also a large and growing body of literature that highlights that, in transboundary waters, conflict and cooperation can co-exist (Zeitoun & Warner, 2006; Wolf, 2007; Cascão, 2009; Mirumachi & Warner, 2008; Zeitoun, Mirumachi & Warner, 2011). These literature indicates that despite the potential for disputes in international basins, there are many more instances of cooperation over shared water resources. The evidence from different transboundary river basins across the world (e.g. Nile, Jordan, Mekong) also shows that water, by its very nature, tends to induce even hostile co-riparian states to cooperate, even as disputes rage over other issues (Wolf, 2004).

All cooperation is not necessarily good as in many instances they are actually acts of domination dressed up as cooperation (Selby, 2003). Powerful riparian states are usually able to influence and determine the outcome of transboundary interactions in their favor. Such outcomes in the form of treaties usually benefit the powerful states. The weaker states sign these treaties even though they are skewed in order to remain in the game, rather than resign and not participate. Such cooperation through asymmetric treaties have become sources of conflict rather than sources of cooperation, and they are often new sources of tension between riparian countries (e.g. Nile treaty, the Ganges treaty).

The reason for such asymmetric treaties is because the countries sharing the basin are usually positioned differently in terms of geography, military power, socio-economic development, political orientation, and infrastructural capacity. Based on these differences, they understand the usage, access, and control of their transboundary resources differently. The resultant power asymmetry between the nations influences their bargaining positions as well as the outcomes of their negotiations. Therefore, arriving at transboundary cooperation is not an easy task, particularly when the rivers flow through multiple riparian countries. It is in fact a lengthy and complex process. Hence there has to be a mechanism in place to create a level playing field for the riparian countries for effective transboundary cooperation.

Dialogue is considered to be a constructive way of dealing with conflict and is also one of the best ways to resolve contentious issues. There are a large number of dialogue projects which are trying to resolve different transboundary conflicts at various levels (from grassroots to leadership level). Dialogue before negotiation can play a significant role in avoiding such asymmetric cooperation by building trust and confidence, and creating an enabling environment between the riparian countries.

Dialogue can help to challenge the power asymmetry between the riparian countries and level the players before negotiation. A dialogue process also aids in identifying points of cooperation rather than just open negotiation on the issues of conflict. It can also influence the hegemon to identify common interests related to water and behave as a leader rather than a bully. Dialogue has to be multi-stakeholder, multilateral, and gender-sensitive so that the voices of all stakeholders are heard.

An inclusive dialogue process can help build the capacity of multiple stakeholders through the sharing of knowledge and information related to various aspects of transboundary water management. Although dialogue is a long process as it focuses on the root causes of the problems, continuous dialogue before negotiation can generate a “spirit of cooperation” between the riparian countries and lead to a symmetric treaty at the basin level.

The Brahmaputra Dialogue

The Yarlung Zangbo-Brahmaputra-Jamuna river basin, henceforth to be referred to as the Brahmaputra River Basin, is one the most important river systems of South Asia. It originates in the Himalayan mountain range in Tibet, and links Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, and India. The conflicts of the Brahmaputra River Basin somewhat fall into the stereotypical conflicts of interest between upstream and downstream riparian states. They are mainly related to water resources development by the upstream states and the downstream states raising objections to these proposed plans. Examples include the dam construction and water diversion plans of India and China. While these are still in the evaluation stage, such infrastructure development might have negative impacts on the downstream riparian states, particularly Bangladesh.

The key challenge in the Brahmaputra River Basin is the rising suspicion and distrust, and the lack of open communications between the countries. Negotiations that have happened so far are essentially bilateral and confidential with no public participation, which has led to distrust, conflict, and uncertainty at all levels. None of the riparian countries have ratified the UN watercourses convention, hence there is no institutional framework which can guide these negotiations. Furthermore, power asymmetry between the riparian countries acts as a hurdle towards arriving at outcomes which are beneficial to all. Hence, negotiation for a treaty at this stage for the Brahmaputra River Basin does not seem to be the right choice as cooperation through asymmetric treaties may become a source of conflict in the future. This distrust, and the lack of confidence and communication between the riparian countries might instead be lessened through a sustained dialogue process.

With this understanding, since 2013, SaciWATERs, the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies,1 has been facilitating a transboundary dialogue process — the Transboundary Policy Dialogue for Improved Water Governance in Brahmaputra River.2 This dialogue process, which is now in the third phase (phase I: 2013–2014; phase II: 2014–2015; phase III: 2015–2017), aims to create a platform to discuss the issues, challenges, and opportunities for improved co-management of the river basin by bringing multiple stakeholders from the four Brahmaputra riparian countries onto one platform.

The dialogue forum brings together an interdisciplinary group of experts (senior members of government, academia, and civil society) for the exchange of concerns and ideas. The dialogue meetings are conducted mostly through multilevel workshops. These workshops are of two kinds — country level and regional level. The country level workshops are conducted to understand the concerns at the country level, and these concerns are later discussed at the regional level in the presence of the representatives of the riparian countries.

The aim of the dialogue is not to come up with a transboundary treaty for the Brahmaputra River Basin, but to ease the tensions, develop trust, and build confidence between the riparian countries. Building an enabling environment is the first step in building cooperative transboundary institutions (Jagerskog & Zeitoun, 2009). The dialogue aims to generate the “spirit of cooperation” among the riparian countries of the basin so that they cooperate not just to avoid conflict or to be a part of the game, but because they see the benefits of such cooperation. The dialogue also aims to help the non-hegemons to improve their negotiation abilities and empower them to use their bargaining power effectively. This has been done through capacity building — technical, legal, and socio-economic — of the less powerful sides. Thus, by leveling the players (weaker riparians of the Brahmaputra Basin), the dialogue enables them to play a more effective role in transboundary water interactions.

Knowledge sharing is an important part of the dialogue workshops, as knowledge is essential for identifying the common opportunities and risks associated with transboundary water management (Jagerskog & Zeitoun, 2009). The dialogue aims to develop a common knowledge base through the sharing of knowledge and information among the riparian countries. Such information-based dialogue can help develop a shared understanding about the basin and can improve the quality of the dialogue process itself.

Power can act as both a positive or negative factor in determining transboundary water interaction. If the basin leader uses its power in a positive way, it can encourage positive transboundary water interaction and can lead to effective transboundary water management. While the power asymmetry between the riparian countries of Brahmaputra River Basin is unavoidable, the dialogue process aims to reduce the destructive manifestations of power by persuading the basin hegemons to behave like basin leaders, and make power an enabling factor for transboundary cooperation.

Dialogue in the transboundary context needs a conscious and multi-year effort and that is what SaciWATERs has been doing since 2013 as a neutral facilitator of the Brahmaputra dialogue. In terms of achievements, SaciWATERs has been able to create a platform for multiple stakeholders across four riparian countries to meet and talk. The continuous dialogue between the riparian countries has been able to generate a willingness at multiple levels to continue the dialogue by recognizing the merits of such dialogue. The knowledge sharing workshops have also improved the quality of dialogue by building capacity at different levels and has also enabled the participants to identify joint research themes for rigor of evidence, including socio-economic and policy research.


1. SaciWATERs is a policy research institute based in Hyderabad, India.

2. The first two phases of the project were funded by The Asia Foundation (TAF) and the third phase is supported by the South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI).


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Cascão, A. E. (2009). Changing power relations in the Nile river basin: Unilateralism vs. cooperation? Water Alternatives, 2(2), 245–268.

Jagerskog, A. & Zeitoun, M. (2009). Getting tranboundary water right : Theory and practice for effective cooperation. Report Nr 25. SIWI, Stockholm.

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Selby, J. (2003). Dressing up domination as “co-operation”: The case of Israeli-Palestinian water relations. Review of International Studies, 29(1), 121–138.

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