Riverine issues and concerns are inextricable aspects of Nepal-India relations that stir up fervor and sentiments in both countries. With the onset of monsoon each year through June to September and the ensuing flood-related damages, governments at both local and federal levels are faced with the perennial challenge of responding to long-standing knotty issues. Major rivers like the Koshi, Gandaki, Karnali and Mahakali and tributaries experience annual flooding, affecting both countries. With more than 6,000 rivers and rivulets from Nepal flowing into India, the transboundary flood impacts are complex, significant, and on the rise.
Yet, what remains underexplored is the critical role that communities living in the transboundary river basins in both countries can play, as in the case of Mahakali basin on flood preparedness, mitigation, and response. Better outcomes in river and flood management can be achieved by proper coordination among water-related institutions and bringing local people into the mix. When local riverine communities are given increased access to and control over water resources, their resilience to natural hazards can improve.
The 2017-18 floods claimed 183 lives and affected 16,196 families in Nepal with a loss of Rs 60 million. Corresponding damages in India included loss of 1,808 lives and an estimated Rs. 957 billion ($13 billion) in damages according to data presented in the Rajya Sabha. The World Resources Institute (WRI)’s Aqueduct Global Flood Analyzer (2015) reports that on an average, 97,500 and 100 million population are affected every year in Nepal and India due to riverine floods, a majority of them women. Earlier floods like the one in Mahakali (2013) flood swept away 12 government offices, 156 private houses, embankments, a covered hall, and a playground in Nepal. Approximately, 42,800 Nepali (7,572 households) were affected by the Koshi floods in Sunsari District on 18 August 2008, in addition to an estimated 11,000 Indian nationals (2,328 homes), according to the government of Nepal. Rehabilitation and compensation from these events have been pending in both the countries to date.
The Mahakali river basin (also called Sharda in India) provides a unique example of how community-led actions make a difference in relaying flood-warning information between the upper and lower riparian neighbors. Communities living along the two sides of the river have strong cultural and socio-economic ties that have helped in easy and timely flow of flood-related information. During the 2013 Mahakali floods, the communities on the Indian side relayed vital and timely information about the opening of the Dauliganga dam following a heavy rainfall that saved many lives on the Nepali side.
Learning from these examples, a transboundary early flood warning taskforce has been formed to share flood-related information between upstream and downstream communities in the Mahakali basin through apps like Whatsapp and Facebook messaging. Community-level simulation exercises between Nepal and India have been held since 2018.
In both the countries, community engagement in citizen science activities like monitoring river pollution levels has started, which is expected to mobilize riverine communities on both the sides to generate data and build evidence vital to inform local policies.
Likewise, civil society organizations are playing vital roles in transboundary water cooperation by engaging communities and local governments from both the countries. To this end, institutions like the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Indo Nepal Joint Action Forum (INJAF) convene regular Mahakali Sambad (River dialogues) between communities of Nepal and India, and local political bodies and local governments representatives (CDO from Nepal and District Magistrate from India) are invited to discuss ways to minimize transboundary flood impacts, among other cross-border issues. This equity approach uses local people’s participation and their opinions as cornerstones in effective flood management.
A successful policy outcome of such citizen action is the Dhangadi Declaration (March 2018)—a six-points commitment secured at the sub-national level in Nepal that provides a potential segue into transboundary and basin level commitments for inclusive water governance initiatives in the region.
When tensions between the two countries are high due to the Kalapani, Lipulekh, Limpiadhura disputes, collaboration among the riverine communities of the two countries must be given continuity. Such community and CSOs-led initiatives will demonstrate the scope for more South-South Cooperation (SSC) among riparian countries in South Asia to collectively address shared waters issues, including natural hazards like floods and droughts in these basins.
Subedi and Singh work for the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) Program, Oxfam. Views are personal