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Muddy waters: International actors and transboundary water cooperation in the Ganges-Brahmaputra problemshed

Paula Hanasz
Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University paula.hanasz@anu.edu.au

ABSTRACT: The portion of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna mega-basin shared between Nepal, Bhutan, northern India, and Bangladesh is one of the poorest, most densely populated, ecologically vulnerable, and socially and politically unstable areas in the world. As such, reducing the potential for transboundary water conflict by increasing cooperation between riparian states has been of increasing interest to policy-makers and foreign aid donors.
The World Bank-led South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI) commenced in the mid-2000s. Yet, in more than a decade of existence, neither SAWI nor other international initiatives, have been able to improve transboundary water interactions between India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. In part this is because of the sheer complexity of transboundary water governance, and in part because of contextual factors. Addressing transboundary water issues is not a priority for the riparian states; there is significant distrust between them and resentment about India’s hydro-hegemony; and bilateral, rather than multilateral, arrangements prevail. These factors make collective action both more urgent and more difficult. If they are to increase transboundary water cooperation, international actors should, among other things, resolve historical grievances; strengthen water-sharing institutions; build trust between riparian states; and work toward outcomes based on principles of water justice.

KEYWORDS: Water conflict, water governance, foreign aid and investment, World Bank, South Asia