Institutionalizing Bhutan-India Water Cooperation

Author : Oxfam India

Date : 07/08/2020 - 06/09/2020

How do we institutionalize the water cooperation between Bhutan and India? And what role will the civil society play in the process and after the institution has been set up?

Bhutan and India have enjoyed cordial relations since time immemorial through a history of shared cultural heritage. The relationship was formalized through the treaty of friendship between the two countries in 1949, which was revised in 2007. The friendly ties have also spilled over into water resources cooperation with a scheme for flood warning measures under which rain monitoring equipment were installed in Bhutan and later handed over to the Bhutanese government. Since then the countries have been constantly engaging with each other over water. And a testament to this relationship’s strength is the recent effort from the Bhutanese administration and civil society to repair and maintain the traditional channels which supply irrigation water downstream to Indian farmers. With the Bhutanese government sealing its border in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the local Indian farmers near the India-Bhutan border could not go and maintain the channels which lie across the border. But as the rumours that Bhutan had blocked the water started spreading in Indian districts near the border, the Bhutanese officials and people started working on the channels in communication with the Indian counterparts. This helped ensure irrigation water for sowing the paddy crop. It is a great example of the strength of water cooperation between the two countries. 

India and Bhutan's engagement on water has mostly been at the intergovernmental level. The cooperation has taken the form of agreements on hydropower projects, of which the 1961 Jaldhaka agreement was the first. There have been numerous such agreements between India and Bhutan such as the Chukkha, Kurichu and Tala agreements. This project based approach leaves much to desire as it may not include other relevant issues associated with water such as the ecology, flood management, irrigation to name a few. The approach is also limited to particular rivers and ignores the basin-wide impacts. Thus, there is a need to formalize the current regime of water cooperation so that focus shifts to river basins rather than particular rivers themselves. The question then arises as to how do we institutionalize the water cooperation between Bhutan and India? And what role will the civil society play in the process and after the institution has been set up?


Image taken from https://www.thethirdpole.net/2020/06/26/covid-19-hits-bhutan-india-water-cooperation/ (Courtsey: Tshering Namgyel)


Total Comments : 8

Date : 06/09/2020 | 12:39PM

Bhutan India relations as many terms it is historic and I am sure rarely any countries enjoys such a cordial relations between Bhutan and India. There are dozens of initiatives and most of them are working excellent if not all. The history is long and it is quite inspirational one indeed. Most of the sources of water in Bhutan is originated by glaciers and in view of changing climate, the issue of cooperation between Bhutan and India is not just making use of the water resources effectively but also addressing water resources related risks. Let me just share my opinion from the climatic contexts of managing water resources which I believe would be useful in Bhutan and beyond. Most of the rivers just flow to India from Bhutan, although most of the rivers (except two) are originated in Bhutan but those water from the rivers could not be made available for agriculture as they flow through the deep gorge. Only in case of hydropower few river water could be useful. Harnessing hydropower can be win-win situation for Bhutan and India which is based on the past experience and documented evidence. Both countries can progress towards economic prosperity. Bhutan as a small country with limited resources has been meticulous in using the limited resources and so far has been successful to address climatic impacts which is not of its own fault. This puts enormous pressure to Bhutan to develop and manage resources in Bhutan so that communities around Bhutan also be benefitted. The hydropower cooperation which is probably the rare success stories around the globe is laudable and has been fruitful. So at the national level the cooperation is already there however it is time now to address the diverse issues associated to water so that both countries can progress towards holistic development of the region.

So at national level, it is necessary to explore, climatic trends and how it may affect the region. Climatic trends of 30 years show that increasing trend in air temperature in the region is happening and such development in increasing air temperature poses strong risks towards ecology, economy and community safety in the future. Although there is still some data gaps which need to be looked into critically. A strengthening of the quality and quantity of climatic observations in Bhutan and in the region is necessary to address those risks and deal with accordingly. Climate data sharing and analysing from the surrounding region like Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in addition to Assam and West Bengal, I think, would be helpful. Such observations also serve as a precondition to more robust climate projections and adaptation measures within and beyond the country especially in the downstream areas such as Assam and West Bengal related to water resources availability and management.

Now how do we institutionalize? It is a difficult question to answer directly but first thing, I would think, would be education and research. I am not sure how many of us actually know about resources, culture, tradition, practices and history of the regions. University should be in a position to play significant role in educating youth, preparing them as future leaders, preserving institutional memory and building data sets for resources like water resources and management. Probably Assam and Bhutan is one of the cases one can imagine that they are so close and yet appears to be far apart. So encouraging research collaboration, conducting joint research would provide a platform to understand the region more closely.

For example, ecology of river basins is influenced by changes in water supply, precipitation etc in terms of species composition, migration, and threats to human lives and livelihoods. It is possible to understand when the research community on the both sides of the national border can have access to data sets so that the ecosystem in a river basin can be understood more clearly. River basin do not know administrative boundaries so if the mental models of administrative barriers can be transformed for fruitful collaboration, the river basin management would be effective and that should benefit the concerned community. Therefore trans-boundary cooperation is necessary. Secondly in view of quality data, having data collection standards and cooperative data sharing policies in place would help address common issues like managing water resources and flow regimes, land degradation, and other coping and adaptation strategies related to climate and water resources changes. Immediate attention should be given to studies of river basins to identify vulnerable areas and to develop adaptive measures connected to landslides, debris flows, floods and droughts so that the upstream as well as downstream communities would be informed accordingly.

Thirdly strengthening sectoral cooperation would be beneficial for both upstream and downstream communities. Although national level cooperation, as mentioned, is necessary but involving and engaging stakeholders like CSOs, etc is required probably forming joint committee or something similar to this.  Without any institutional framework or policies in place relating to stakeholders engagements at the local level, it may simply become a political tool and manipulation of facts than actually addressing the needs and resolving it.

Thank you.

Date : 05/09/2020 | 11:58PM

Indian and Bhutan have been sharing water since long. The rivers in the state of Assam in India are mostly flowing down from Bhutan. The state of Arunchal Pradesh in India also share river water with Bhutan. As both the countries are sharing water since long, they have also been working on several issues related to water resources. We can also come across some water sharing related disputes between the two. But all the issues were resolved amicably with the help of the people of both the countries. It is seen that a mechanism is required to avert any sort of misperceptions or misunderstandings of the riparian communities of both the countries. Therefore, the mechanism of institutionalising Bhutan-India Water Co-operation is important for resolving issues or misunderstandings/misperceptions in water sharing between the countries. The river water is the life line for most of the riparian communities of both the countries. Both the countries have been working on the issues of sharing water resources or for better trans-boundary water resources management. Indeed, Civil Societies are playing a major role in this regard. But at times, misunderstandings or misperceptions arise between the riparian communities of both the countries. Therefore, it seems, before perceiving the idea of institutionalising Bhutan-India Water Co-operation, Civil Societies and other agencies working on the area should try to resolve the gap that exists between the meta-narrative and the micro-narrative on the rivers among the riparian communities. This may resolve the issues of misunderstanding or misperceptions between the riaprian comumunities of both the countries.



Date : 05/09/2020 | 9:08PM

Water sharing by Bhutan and India have been going on for ages. On the Indian side the communities settled in the foothills of Bhutan depend on the rivers flowing downstream for irrigation, drinking and household work. The river water is diverted to the villages on the Indian side by making traditional dams  and through channels. The traditional dams are made with materials available in the river and the banks of the river and made by the community themselves by the Indian side manually. The traditional dams are temporary as they are washed away by the fast flowing river especially during the monsoons. Thus, they have to be repaired frequently.

To maintain the water channels, there exist a Bandw or Band Commitee in the villages which together with the community repair and maintain the channels. They need to go inside Bhutan for repairing the point of diversion frequently.

Recently, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was lockdown everywhere and the international borders were closed. The committee could not go inside Bhutan to repair the point of diversion. It was time for plantation and people were desperate for water. As there was scarcity of water the farmers and community took to protest their issue so that the government would take notice and find a permanent solution.  At this time when the farmers in the foothills in the Indian side were distressed,our friendly neighbouring country- Bhutan took up the responsibility of repairing and diverting water to the channels. This good work of sharing water and helping each other in times of need are not known by many and is not being highlighted. And also the issue of water scarcity in the region remain unknown to many. There were some misunderstanding too that would have affected the age old relation and friendship between the two countries and the people settled on both side of the border. Had the water cooperation between Bhutan and India been institutionalized, the government and CSOs from both the countries would have helped to solve the issue. Nevertheless, the situation was stabilized by intervention of the CSOs and the Administration.

 Therefore, it can be seen that there is an urgent   need to institutionalize for better understanding on both sides and that things are not repeated in the future when situations such as lockdown and other emergencies occur. There is also a need to harvest the potential of the river water to the fullest for both the countries. On the one side we need to think of utilizing it for the benefit of both the countries and along with it we need to think of sustainability of rivers. Hence,utilizing with responsibility.

 It would be suggested that having a joint committee from both the countries and involving different government departments , CSOs from both sides, and  at all levels . In institutionalizing we need to think of the various effects  that would cause to both downstream and upstream and try to avoid any actions that would harm not only Bhutan and India but for the whole region and the planet as a whole. We need to think of the environment as everyone is talking of global warming, melting of glaciers, climate change and pattern of rainfall. Bhutan is known to be a carbon negative country, and the forest cover at all times need to be 75%. But on the other side we would see that most of the forest cover is being depleted. While Bhutan is doing so much to preserve and protect its forest and contributing positively to the environment, for no reason should they suffer the brunt of global warming , climate change and for no fault of theirs. As in institutionalizing various departments-water resource, forest, DDMA, Agriculture, Fisheries, etc  and CSOs working in various fields would be included, the weather forecast, early warning, and disaster management , would be more systematic  and streamlined and make it more effective. Joint committee would have meetings at constant intervals on flood control, disaster management, early warning and water sharing and by observing the seasonal patterns so that the people are made aware about the issues and chalk out control measures. It would then help in irrigation and food production-agriculture and fisheries, etc. which can be exchanged with each other and benefit both the countries. It would also see that the river water is not polluted and help in the thriving of aquatic life which some might be on the verge of extinction. Thus, conservation and utilization for benefit of all.


Date : 05/09/2020 | 1:17PM

People to People Ties lead to Institutionalization Model of Combating Cross Border Human Trafficking -Between BTC, Assam with Bhutan- Digambar Narzary, Chairperson-NEDAN Foundation

Way-back 2008 - NEDAN Foundation working for combating human trafficking in Assam, North East region organized a Regional level consultation with the aims of strengthening regional collaboration between BTC, Assam with Bhutan on strengthening regional collaboration on combating human trafficking. The regional consultation was organized on 27 January at Kokrajhar 2008 just after the Republic Day celebration in India. In the regional consultation between, BTC, Assam with Bhutan was to build stronger collaboration to ourselves living in the open border of 700 km between, India and Bhutan.  In the regional consultation representatives from Southern districts of Bhutan bordering with India such as Royal Bhutan Police, regional immigration officials, Bhutan India friendship association, national commission of women and children, Renew Secretariat, women association and official, etc. From BTC, Assam representatives were DC, SP, IGP 16 Battalion SSB, CSOs and Intellectual group of Kokrajhar district, BTC.  The two days regional consultation of people to pole ties was a Land Mark declaration and since than both the countries representatives decided to take forward the Land Mark Declaration and Core Working Committee was constituted to work on the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) on rescue, repatriation and reintegration of cross border Trafficking between, BTC, Assam with Bhutan. The regional Convener (Digambar Narzary) was appointed and NEDAN Office as Secretariat to work the SOP.

The second regional consultation was organized at Guwahati on 2009 with larger representation from both the countries. In the second regional consultation the draft SOP prepared by Core Working Committee members was presented and many more points and endorsements were made by the participants and Core working committee members were given the tasks of shaping the SOP for third meeting which was suppose to take place at Thimphu, Bhutan.  The third Consultation was organized in 2010 at Thimphu with the support of National Commission of women and Children, (NCWC), Bhutan and more prospective on the Bhutan context was emphasized on the SOP.

The Core Working Committee Members headed by Digambar Narzary from BTC, Assam, India and Dr. Rinchen Chopel from Bhutan took another height of the SOP that is to present the SOP with high level representatives from both the Countries so that it is acceptable to the govt. level and make this as guideline in context of BTC, Assam with Bhutan since we have been sharing open border and need for such guideline is requires for future.

While making the SOP as acceptable documents for both the countries the need of involving Ministry of Home Affairs representatives from India was necessary for that involvement of UN agencies became a crucial part since UN agencies works closely with govt. in both the Countries. The involvement of UN agencies representatives became another strength for our efforts in reality.

On 2013 high level regional consultation on the need of the Cross-border SOP was organized at Phuentsholing, Bhutan in collaboration with UNDOC, NEW Delhi office. The high level regional consultation was graced by Consulate General – Dasho S. Wangda and many more high-profile officials from both the countries. The outcome of the regional consultation was to make the SOP as working guideline on cross border trafficking intervention and Bhutan stakeholders be trained on human trafficking by UN organization like UNODC.

From 2014 onwards UNODC has set up an office in Bhutan and has been actively working with Bhutan govt. on strengthening law enforcement agencies on prevention, protection and prosecution of cases related to human trafficking. The Govt. of Bhutan has also developed inter departmental SOP, case referral SOP within the departments/ ministries related to trafficking of women and children.

The whole outcome of the countries need for combating human trafficking intervention strategies and future plan of action was emerged from the very humble initiative started through people- to -people ties on strengthening regional collaboration building only. 

The initiative of Trans border water governance system also need to create working guideline paper which explain the steps- by steps procedures for both the countries stakeholders. This requires massive collaboration building between the two countries ministries concerns on the management of trans border water issues. I see this initiative as an opportunity to create larger water sharing mechanism and joint management. The people to people understanding has already been builds therefore need to work on the tangible manner through collaborating with govt. departments of both countries.

Date : 04/09/2020 | 12:30PM

Bhutan and India Shared 699 KM internation boarder adjoining the Indian states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal, In this boarder many informal water channel flowing down from bhutan to India which is maintain by boarder community to cultivate and household use. Most of the Indian Boarder community depend on this water channel. Recently  in the Baksa dsitric of Assam  due to COVID emergency farmers were stoped by Bhutansee Authority to repair water cahnnel but in normal days they were walked through open gate and reapirs the water channel, to bring back water in the cultivation field farmers held a demonstration, in this situation the formal civil, Societies Channel which was established by some civil socities of Bhutan and India plays a important role to bring back the water for farmers. the civil Socites qiuckly discuss with both country's adminstration and resolve situation. Such kind of situation take place several times and it resolve casually. it require to institutionalise, So the Government, civil Societies and Academic Institution needs to come forward to institutionalise the water cooperaion of Bhutan-India 

Date : 22/08/2020 | 3:17PM

Before instituonalizing, we need to have clarification on how we perceive the idea which has fundamentally remained Eurocentric in nature. The emergence of the idea of civil society in Europe has a historical basis which I assert is being nurtured by the protestant ethics. While the idea of civil society in Europe is external and not embedded as an integral part of the political society, the concept of civil society in the Himalayan region and Burma is unique in the sense that community service is traditionally an integral part of the political society in such a manner that it is sometimes difficult to segregate them from the state.  In its true traditional sense, Eastern Himalayas including the entire stretch from Eastern Nepal to Myanmar is culturally different from other geo-political spaces in Asia. That is why resources like Forest and Water are not externally preserved by written laws but are part of the living systems and traditional common property resource governance is guided by culture. A Eurocentric idea of institutionalization therefore would be dominance, hegemony and cultural colonization. In simple sense, the first approach to be adopted is cultural decolonization that is entering through the Civil Societies burdening local communities with Eurocentric Ethics on Common Property Resource Governance. If one observes the traditional institutions in Bhutan, Dooars, Sikkim, Bodoland(Assam) and few other parts in North East, you will observe that how traditional institutions have been instrumental in cultural governance which includes the governance of resources like water and forests in a very organized manner. Hence in my opinion, the first step for co-operation should be re-learning and preserving of traditional wisdom of values and understand the fact that Even though administratively two cultures may be separated but culturally the entire Himalayan geography including the Terai shares common values which should not be compromised and complicated. Bhutan and India has always been friends but the youths must save themselves from post truth because the current format of conflict in the region looks very West-Philain and cultures have forgotten the peace brought by shared values just because some hegemonic groups with vested interest incite violence in their minds. If you are living in peace, people who always remain in a state of chaos would never like it. Hence it is essential that youths maintain the traditional ties and do not let the evil air of misunderstanding and conflict flow into their neighbourhood. 

The initiative is supported by Oxfam India under Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA 2017 -2021) program. TROSA is a regional water governance program supporting poverty reduction initiatives in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) and Salween basins.The program is implemented in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanamar and is supported by the Government of Sweden.
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