In the North Eastern state of Nagaland, India there is a village, Kikruma, which practices a form of water sharing that can act as a global template for cross border river water sharing. The village located in Phek district and populated by the local Chakesang tribes, has a hilly terrain and the villagers practice step farming. Most of the water channels arise from one step farm or the other flowing from an elevation to the valley crossing step farms with different owners.
According to the local customs if a spring exists on a particular terrace which is not being cultivated for any reason or hasn’t been cultivated ever at all, the person below it is entitled to use it to develop his terrace. But at any given time if the owner of that particular step decides to develop his terrace then the two will share the water equally.
The owner of the step from where the water channel or the spring has originated can’t usurp the entire water, neither can he or she tamper with the natural run off. While the village council ensures this arrangement the clincher comes during the maintenance.
Just before the monsoon sets in a collaborative effort is undertaken to clean and prepare all the channels and catchment areas of ponds to harness maximum rainwater. All the beneficiaries of the spring, water channels and the ponds chip in to support the maintenance work. However, the person whose farm is the last recipient of the water from the spring or the water channel, technically the person at the bottom of the beneficiary ladder, shoulders the responsibility to mobilise people for the maintenance work.
It is his duty to meet people organise them and direct their activities. As he is the in-charge of maintenance work which benefits everyone else he is accepted as the custodian of the water resource and is also called the lord of water.
This example of community based water sharing turns the conventional wisdom on its head as this is the civilised and humane way of sharing water. The person at the source and the beneficiary at the end of the row are equal partners and make an effort in equally sharing the run-off as well as chipping to maintain the resource.
What is in practice in the international arena right now is that the nation where river originates tries to usurp every drop it can. It curbs the natural run-off which is a legitimate right of the lower riparian nation. Geographical advantage for one country becomes a resource disadvantage for another. In other words it’s a jungle raj where might is right.
Take the case of Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet which becomes Brahmputra in India and Jamuna (not to be mistaken with Yamuna in India) in Bangladesh. As China has no riparian treaty with any of its lower riparian neighbours, it is pretty much free to pursue whatever it feels like.
The country has initiated a massive dam building project on Yarlung Tsangpo close to the Indian border to stop a lot of water flow to produce electricity. When completed, this string of dams will severely restrict water flow in India. A mighty river will slowly lose much of its magnificence. It will force India to try and stop as much water flowing out of its territory as possible with Bangladesh being the ultimate loser as it is at the bottom of the recipient list.
If we use the Kikruma model then before embarking on a dam building spree China should have consulted India and more importantly Bangladesh as the river water in both the countries not only helps in agriculture but also in transport.
After a detailed discussion China could have decided on the number of dams. It could have also let go of few dams if they were affecting Bangla interests. Similarly, China can co-opt lower riparian nations in the Indo-China region to share Mekong and Salween river water.
Similarly, Turkey’s Kamal Ataturk Dam caused a lot of resentment in the lower riparian nations like Iraq when it was under construction. The best course of action would have been a joint analysis of development needs and future demands. Both the nations could have jointly funded a modified plan. They could have shared electricity as well as stored water and the lower riparian countries would have happily foot the maintenance bill.
This model can be adopted between Ethiopia and Egypt where a dam being built in the former is threatening to snowball into a major confrontation. Egypt has insisted that the height of the dam be lowered. They have also threatened military action. Eventually, threat of military action may end up being a mere posturing but that’s not the point. It underlies genuine concerns of the lower riparian countries.
As water resources are increasingly feeling the stress of burgeoning demand of ever increasing population it is time to accept a reconciliatory and cooperative model of Kikruma village to meet our basic needs.
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