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Caught between Embankments and Nations: Trans-Boundary Stakeholder Dialogues in Kosi Basin

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Supported By: 
The Asia Foundation

Laukaha village in Supaul in North Bihar is caught between the embankments of the river Kosi, a river known for its floods and unpredictable behaviour, having displaced millions in Nepal and India in the last several years. The village remains flooded for at least three months in most years. This is true for more than 380 villages caught between the embankments and also for those villages, who live outside the embankments, equally suffer from the menace caused by these embankments. The building of embankments has turned the river into a point of antagonism between the two countries. Nepal feels that India exploits its natural resources, while India thinks Nepal is responsible for the yearly deluge. The flood continues for days, at times weeks leaving the area plastered down in muck and stink. People in the Kosi basin in both countries continue to suffer as the two countries fail to resolve the issues around water sharing arrangements.

Recalling the horrors of the floods, Kapileshwar Shah, a farmer from Laukaha says “the devastation and human suffering of people went from bad to worse since the Kosi embankment was built in 1954. Being on the wrong side of embankments, we live on rooftops or go searching for higher places.” The receding of floods displaces thousands of poor people every year as they find their farms, homes and animals ruined. The decades-old strategy of pursuing embankments as a solution has left people outside the embankments vulnerable as well, with their lands faced with waterlogging leaving them unproductive.

For decades, the people most affected have not had a voice in the decision making processes. Experts point that better cooperation between the countries and communities in the basin is the way to find an all-inclusive solution. There has been a lack in considering the ecology of the Kosi basin in a holistic manner and building cooperation around the ecology and livelihoods of the people living in the basin at the concept, policy and action levels. As a result, the trans-boundary issues between the two countries such as disruption of ecology, lives and livelihoods of the people owing to changes in free flow of water, siltation, inundation, flood protection, infrastructure, waterlogging etc. have not been adequately addressed. Attempts have been made outside the government domain through informal civil society led dialogues helping in continued people-people cooperation and joint actions on mutual interests.

In the last couple of years, efforts have been made to have open dialogues with the communities living in the Kosi basin and other relevant stakeholders on both sides of the border. In this broad context, a dialogue process is facilitating the people in the Kosi basin to share their experiences and look for solutions. Floods and misery have marked their lives. The trans-boundary dialogue process supported by The Asia Foundation – in partnership with the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) and ISET-Nepal is helping the most affected, voice their concerns and think of joint action with trust and understanding.

The multilayered and multistage dialogue process at local, sub-basin,  basin and trans-boundary levels deal with the four dimensions of contestations (collusion of multiples uses at scales; sectoral approach to water resources management; collusion of the state’s and citizen’s interest, and collusion of interests at the local, national and trans-national levels) (ISET-Nepal, 2019). The dialogue process is expected to deal with the transboundary governance challenges and identify some key values to address them such as issues of building trust between communities, busting myths, clarifications on compensations and control over discharge of water, supporting communities living inside, outside and trans-boundary areas of the embankments and so on.  

The trans-boundary stakeholder dialogue

The communities shared their experiences related to problems and challenges arising due to disturbance in river ecology with special focus on gender and food-water-energy nexus. Around 30 farmers joined in the trans-boundary dialogue in February 2020 putting forth concerns in their specific local contexts, and cooperate to find solutions to prevent the basin from turning into a watery grave every monsoon. The trans-boundary dialogue aims to empower, build capacities and facilitate identification of collaborative actions that can help the communities on both sides of the border without undermining the ecological integrity of the river.

Gender balance was sought to be enhanced in the dialogue process in order to better inform decision-making processes regarding transboundary basin issues such as flooding, inundation and embankment construction. Over 50 percent of the participants were women and this helped empower women to contribute to dialogues. The dialogue brought out women’s narratives. It helped understand the ground realities, people’s perceptions, prevailing myths, livelihood related problems, especially of women members, living on either sides of the Indo-Nepal border.

Mrs. Chandrakala from the Nepal side in the Kosi basin says, “in the post flood situations, our access to health and vaccination services become very limited and the situation becomes pathetic, especially for pregnant women. The road connectivity is disrupted and women have to walk in knee-deep waters, risking our lives for snake-bites and diseases”.

The dialogue points to multifaceted nature of the conflict – at India-Nepal country level, at community level between people living on either side of the embankments, between communities in India and Nepal,” says Dr. Shiraz Wajih, GEAG. Studies indicate that such informal transboundary dialogues and water diplomacy itself can be an entry point for cooperation on international rivers like Kosi.

Mr Bikash Nepal, one of the participants from the trans-boundary dialogue says, “this is the first time that we are sitting together with people from the Indian side of the Kosi basin and discussing the initiatives that we can take at the local level to enhance our livelihoods.”

The dialogue process

“A number of dialogues were conducted on the India side by GEAG in January and February 2020 to build an understanding of the concerns of the people living in various stretches of the Kosi basin, i.e. within the Kosi embankments, outside the embankments and so on. It was realised that the issues cannot be seen in isolation and both local as well as basin-wide transboundary dialogues were necessary,” says Nivedita Mani, GEAG.

The transboundary dialogue, organised on 16tH February 2020 in Supaul entailed a set of processes that were undertaken before organising it.

Engagement techniques in the transboundary dialogue that followed include focus groups discussions and participatory visioning exercises. The long-standing issues that affected the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people living in the basin were discussed using consultative processes, where carefully selected neutral facilitators took cognizance of power dynamics, and accordingly try to include the feelings and understanding of all the key players (not just those who have the most prominent voice).

“The facilitators used processes that helped breakdown stereotypes, encouraged participants to bring forth a willingness to listen, respect each other’s views, and a willingness to open oneself to new ideas. They were aware of the community dynamics and local context, were sensitive to the issues of the livelihoods of poor people, could facilitate constructive discussions without any arguments, were neutral to issues and refrained from any kind of decision making on behalf of the communities,” says K K Singh, GEAG. They could successfully engage the stakeholders substantively through participatory and innovative approaches.

The dialogue facilitation included the processes of Forming (rapport building with the dialogue participants); Storming (detailed discussions by the participants); Norming (neutral conveners facilitating with an unbiased attitude); Performing (observing the thought processes and behaviour of the participants); and finally concluding the session.
At the macro level. the trans-boundary dialogue helped in identifying the conflict resolution areas and further scope of collaboration between the Indo-Nepal communities living in the Kosi basin. The participants unanimously arrived at a consensus that continued dialogues at the local level between different sets of communities are needed which will be helpful in resolving conflicts and busting prevailing myths at various levels (inside-outside embankment, silted area-inundated area, India-Nepal etc). Further, in the larger context of river ecology, local solutions are needed to be developed where help of experts related to river ecology, science and technology, livelihood, etc. will be needed. Advocacy efforts are needed so that the programmes are developed and planned with communities at local level – enabling communities to participate from the beginning so that it is helpful in effectiveness and sustainability of programmatic actions and increase the benefit of people’s knowledge and ITKs.

Similarly, at the micro level also, the trans-boundary dialogue concluded some actions that the communities can jointly take up such as vegetable farming, aquaculture, roads/link roads for communication esp during floods, women’s health and sanitation needs and so on. With increasing male migration, women-friendly extension mechanisms need to be advocated for. Also, information regarding agro-advisories and weather services are crucial.

Dialogues – a way forward for conflict resolution

The dialogue processes helped in understanding that there is a need to protect the ecology of the basin, across national borders, for sustaining livelihood options. This also needs mutual understanding for avoiding mistrust for which sequential dialogues are important involving citizens, state agencies and interest groups at different levels in the basin. This will eventually help in developing shared values for promoting sustainable use of transboundary water resource. Further, this will facilitate in reducing feelings of conflicts and challenging/busting prevailing myths at various levels (inside-outside embankment, silted area-inundated area, India-Nepal etc.) and help evolve solutions for problems at the local level.

This blog has been contributed by GEAG as part of a project on “Synergizing Political, Economic and Gender Dimensions for Sustainability of River Ecology and Resources in the context of Water-Energy-Food Nexus in Kosi Basin”, supported by The Asia Foundation.