Muddied Waters: The World Bank and transboundary water governance in the Ganges-Brahmaputra problemshed

The importance of governance is a recurring theme throughout the Sustainable Development Goals and the evolving global discourse around natural resource management. The idea of inclusive, discursive, or deliberative governance in particular has caught on in various international development policy documents and funding applications, including those regarding transboundary water cooperation. Deliberative governance of transboundary rivers in the Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins is also the raison d’etre of the World Bank-led South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI). The primary task of SAWI is to facilitate workshops and roundtable dialogues between the riparians of these basins, as well as ‘Track II’ dialogue between governments and civil society actors.

The theory of change is that dialogue between actors who do not often talk to each other about water issues of mutual concern may resolve tensions, build trust, and negotiate positive-sum outcomes through regular contact facilitated by a neutral party. In practice, however, deliberative governance does not address the political context, historical grievances, or the lack of political will within the basins to act on transboundary water resource issues. Deliberative governance also does not account for the power asymmetries in the basins, especially India’s hydro-hegemony. Water cooperation, moreover, takes decades to build, especially in a region that has had water related tensions festering for generations. This cannot be undone in a series of workshops. Furthermore, the resentment from in-basin actors towards the World Bank and SAWI undermines its efficacy. Although there is an element of procedural justice in deliberative governance, distributive justice is a lesser concern. Taking a water justice, rather than a deliberative governance approach, to natural resource management may therefore be a more appropriate path for increasing transboundary water cooperation.