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The experience of managing the Saralbhanga River, which flows from Bhutan to India, shows the importance of peoples’ participation for effective cooperation in transboundary rivers

All photos by Shailendra Yashwant / Oxfam

There are as many as 56 rivers that flow down from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to the eastern state of Assam in India to meet the Brahmaputra River. The hills of Bhutan are covered with lush forests, but on the Indian side of the border are vast tracts of dry plains with occasional patches of severely denuded forests.

A large share of Bhutan’s revenue comes from hydropower projects, although it has been declining over the years, from 44.6% in 2001 to 20% in 2013. Most of these hydropower projects have been developed in cooperation with India. Bhutan currently has an installed hydropower capacity of 1,488 MW, although it hopes to increase this to 20,000 MW.

All the rivers flowing from Bhutan to India have changed their behaviour dramatically in the last decade – long periods of dryness, shallow flow and then repeated flash floods, followed by massive amount of silt, sand, sediments, stones and boulders hurtling downstream across the border into India, constantly altering the river’s course and causing hardships and misery to people on both banks and both side of borders.

Downstream riparian communities in Assam have been regularly raising alarms about these developments, worried that the plans to build more dams in Bhutan will lead to increased flooding, erosion and more destruction than good. The Bhutanese government and their Indian dam consultants were dismissive about these objections in the past, but the rapid and extreme changes in weather patterns in the recent past has upset all predictions and is now shaping the future course of the river and Bhutan’s relationship with India.

The inhabitants of the India-Bhutan border are among the poorest of the region. The mostly tribal population is recovering from intermittent internecine periods of ethnic conflict and armed clashes in Assam that has displaced over 400,000 people since 1996

Mass exodus and internal migration have affected employment, land rights and traditional occupations, making many returning families depend heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods. Some 70% of the region’s population is food and energy deficient, a proportion almost as high as that in a desert region.

The flash floods in Bhutan’s Sarpang district in 2016 had wreaked havoc in downstream areas in Assam’s Kokrajhar and Chirang districts, with the excessive silt turning large tracts of farmland into desert. The silt flow was so huge that the hundreds of farmers in Patgaon, located around 30bkm to the north and close to National Highway 31, cannot cultivate rice even now.

On July 21, 2017, the town of Sarpang Bazar was entirely washed away by floodwaters, when the Sarpang River broke its banks again, cutting off the road to the border town of Gelephu. There were 52 families that were left homeless after continuous and heavy rainfall.

With floodwaters and landslides cutting off the highway from Phuentsholing on the Bhutan-India border, landslides brought down power transmission lines and many parts of Bhutan were without electricity. The department of roads reported that nine gewogs (districts) were totally cut off.

After the flash floods, Bhutan began mitigation measures by trying to divert the river away from human settlements. One of the controversial decisions is to allow stone miners to retrieve and sell stones and boulders from the riverbed and is being opposed by a few organisations.

Controversial measure

Another controversial measure was to embargo the building of check dams by Indian farmers from Saralpara area of Kokrajhar district. Without water from the traditional Jamfwi check dams, the farmers downstream cannot irrigate their crops. This caused much concern and consternation among downstream communities.

Any changes in the river, its flow, its course and its siltation affects farmers adversely. Upstream damming and increased landslides in the mountains have changed once perennial sources of water into dry rivulets in winter. Without irrigation, most farmers are unable to cultivate their land. Women have to go long distances to fetch water for their homes.

The Saralbhanga River (also called Swrmanga) that flows from Sarphang district of Bhutan to Assam in India. About 500 farmers from five villages close to the international border contribute to building, repairing and maintaining this check dam on the river, a traditional diversion based Irrigation system of the Bodo tribe, which is called the Dongo or Jamfwi system.

The Jamfwi or Dongo irrigation system channels water across the border in India through a labyrinth of small canals to irrigate rice and vegetable farms. Communities on both sides of the India-Bhutan border consume the produce.

Anarsingh Iswari, a leader of the Akhand Buryogari Bandh Committee in Navnagar, grows paddy, kaala dal and ginger using the traditional irrigation system. When the Bhutan government put an embargo on building of check dams, Anarsingh and Raju Kumar Narzary, executive director of the Northeast Research and Social Work Networking (NERSWN), a Kokrajhar-based NGO and members of All Bodo Students Union, Bodo Women’s Forum for Peace and Development, met the officials of Bhutan India Friendship Association (BIFA) to raise the concerns of the farmers

Traditional irrigation triumphs

The BIFA officials facilitated an urgent meeting with the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Sarphang district of Bhutan and after understanding the plight of the farmers, the Bhutanese officials agreed to allow the farmers to continue to build check dams and also decided help the farmers divert the water of Saralbhanga River for irrigation purposes, which they have been doing for centuries. This has given a huge relief to at least 5,000 farmers.

For 18-year-old Azlka Musahary, a student who helps her family in their farm, this has come as great relief, mainly because she has to walk a shorter distance to collect water for their household needs. Longer conversations with women of the village reveal how central the Jamfwi or Dongo irrigation system is to the survival of the villagers.

At the community level, women participate in all decision-making around the quantum of water to be lifted for each household and the contribution to the maintenance of the irrigation system. It is the women who have the most at stake and are the ones who want a more permanent solution, a treaty between the two countries if possible, so that there is better conversations on both sides of the border on flow of water.

“Water issues in river basins are becoming more and more complex and far reaching at all levels — local, regional, and national. The story of conflict resolution on Saralbhanga River is a great example of successful people to people engagement supported by administration on both sides,” Animesh Prakash of Oxfam India told , Prakash is in Oxfam’s TROSA project, which aims to contribute to poverty reduction and to reduce marginalisation of vulnerable river basin communities. The project plans to do this through increased community access to and control over riverine water resources.

“We need to build on the foundation set by the students union and civil society on both sides of the border with continued strategic engagement to promote collective actions to mitigate and adapt to the climate change induced havoc playing out in these parts of western Assam. Peace is essential for implementation of any poverty alleviation and development programme in the region,” Prakash added.

Clearly, this successful interaction has led to increasing interest among local civil society organisations to participate in processes to influence practices at all levels in integrated water resource management that is more inclusive of community concerns.

“The golden anniversary of India-Bhutan Friendship offers a perfect opportunity for both the governments to explore how best to cooperate for joint projects to mitigate and adapt to the vagaries of our rivers in interest of citizens of both our countries,” Ugyen Rabten, Chairperson of Bhutan India Friendship Association, told “His Majesty the King of Bhutan has repeatedly expressed his interest in building on the past good relations with India to alleviate poverty and sufferings on both sides of the border and what better opportunity than to deal with this clear and present danger posed by the this devastating consequence of climate change.”

This report is part of ongoing documentation by the author of Oxfam India’s TROSA project in India.


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