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Rethinking Transboundary Waters

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

- Dipak Gyawali


Water, which is life itself and permeates everything on planet Earth, is proving to be not so manageable. It crosses international boundaries with disdain, chooses to follow its own wayward behavior, frustrating attempts by humans to bend it to their will [1].

Disputes over river water sharing, real, imagined, and oftentimes manufactured have captured headlines. Egypt and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads over the filling up of the latter's 6000MW Grand Renaissance Dam reservoir on the Blue Nile [2]. Even Mexico and the US are finding that a treaty on a Colorado tributary between them done 75 years ago is being opposed by downstream Mexican farmers who see their livelihood threatened [3].

The Indus water treaty between India and Pakistan has often been touted as a success story but rumblings arguing for the abrogation of the treaty are heard more frequently. Described as a ‘divorce settlement’ between these two new nation-states partitioned out of British India, it was biased in favor of the agricultural lowlands of the Punjab plains and ignored the needs of the Kashmir highlanders at the headwaters or the fisher-folks in the Sindh delta [4].

Treaties between India and Nepal on the tributaries of the Ganga (which contribute to 70% of its dry season flow) have been mired in rancor for the last seven decades [5]. In India, there are fears that China is diverting the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet), which the Chinese deny, and who point out that no more than 14% of the flow of the Brahmaputra originates in China [6]. This is in addition to the internal dispute on the Cauvery river between the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

In South-East Asia, the original Mekong agreement was cobbled during the Cold War by Western powers to include the lower four countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos but excluding China and Myanmar. The Mekong Treaty had to be re-done in 1995 to bring the two upper riparians in as observers, but one still hears scare stories of upstream China's dams holding back the Mekong (Lancang in China) and causing drought in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam [7]. However, it seems to be scare-mongering based on an incorrect understanding of the hydrology and the fact that hydropower dams do not consume water [8]. Chinese dams hold back and store 47 million km3 of water when the flow of the Mekong in Cambodia (with contributions from tributaries within it as well as Laos and Thailand) is 325 million km3.

Much of these perceptions are socially constructed, either willfully to further particular ends or through a misunderstanding of both natural and social aspects of water. International Law and International Relations as political science disciplines have one particular myopia that renders their usefulness in holistically understanding water questionable: they assume that the nation-state is the only container within which all primary social engagements happen, that everything else within is effectively taken care of by the state mechanism.

They tend to take an ‘eagle's eye’ science view and often ignore a ‘toad's eye’ science one. The former (satellite, aerial photographs, development agencies' country data) provides a broad perspective while the latter (social anthropologists talking to villagers about how they see things) provides depth. Both are needed, but unfortunately, much of the international water conflict studies are guided by the "eagle's eye" view of international security experts [9].

The diagram above is an illustration of myopia which assumes that once nation-states get together and come to a consensus, they can cobble up water-sharing treaties to everyone's satisfaction. It rarely happens, as the failure of the 1997 climate change Kyoto Protocol (and now its latter avatar, the Paris Agreement) or the Mahakali Treaty between Nepal and India show [10].

In reality, the consensus is a much clumsier process where interweaving social solidarities that cut across national boundaries too have to be part of the consensus-building process if treaties that sustain are to come about [11]. What the new social sciences are saying is that ‘wicked problems’ (as opposed to ‘tame’ ones that are amenable to being handled by a single sector's or a single discipline's textbook methods) are defined very differently by different organizing styles of state bureaucracies, market players and civic activists from social or environmental campaigns with little in common between them [12].

If their very definitions of ‘what the problem is’ differ, their proposed solutions would differ even more, hence the need for constructive engagement between them. Water, energy, food security, climate change, and many such issues come to the current social debate as classic ‘wicked problems’.

Comfortable textbook knowledge has also been singularly myopic in its choice of the natural/physical sciences to solve water problems, domestic or international. The hydrocracies of most countries, South Asia included, are dominated by civil engineers with some cost-benefit analysis type of economics thrown in.

Their solution to water shortage is diverting rivers by weirs or building water-storing high dams, and for flood problems, it is dykes and embankments. That there are alternative means of water storage suited to different ecologies (in groundwater recharge, wetlands preservation, household water harvesting with small ponds, or traditional brushwood ‘disposable dams’ with low ecological footprint), have rarely been part of their training.

The gap is most telling in the inability of hydrocracies to incorporate other critical sciences of water. Springs are the lifeblood of Himalayan rivers [13] and the primary source of water supply for hill villages, especially in the Ganga basin. But they are drying all across the Himalaya due to causes related to misuse of technology (over-pumping), outmigration (leading to decline in livestock keeping and hence buffalo wallowing ponds that contributed to the recharge of springs) etc. Climate change is not yet the primary driver but is expected to make things worse when its impacts start intensifying in the decades ahead. No hydrocracy is even looking at this problem [14].

This problem of drying up of springs is part of a large water management malaise, which is the over-pumping of groundwater – from the Ogallala plains of Western United States to Africa, South Asia, and beyond. Competitive drilling is leading to declining water tables, the need to spend far more (often fossil fuel) energy to pump water, to saline ingress permanently damaging the aquifer, and to land subsidence as well as a drastic decline in dry season river flows and their aquatic ecology [15]. While its physics is obvious, its socio-economics and ecology less so as they are warped by the highly rancorous development versus environmental protection political debate [16].

Hydrocrats have been equally bad in properly understanding the policy implications of water above us, its meteorology. The ultimate source of water in springs, rivers, lakes, groundwater, and snow cover is precipitation, the pattern of which is changing in unpredictable ways with climate change. Most countries have a poor network of meteorology stations, of insufficient long-term length of years to make meaningful scientific predictions, and plagued by an old mindset of security paranoia that has led to data secrecy.

Advances in meteorology give us new insights into the movement of moisture in the atmosphere, which is what eventually precipitates to provide us useful water on earth's surface in the form of Blue and Green Waters [17]. And what is emerging promises to bring about a fundamental shift in our thinking about water and its management?

Every square metre of the surface of the sea evaporates an average of one litre of water per day, and that atmospheric moisture is feeding the monsoons and the westerlies which sustain South Asia's plant, animal, and economic lives. However, forests in the hot tropics evaporate about eight times more than oceans because of the multiple layers of foliage. An average tree in the Amazon forests puts out almost 1,000 litres of water into the atmosphere. This creates a ‘sky river’ comparable in magnitude to the Amazon River itself [18].

However, this ‘sky river’ does not follow the geographical contours of a normal river from the highlands to the oceans but reverses itself, depending upon air pressure differentials, towards the dry Andean plateaus to provide the lifeblood of Blue and Green Waters that they would otherwise never have had.

In perhaps a less dramatic manner, so do all the major forest and agriculture regions of the world: their evapotranspiration eventually circulates as White Water and brings life-giving moisture to parts of the planet that would otherwise be semi-deserts [19]. However, as humans are prone to challenging nature and forever trying to bend her to its will, there are attempts to intervene into the ‘sky rivers’ by seeding clouds to cause them to precipitate artificially in a particular area, rather than where it would ‘naturally’ have otherwise gone [20]. Such technological interference in the trans-boundary flow could have the potential for serious conflicts in the future.

What we can say about water management of the future in general and trans-boundary collaboration, in particular, are the following:

  • The past practice of focusing on transboundary Blue Waters – and management practices based only on civil engineering constructions – have reached a dead end, although conflicts on river water sharing will continue to rage and efforts will be made to contain, if not solve them. There will have to be a more comprehensive attempt to look at Blue, Green, White, and Grey Waters and how they are used in the food-water-energy-cities-health sectors. A new way, called the Nexus Approach, is beginning to do precisely this [21].

  • Water is as much a social science problem as it is a technical one; and, given how it excites emotions of all kinds from political to poetic, even the arts and humanities might have to be called for help. New policy approaches to dealing with water problems will have to abandon neat policy monism (state or markets alone) or dualism (‘public-private partnership’ or PPP) and opt for a clumsier plural policy platform of PPCP (public-private-civic partnership). It should bring in state, market, and socio-environmental protagonists to a common platform of constructive engagement where each voice is not only heard but also responded to by some compromises of each one's previous positions.

  • Environmentalism of the future, especially in the Global South where the need for standard ‘development’ is still acute, will have to forego the ‘No Dams!’ slogan of activists of the Global North. It will have to be replaced in favor of one that says ‘No Bad Dams!’ [22] which would allow better constructive engagement among protagonists. Southern environmentalists cannot accept unbridled growth of consumption of scarce global resources such as water and energy, but they cannot also deny the need for more water and energy use in the future in underdeveloped countries. As a result, they may have to base their activism around newer and better systemic views such as the Nexus Approach as well as those that give primacy to managing virtual water as well as water and energy footprints [23].

Dipak Gyawali is currently Pragya (Academician) of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and guest senior research scholar with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria. He is also the Chair of Interdisciplinary Analysts and founding member of the non-profit Nepal Water Conservation Foundation. A hydroelectric power engineer (Moscow Energy Institute) and a political economist (UC Berkeley), Gyawali served as Nepal’s Minister of Water Resources in 2002/03. 



  1. Water has a built-in anarchy in its very essence and several Protean forms each one vital to specific life form or human economic activity. See Gyawali, D. (2010) "What is Special about Water?" Box 1.1 and "Social Solidarities – Wax, Wick, Flame – Science and Art" Box 2.1 in Dore et al (eds) Negotiate: Reaching Agreements over Water. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN

  2. Controversy over Egypt-Ethiopia GRD reservoir:

  3. For US Mexico Chihuahua water conflict see: and for the latest clash including death of a farmer:

  4. See Gyawali, D. (2001). "Pluralist Politics under Monistic Design" and Warikoo, K. (2001). "Perspectives of the Indus Water Treaty". Both in Reifeld H. & Samaddar, R. (eds) (2001) Peace as Process: Reconciliation and Conflict Resolution in South Asia. Delhi: Mahohar for Konrad Adenaur Stiftung. India's strategic studies expert Brahma Chellaney goes to the extent of asking for India stopping all water to Pakistan's Punjab and sending it to Pakistan's Sind to fuel inter-state conflict within its rival Pakistan. See review of Chellaney's book Water: Asia's New Battleground in

  5. See Gyawali, D. and Dixit, A. (2000). "Mahakali Impasse: 'A Futile Paradigm's Bequested Travails". Chapter in Dhruba Kumar (ed) Domestic Conflict and Crisis of Governability in Nepal. Kathmandu: Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuban University. (An earlier version was published as Mahakali Impasse and Indo-Nepal Water Conflict, Economic and Political Weekly, vol XXXIV, no 9, February 1999, Bombay).

  6. Even though security experts raise alarm over possible Chinese diversions the more ecological minded Indian experts point out that the total Brahmaputra flow from China to Assam in India is about 31 billion cubic meters, but its flow when entering Bangladesh is 606 billion cubic meters. See Bandyopadhyay, J., Ghosh, N, and Mahanta, C. (2016).IRBM for Brahmaputra Sub-basin: Water Governance, Environmental Security, and Human Well-Being. New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation and Ghosh, N. (2017 a). “The Brahamaputra: floated myths and flouted realities”, The Third Pole, December 19.

  7. From Western sources on Chinese dams on the Mekong:

  8. Even the Mekong River Commission admits that hydropower dams in China that store water during the wet season and release them for power production in the west season actually provide reduction of floods and some increase in dry season flows to the lower riparians. See:

  9. For the distinction between ‘toad's eye’ and ‘eagle's eye’ sciences, see:

  10. Mahakali Treaty has been discussed above. That Kyoto is too bureaucratically ‘neat’ and insufficiently ‘clumsy’, i.e. with the active and meaningful participation of contending voices, is discussed in Verweij, M. (2006). "Is the Kyoto Protocol Merely Irrelevant or Positively Harmful, for the Efforts to Curb Climate Change?" in Verweij, M. and Thompson, M. (2006), Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: Governance, Politics and Plural Perceptions, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  11. Two such good examples are the Montreal Protocol on the Ozone Treaty (discussed in Benedick, R.E. (1991) Ozone Diplomacy: New Directions in Safeguarding the Planet, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press in collaboration with WWF and Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy), which details how US businesses and environmental activists pressured the US government to sign the treaty. The other is the cleanup of the Rhine, which was the "industrial sewer of Europe", following the 1986 Sandoz spill disaster. This is discussed in Verweij, M. (2000). Transboundary Environmental Problems and Cultural Theory: The Protection of the Rhine and the Great Lakes. New York: Palgrave (St. Martin's Press/Macmillan Press).

  12. Specifically, the ‘neo-Durkheimian Theory of Plural Rationalities’ or Cultural Theory in short. See: Thompson, M. (2008). Organising and Disorganising:A Dynamic and Non-Linear Theory of Institutional Emergence and Its Implications. UK Axminster: Triarchy Press. What Cultural Theory argues is captured in this mantra: "Wicked Problems need to be tackled with Uncomfortable Knowledge that can generate Clumsy Solutions".

  13. Contrary to general belief, snow and glacier melt are not the primary feeding sources of Himalayan rivers, especially the Ganga, where they contribute only about six percent to the total flow (for the Indus and the Brahmaputra, the figure is higher). During the very dry months of March to May before the start of the monsoon, much of Nepal’s rivers that contribute to the Ganga flow (45% on average, up to 70% in the dry season) originate in the mid-hills that rarely see snow and whose flow is the monsoon precipitation stored in the hill hydro-geology.

  14. See

  15. So much water has been over-pumped from the Gangatic plains that even NASA satellites are able to detect from space the impact on the earth's gravitational field and how it has changed over the overdraft areas. See: and this for a visual animation:

  16. A good place to understand the complexity of this debate is the Water Alternatives Dissensus Forum: To bring in elements of social and environmental concerns, several initiatives have been proposed to tame wild civil engineering hydrocrats: eFlows (the minimum flow that needs to be maintained in river courses, while diverting water for irrigation or hydropower production, to maintain aquatic life as well as marginalized traditional informal economies dependent on that aquatic life); sFlows (specifically important for civilizational rivers such as the Ganga and the Mekong, this is the flow in rivers required to successfully carry out religious duties related to cremation and other riverine festivals such as the largest gathering of humans in Allahabad confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, the Kumbh Mela); and nFlows (the flow that is necessary in quantity and quality to assure inland river navigation year round, made especially important in South Asia with the passage of India's new act designed to make 111 rivers of India to be navigable).

  17. There is a rich scientific debate going on about the different types of water in our overall hydrosphere: Blue Water (that is freshwater in rivers, lakes, groundwater and glaciers), Green Water (which is in soil moisture that is used by plants and transpires into the atmosphere as part of the hydrological cycle), White Water (which is precipitation that is not used by plants but directly evaporates into the atmosphere to eventually – together with transpired water – become clouds and atmospheric moisture; Grey Water (which is wastewater from human use) and Black Water (Grey Water that includes human fecal waste). See: and

  18. See for example:

  19. The role of forests in the global water cycle had been grossly under-estimated in the past and is only now beginning to receive proper scientific attention. See recent assessment of forest and water relations in IUFRO report (2018) Forest and Water on a Changing Planet: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Governance Opportunities – A Global Assessment Report.

  20. See for example

  21. Since the late 1970s, the multi-faceted nature of water use in society led to water experts arguing for "integrated water resources management" or IWRM. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, it was conceded that water was interlinked with food production as well as energy in a synergistic fashion. Hence the rise to prominence of Water-Energy-Food Nexus. See: Gyawali, D. 2015. Nexus governance: harnessing contending forces at work. Gland, Switzerland, International Union for Conservation of Nature (available at as well as Allouche, J., Middleton, C. and Gyawali, D. (2019). The Water-Food-Energy Nexus: Power, Politics and Justice. London: Routledge EARTHSCAN. and the Dissensus Forum on the Nexus run by the online journal Water Alternatives

  22. This ‘No Dams!’ versus ‘No Bad Dams!’ controversy is discussed in Gyawali, D. (2003). Rivers, Technology and Society: learning the lessons in water management from Nepal. London and Kathmandu: Zed Books and Himal Books.

  23. Given that it takes 2000 tons of water to produce a ton of rice, every time Bangladesh exports rice to Saudi Arabia, it is also exporting water to the desert country (which would have to otherwise ‘spend’ that amount of water to produce that commodity in its stark desert). This is called virtual water, and it makes more sense for Saudis to import it as such than to produce the rice themselves with expensive water from, say, desalination. See: A related concept that grew from this is water (and energy) footprints: a cup of coffee has 140 liters of water and a ton of aluminum half a million tons of water that went into their production and thus embedded in it. See: What this means for the environmental movement is to re-assess our market advertising-led excessive consumption of scarce global resource in light of such fresh assumption to challenge both domestic subsidy policies as well as international trade.


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