Free-flowing rivers, the soul of South Asia

South Asia is a fascinating and important region for the world in numerous respects. Although the eight countries of South Asia form just 3.5 percent of the world’s surface area, the region is home to 1.89 billion people or 24 percent of the world’s population, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Many iconic mountain ranges are located in South Asia, from where arise some of the largest rivers of the world.
The region houses spectacular biodiversity and shares a remarkable diversity, as well as confluence, of religions and cultures. However, it also shares massive challenges at a hydrological level in the form of drying rivers, pollution, encroachments, and a falling groundwater table. Some of the major river basins in the subcontinent include the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery, as well as the rivers of Sri Lanka.
The region contains hundreds of bigger and smaller transboundary rivers, and some of the largest, tallest and biggest dams in the world.1 It is also one of the fastest growing dam building regions in the world.South Asia has witnessed ongoing difficulties as a result of large dams, such as displacement, sub-mergence of forests and villages, degraded riverine ecosystems, collapsed riverine fisheries, salinity ingression, increasing water conflicts and people’s protests. At this juncture, South Asia stands on the precipice of the Interlinking of Rivers project in India, which will affect numerous rivers in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Other issues in-clude the hydropower boom in Nepal and Bhutan, the Indus Water Treaty conflicts between India and Pakistan and growing tensions between India and China about hydropower dams in the Brahmaputra basin, in addition to the extreme weather events brought about by climate change.
In this context, river protection measures which are spontaneously arising from the initiative of far-flung communities in South Asia are a remarkable phenomenon. From Sikkim in North East India to Sindh in Pakistan, from the Karnali in Nepal to the Drangme Chhu in Bhutan, from Kerala in the West-ern Ghats of India to Bangladesh, in the arms of the Ganga Delta – local communities, supported by experts and civil society organisations, are devel-oping inspiring and innovative initiatives to protect their free-flowing rivers or river stretches.
These initiatives from South Asia are markedly different from those in the global north. As Gyatso Lepcha from the tiny state of Sikkim, India puts it: “The Lepcha community’s identity is linked to flowing rivers. If there are no flowing rivers, there will be no Lepcha. The free-flowing Rongyoung River is the soul of Lepcha-land.” The struggle to save and protect free-flowing rivers is entwined with a struggle to save livelihoods, homelands and cultural identity.
At the same time, South Asian initiatives add to the ongoing conceptualisation of free-flowing rivers, and push us to look for a more nuanced definition. Micro hydel projects across a river, which have been built sustainably and with community partici-pation, and are imperative to fulfil a remote com-munity’s need, cannot be compared to large dams and hydroelectric projects, and do not “exploit” a river or damage it irreversibly.
Similarly, small earthen bunds built across streams in parched places like Rajasthan in India not only provide water to remote villages but also maintain ground-water levels and river flows in the thirsty land. What follows is an overview of some free-flowing rivers in the region, the immense services they provide and a brief introduction to the riverkeepers who are fighting to protect and nurture free- flowing rivers across South Asia.
Across South Asia, free-flowing rivers are rare and precious. The area is one of the fastest growing dam building regions in the world, with limited socio-ecological checks and balances and minimal legal provisions which can help to protect its last free-flowing rivers.
Despite this lack of vigilant environmental governance on the part of governments, and of legal instruments to protect flows, communities across South Asia have nevertheless devised unique ways to protect their rivers from an onslaught of dams. Almost all free-flowing rivers in this part of the world have the heavy threat of dams and diversions looming over them.
But the same region also shows astounding diversity, tenacity and commitment in addressing these challenges. Free-flowing rivers of South Asia are protected by communities for a myriad reasons, including because they: are sacred and provide inspiration, are home to invaluable fisheries, provide local security through drinking water and irrigation supplies, can support their local area to be not only self-sufficient but a state leader in per capita income, attract tourists and open up new avenues of employment, provide nutritional security etc.
Free-flowing rivers are deeply linked to the wellbeing of the communities who live alongside them. It is thus only natural that the strongest voices which have argued for river protection, and ultimately succeeded in saving these rivers, are the local voices, the voices from communities who know and fight for the value and survival of their rivers.
There is an urgent need to strengthen these groups through supporting them with information, analysis, and resources. It is necessary to build on local experiences and energies to help communities in their fight against intensifying pressures. There is also a need to work towards a legal framework which protects the Right of Personhood of Rivers, following the example of the ongoing global river rights movement.
The religious and cultural significance of rivers in South Asia, and the prevailing ethos that sees rivers as divine entities and an indelible part of cultural identity could potentially act as a strong stepping stone to work towards a Rights of Personhood of Rivers movement in South Asia. It is also crucial that democratic, transparent and participatory environmental governance is advocated for in South Asia, so that countries across the region can respond accountably to legitimate concerns about dams, diversions and mega infra-structure projects affecting rivers.
As we have seen, across the region rivers are hugely valued by the communities who live alongside them. Communities in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have fought strong and committed battles to protect their rivers from interference and secure their right to flow freely, often running innovative campaigns and develop-ing new mechanisms for river preservation, working hand in hand with experts and civil society organisations.
Many South Asian rivers share their basins with neighbouring countries. Along with a syncretic culture and shared ecosystems, the countries thus also share environmental challenges and opportunities. Some common aspects of river protection in South Asia regarding free-flowing rivers can be seen across the region. Some lessons learned so far, which can help inform river keepers into the future, include the following:
1.Local communities and livelihoods are at the heart of protecting free-flowing rivers in South Asia. The cultural importance of rivers in South Asia and the direct dependence of communities on them are two remarkable characteristics that drive the campaign to protect free-flowing rivers. Livelihoods are entwined with healthy rivers across the region, and protecting free- flowing rivers provides a unique opportunity to support communities as well as ecosystems in a very direct way in South Asia. This also means that all strategies towards river protection should engage with and be based on local concerns and build upon local strengths. Examples: Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, Nepal River Conservation Society, Koel- Karo Struggle, River protection in Sikkim.

  1. Protecting and securing free-flowing rivers requires consistence, action and vigilance. In heavily-dammed South Asia, several rivers or river stretches still flow freely and are fiercely protected. But ensuring this outcome has not been a one-off initiative nor a time-bound project. Securing rivers and livelihoods has been a lifelong mission for several individuals and communities across the region. Challenges keep springing up in various forms, projects change specifications, projects which have been cancelled after massive and ardent protests can get revived, or change form from irrigation dam to hydropower or vice versa. Adaptability and vigilance is imperative when protecting free-flowing rivers, and again this can truly occur only when local communities are an integral part of the struggle. Example: Aghanashini River, India.
  2. Evidence gathering about the myriad benefits of free-flowing rivers is an essential task that should be carried out continuously. This requires liaising with scientists, researchers and research organisations, and sometimes also urging and convincing these bodies to conduct research on the unique values of free-flowing rivers. Example: Karnali River – Nepal River Conservation Trust, Aghanashini River – Indian Institute of Science Bangalore.
  3. Even if there is no law to protect free-flowing rivers in a country or province, the existing legal structure can be used in innovative ways to secure river stretches and provide protection to important cultural and ecological areas. Example: Community Reserves and Conservation Reserves on Indian rivers.
  4. Protecting river stretches can be the first step towards entire river protection, and thus should not be sidelined or deemed less important.
  5. Cultural values are powerful unifying elements which can bring together communities to protect their river. Example: Rongyoung River protection in Sikkim, Nyamjang Chhu in Arunachal Pradesh.
  6. Local livelihoods supported by free- flowing rivers are an important unifying value and reason to protect these rivers. These livelihood contributions of rivers should be documented meticulously. Example: Karnali River by Nepal River Conservation Trust, Aghanashini River by Indian Institute of Science, Indus River by Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, River rafting initiatives in Bhutan.
  7. The concept of personhood for rivers has been a part of the region’s cultural ethos for millennia, and thus the idea of legal person-hood for rivers is a concept which intuitively resonates with, and is important for, South Asia. This can be strengthened and made operational in a practical and nuanced way to support the protection of rights of rivers.Example: Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.Free-flowing rivers are the soul of South Asia. They deserve to be protected and treasured into the future, as they have been since time immemorial, by the people who live alongside them.
    Via Samir Mehta [WaterWatch] dated 15 February 2019