Navigating the politics of water

“Alternatives, dialogue and innovation can provide most of the answers to today’s water management problems.”

Wetlands of Viet Nam

So says Head of IUCN’s Water Programme for Asia, Ganesh Pangare whose mission is to help restore degraded river basins while securing the livelihoods of local communities.

Ganesh’s main focus over the past two decades has been to involve local people in decisions and actions concerning their water resources. He and his colleagues bring together the different interest groups to find common ground and introduce more sustainable watershed management.

He works in a rich variety of physical and cultural settings with ‘Dialogue’ projects underway in the Mekong region, in South Asia’s Ganga-Brahmaputra and Meghna River basins and in the Himalayas, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the face of growing demand for water and dwindling supply, it’s critical that countries work together to save shared resources like water. Ganesh’s team works with government agencies and civil society in countries that share rivers to improve the way water resources are governed.

“International rivers provide 60% of the world’s freshwater flows and 260 international river basins are home to 40% of the global population. Nations need to protect and share these resources wisely, not only for the present but for the future as well. Trans-boundary water management in my view is all about the ‘Politics of Water’, says Ganesh.

Ganesh believes these dialogue meetings, which bring all the different interest groups together around the same table, are effective as they help build trust and collaboration between countries.

The dialogues are science-based, apolitical and help civil society find a balanced approach to tackling river basin issues, he explains. They also help the exchange of knowledge and experience between countries.

“I have always believed that the interests of local communities need to come first,” says Ganesh. “Decisions taken at micro and macro levels ultimately affect the lives and livelihoods of the local people. Governance decisions need to take this into account and be sensitive to the impacts they are likely to have on local populations. That’s why these dialogues are so important.”

“For example, restoring flows to rivers is not aimed merely at improving nature for its own sake. The dialogue and negotiation process of determining water needs for the environment contribute towards allocating water for all users, including the local community. Recognizing the services of river ecosystems for life and livelihoods, and in all its uses, incorporating them into management plans, and investing in them accordingly are critical to alleviating poverty and protecting the environment.”

One of the new Water Programme initiatives is underway in the Himalayan region.

“For too long the world has concentrated on glacial melting in the Himalayas. Although this is important, for millions living in the Himalayas, it is the change in precipitation patterns which is the main cause of worry. The Ganges is not a snow-fed river but a rain-fed river. It is crucial to better understand the relationships between precipitation patterns, climate change and livelihoods in this region.”

When he’s not saving the region’s water resources, Ganesh, a keen wildlife enthusiast, takes time out for scuba diving and photography. All his hobbies are nature-related!

Ganesh is a Fellow of the London-based Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) International Program. He is also a Fellow of the Ashoka Innovators for the Public Program based in Washington, and a Fellow of the East-West Centre, Hawaii. He is also an Advisor to the Water Portfolio of the Acumen Fund, USA. Ganesh has written more than 10 books on water-related issues and has published several papers in reputed journals and magazines.

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