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The Forum has always been keen on exploring the multidimensional water related issues in northeast India. It is fully aware of the eco-hydrological importance as well as environmental and socio-cultural sensitivities of the region. It is in recognition of the need to understand the nature of water related conflicts of the NE region that the Forum has embarked on an initiative to document selected conflict areas in the water front. About twenty major cases of conflicts of different types have been identified through a process of deliberations and discussions among its members who are familiar with the region and its issues. The documentation will be done in the form of case studies to be carried out and written by individual authors that will be subsequently reviewed and edited by a panel of editors appointed by the Forum. Once the drafts of the case studies are ready then the Forum will organise a workshop to discuss the draft case studies in December 2010 and then the case studies would be finalised within two month's time.
This initiative and its output is expected to make the national and international audience aware about the water conflict issues of the region and their socio-cultural and environmental contexts leading to an informed discussion and debate. This will facilitate a proper understanding and therefore preventions and resolution of the conflicts. The said documentation will also be useful for policy makers and advocacy organisations who would like to develop strategies and instruments for resolving these conflicts. Resolving these conflicts has become the need of the hour to ensure sustainable development through peace building in this strife torn and sociopolitically sensitive region. Aranyak, an NGO based at Guwahati will coordinate this documentation effort in the Northeast.
Northeast India and its water conflicts
Northeast India refers politically to a group of eight small states located in the northeastern corner of India. These states are- Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Geo-ecologically it is a part of the eastern Himalayas known for its richness in water resources, biodiversity and ethnic and cultural diversity as well. The region is drained by two large river systems of the world, mainly the Brahmaputra and the Barak (Meghna), both being trans-national rivers flowing through bordering countries. It is one of the rainiest regions of India. As a result the region is endowed with the highest water resources and hydropower potential in India. With ownership of natural resources lying mainly with communities in most of the states in the region, state control over the resources has remained a source of disgruntlement for many communities. Moreover the prevailing approach to developing and utilising natural resources without much regard to participation of communities or traditional institutions in the decision making process has been a source of dissatisfaction for the indigenous communities of the region. The present development paradigm coupled with disregard of traditional institutions and community opinion has prepared the ground on which seeds of conflicts have germinated. The nature of water related conflicts in the region reflect its environmental characteristics, socio-cultural complexity and political sensitivity. The hydropower potential of the region has attracted national and international attention with the result that more than 168 hydropower projects with large river dams are being planned for the region. A number of these projects are in different stages of execution by public and private sector companies. There is widespread concern over the observed and probable social and environmental impacts in the region. Protests against the detrimental downstream impacts of the large dams have assumed the proportions of a mass movement in Assam.
Flood, river bank erosion and sand deposition are three serious water induced hazards that have significantly affected people’s lives, livelihoods and agriculture and economy of states like Assam. Floods are also disasters for Tripura and Manipur. The state’s approach to flood management has left a lot to be desired. Right from adopting short- term measures like embankments for flood mitigation, lack of proper and culturally acceptable rehabilitation and resettlement(R&R) package, to inadequate efforts to save riparian areas from collapsing in to the rivers, it has been a story of poor governance and inefficient management of flood mitigation. People are not only unhappy with inadequate rehabilitation and relief, they have started protesting against inappropriate structural interventions and the financial corruption of vested interest groups in the Government.
Quality of drinking water is another area of growing concern where conflicts are building up slowly. In the face of increasing contamination of ground water with fluoride and arsenic and resulting health hazards, Government actions have proved to be too ineffective. Transboundary issues like building of dams by China and alleged attempts of China to divert the Brahmaputra River within that country have given rise to serious apprehension and concerns in the region. The upstream-downstream interactions within the region and with respect to the contiguous Himalayan areas are also contributing to the conflict scenario. Landslide dams getting breached or diffused in Bhutan or Tibet have caused catastrophic floods in downstream areas in Arunachal and Assam. Unwarranted release of water to rivers from dams both in Bhutan and within the region has caused devastating flash floods in the plains. Lack of coordination and cooperation between countries sharing the river basins is a major obstacle in resolving these problems.
The conflicts over water are not limited to the issues and examples cited above. These are rather indicative of many other observed or potential conflicts situations centered on water.