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The Brahmaputra’s riparian: the communities, culture, conflicts and..

The Brahmaputra's riparian: the communities, culture, conflicts, and collaborations

Ananya Malik

Rivers hold a special significance as they have constructed and deconstructed civilizations, apart from being an essential element for survival. There is also a sense of longing among the ones who have lived away from the river, their memories of childhood along the river, the river fills them with nostalgia, homesickness. This often signifying the everlasting bond between the river and its people, and the integral nature of the river in the lives of its people. The meandering and shifting river find its association with the people, spanning from the public (leisure to livelihood) to private (domestic water use). 

Brahmaputra is one of the major rivers in Asia originating from China inflowing to India and Bangladesh while its basin also including Bhutan. It is a converted source of water for China, India and Bangladesh for variety of purposes ranging from livelihoods, fisheries, agriculture, hydropower and navigation making this river very important to the fast-growing economies of this region. India shares the second largest basin of Brahmaputra River, spread over states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim. Brahmaputra has a drainage area of 1944 13 square kilometre, nearly 5.9% of total geographical area of the country.

“Brahmaputra have various tributaries divided into its North and South banks is one of the major tributaries know as namely the Tista, the Sankosh, the Raidak-I, the Raidak-II, the Torsa.”

The brahmaputra river in its origin in Tibet is most pristine, often seeming mystical as the gorges of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon might have inspired the idea of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon. The river then flows to Arunachal Pradesh, where the indigenous communities worship the river as integral to their animist beliefs, before flowing through the floodplains of Assam and Bangladesh.

The people living in the different sections of the Brahmaputra valley are of diverse origin and culture. This region could also be considered an ethnic transition zone between India and bhutan, Tibet, Burma, and Bangladesh.

“Locally, more than 130 million people , in China, India, and Bangladesh depends on the Brahmaputra, with diverse origin and culture. This region could also be considered an ethnic transition zone between India and Bhutan, Tibet, Burma, and Bangladesh as the north-eastern region is home to over 166 different tribes, 160 scheduled tribes, and more than 400 other tribal and sub tribal communities, and it is estimated that there are 220 languages spoken in the region. “

Throughout its basin, the Brahmaputra is considered a Mystical River. The Tibetans believe that the great waterfalls of the valley are a doorway to heaven while Hindus consider the river to be god’s child. While the communities dwelling along the upper reaches of Assam imitate the culture of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, although gradually evolving, the communities in the lower reaches of the state have cultural similarities to Bangladesh. These myths and stories greatly influence the culture of the riparian and the travel to this place as pilgrims and are considered as once in lifetime accomplishment. The Buddhists, Hindus, the Jains, and the Bonpas of Tibet too, all respect this river with great fervor and devotion.  

The river has also been key in the civilization of the Tibeto-Burman communities that have been living along for centuries, agriculture and fishing forming an integral practice to their life and livelihood, as Along with socio-cultural influence, the river is also a key economic and livelihood resource to the local population, while contributing to the nation’s GDP. As PM Modi states, “The Brahmaputra is not just a river, it is the manifestation of the great saga of Northeast’s ethnic diversity and the region’s harmonious coexistence and is in fact the nerve-centre of the state’s possibility, potentiality and prosperity”. Paddy, being the main crop other than wheat, maize, sorghum, and millets with Cash crops like sugarcane and jute. Other crops include Black gram, Sesamum, Arhar, Rapeseed, and Mustard. Along with agriculture being the dominant livelihood sector, the resource also helps the locals in fishing, wading of cattle, and riverine transport along with employment opportunities from Hydropower plants.

“However, in recent years due to climate change the basin have suffered Increasing flash flooding, soil erosion, over-exploitation of water surface as well as ground, excessive fishing, degradation of habitat and fragmentation, degradation of flood plains. “

Moreover, due to its numerous tributaries and the seismically active hill ranges surrounding the Basin, the Brahmaputra River accumulates an extremely high volume of sediment, which accelerates bank erosion, which is evident in studies about land was lost to bank erosion; averaging 10.3 km2 of area lost per year. (Pahuja, 2006)

“This has led to numerous impacts such as biodiversity loss, as well as loss of habitat and housing, infrastructure destruction,  followed by population displacement and involuntary migration which is now creating ethnic tension and political instability.”

Along with absence of integrated basin wide management, and lack of transboundary cooperation are major challenges for the present and future sustainability of Brahmaputra river. As the Brahmaputra floods each year, it subsumes big chunks of land, erodes river islands, displaces their people and puts paid to their livelihoods. The communities residing on low-lying land are the most affected. Mostly as climatic risk increases the frequency of floods in north eastern states of India also increases. Assam is now stated as a critical level state due to almost annual flooding conditions, while another huge challenge upcoming in Brahmaputra River is the slowing off its runoff rate.

Brahmaputra is one of the major rivers in Asia, However Brahmaputra also comes with its fair share of challenges and has been ranked lowest in the river basin management capacity because off its mismatched transboundary development plans and agreements due to concerns over river development for current and future resource security purposes.

“While India as a middle riparian country, India’s decision for Brahmaputra concerns an interest the upper riparian China and the lower riparian Bangladesh and provides a whole basin of perspective.”

While the river and its course know no boundaries, people divide through boundaries, administrative and political. There have been several efforts toward deconstructing these boundaries, through collaborative efforts of civil societies and academia among the basin nations, as a means to bring stakeholders together while breaking boundaries. Therefore, moving forward, establish common dialogue involving both scientists and ambassadors can be a crucial from of collaboration between these nations. While A collaborative and integrated framework for the Brahmaputra being backed by an executive body for the river involving dignitaries and stakeholders from all the nations is very much needed to mitigate these upcoming climate risks as well as present-day resource-sharing disputes.

“While International financial institutions and extra regional nations can contribute to the development of scientific capabilities in the Brahmaputra basin, while regional think tanks, such as those in Bangladesh, India, and China, can facilitate dialogues between policymakers and facilitate joint projects”

As one of the major issue in Brahmaputra region is the lack of multilateral policy, as each nation have its own priorities related to Brahmaputra therefore reaching to a mutual agreement it’s quite extensive task. China has acted mostly bilaterally, including data sharing agreements with both India and Bangladesh, where it fears coordinated opposition from other countries. There is also a strong probability that a full water-sharing agreement between Chinese and Indian officials will never be reached due to mutual distrust and animosity. In contrast, Bangladesh manages the Brahmaputra River at a national level, while India does not as it is state subject in India. For multilateral cooperation, Bangladesh already taking a lead it’s now up to India and China to enhance their bilateral approaches for corporation in Brahmaputra River.

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About The Author

Ananya Malik

She is an associate at MRC. Her research involves geopolitical, social and ecological  analysis of transboundary waters particularly Brahmaputra river. She is an alumnus of TERI where she did her masters in water science and governance. Her other research areas include climate risk, water security and carbon finance.