On the Way Up

From HIMAL, Volume 4, Issue 2 (MAY/JUNE 1991)

What George Bush called “the vision thing” in a different context is what seems to be most urgent for the proper development of South Asia’s water resource. “Statesmen” with vision is what we need, say the writers in the current issue on water politics. In his lead article, Dipak Gyawali bemoans the demise of “Gandhian idealism”. Shaukat Hassan calls for political will to overcome bureaucratic and technical obstacles. B.G. Verghese, whose book Waters of Hope is reviewed, looks for people with vision and patience.

Jagat Mehta, who was unable to write for this issue of Himal because we did not give him enough time, also echoes the theme in a note he sent us. Mehta, former Foreign Secretary of India who was involved in water negotiations with Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan at different times, writes, “Diplomacy to face the contemporary problems of socio-economic poverty of South Asia has to take a perspective beyond short-term politics; nor should it be spatially insulated around the confines of national sovereignties…(we require) new guide posts for squaring national independence and international interdependence. We therefore have to raise our political sights – and this can only happen if enlightened opinion educates the people and the rulers to rise above narrow political considerations.”

Statesmanship is what we need, everyone agrees. The statesman or woman, as defined by Paul Terrell in his Karnali article, would be one who can overcome the “general fear of the unknown” so that he/she can take fundamental decisions of high visibility and risk being wrong. So who is the man/woman with the vision? Prime Minister Nawaz Shard of Pakistan, who seems to have brokered a shaky agreement on sharing the Indus waters? Or King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan, who has moved resolutely to exploit Druk Yul’s power potential for export while Nepalis continue to debate, ponder and hire more foreign consultants?

Talk of Himalayan water does not end with large hydro-power projects and high-level bilateral diplomacy. As far as isolated hill communities are concerned, micro rather than macro projects might be the way to go. The experience that Nepal has gained in this area and the indigenous manufacturing capability it has developed over the last decade should come useful for other hill regions of the Himalaya. The article by Bikash Pandey talks about the right way to go about spreading “micro-hydro” while Joanna Pfaf-Czarnecka discusses the problems encountered in getting there.

In trying to get as many viewpoints as possible on the cover story, Himal’s editors wrote to the newly free political parties of Nepal, requesting meetings with their thinkers to talk water. Only the Tarai-based Sadbhavana Party responded with a date and a time for discussion; the attitude of the other major parties seemed to be, “The rivers will still be flowing after the elections.” In sharp contrast to the the disinterest of the Nepali party-folks, the Indian Embassy responded with alacrity when approached. The problem of mind-set which is identified by Gyawali as the major hurdle for Nepal, it seems, will not vanish just because the country holds an election exercise.

Hopefully, the series of elections that South Asia is seeing this pre-Monsoon season will throw up some leaders who do not carry bureaucratic baggage and understand the need for “regional pragmatism”. New and elected governments are taking the helm in all three Ganga-basin countries, and if they are capable of viewing the long term, which means long after the next elections, the water issue will have to be grappled with. In order to keep the subject of Himalayan water alive, readers are invited to use Himal’s pages for continuing debate on the subject.

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