River Basin Planning: An Imaginary Bureaucratic Territory?

Since the late 1990s, river basin planning has become a central idea in water resources management and a mainstream approach supported by international donors through their water programs globally. With the introduction of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) concept globally, water resources management policies in both developed and developing countries have been geared towards river basin approaches, while positioning the basin as the envisioned scale for integrated water resources planning, development, and management. While the idea of river basin planning and management highlights the need for better coordination and integration in water sector planning, in its application, river basin approaches are hindered by power struggles and bureaucratic competition between sectoral ministries.

In Nepal, the very idea of basin planning has become national government agencies’ ‘common strategy’ to reassure their bureaucratic power, through overlapping albeit imaginary reestablishment of their bureaucratic territory (e.g. at basin level). Here, basin planning becomes a tool to create, sustain, and reproduce national government ministries’ bureaucratic power vis-à-vis the ongoing process of federalism and the establishment of local government bodies.

This common strategy to sustain bureaucratic power and territory is most apparent from the Water Energy Commission Secretariat’s (WECS) recent policy initiative to resurrect the idea of river basin planning, through the formulation of the National Water Resources Policy. WECS is not the only government agency urging the need for river basin planning. Following the ongoing discussion on how to apply federalism in Nepal, sectoral ministries have also highlighted the need for river basin planning and presented their role in such planning. Yet, they are envisioning this basin planning merely from their sectoral development perspective, and thus quite disconnected from one another. Apart from WECS, the Groundwater Resources Development Board (GWRDB) and Department of Water Induced and Disaster Prevention (DWIDP), both under the Ministry of Irrigation (MoI); Department of Soil Conservation and Watershed Management (DSCWM) under the Ministry of Forestry and Soil Conservation (MoFSC) as well as the National Planning Commission (NPC) are endorsing basin planning approaches and have respectively come up with different proposal to establish basin offices in various sometimes overlapping locations throughout the country.

River basin planning becomes a new territorial frontier where government agencies could insert their power through the creation of river basin as a scale where water resources management should be referred to, and to a certain extent as their envisioned new bureaucratic territory. Here, river basin is presented as the ‘divine’ bureaucratic territory, believed to be superior (e.g. due to its more comprehensive scope and coverage), and thus more legitimate than others.

Power struggles take place at both policy and institutional level. At policy level, this is manifested in the overlapping policies and legal frameworks, supporting and justifying different national government ministries’ roles and responsibility in river basin planning. Institutionally, this results in contested bureaucratic territory, as envisioned by the different ministries. At present such contestation occurs rather indirectly, as the envisioned bureaucratic territory is mainly incorporated in policy and legal frameworks. Nonetheless, the overlapping institutional boundary as reflected in each government ministry’s basin site selection for their so-called basin offices implies that the positioning of river basin as a new bureaucratic territory would result in direct bureaucratic competition between the different government ministries, following the establishment of these basin offices.

From a policy perspective, this highlights the importance of WECS consultation process of the draft National Water Resources Policy as potential platform for discussion on possible ways forward. WECS and different sectoral ministries as well as the National Planning Commission could share and discuss their overall views on how river basin planning should be done through cross-sectoral collaboration, involving not only national level government agencies, but also incorporating development needs and aspirations of the to-be formed local government bodies. While WECS designed the consultation process merely as a means to gather other government agencies’ and local bodies’ inputs on the draft policy, linking this process with the outcome of local election is pertinent, if the draft policy is to incorporate local government bodies’ views and perceptions on water resources management across scales.

Incorporating these views and perceptions could serve as the first step not only to fine tune national, provincial, local development perspectives, but also as institutional mechanism to prevent potential conflict concerning actual water use. In the aftermath of the local election, local government bodies would gain decision-making authority on water resources management, among others. Hence, when they view the policy as lacking actual significance in water resources management at local level, they would contest it. Also, bearing in mind that the new governance structure once the federal structure is activated could be entirely different, a series of consultation processes involving the newly elected local governments in selected sites would be required. Here, the main issue at stake lies not only in whether national, provincial, district or local governments would be the one leading the country’s development plan and activities, or how their tasks and responsibilities would be defined following federalism, but also as to whether the different administrative governments could represent local population’s development needs and aspirations, and be held accountable for that.

While politics and power relationships will continue to shape and reshape the overall process of struggles with regard to river basin planning, it is pertinent that the actual outcome of the envisioned basin planning will be significantly derived from informed and accountable decision-making processes.

This blog is based on a report titled The Politics of River Basin Planning and State Transformation Processes in Nepal by Suhardiman, D., Bastakoti, R., Karki, E., Bharati, L., written under the DJB project funded by the USAID. The study was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

Banner Photo: Banlekh Village, Doit district, Far Western Nepal

Blog and Photo Courtesy Of:
Dr Diana Suhardiman  
Member of the Water Governance Core Group and Senior Researcher at the International Water Management Institute

Please note that the ideas, thoughts, information or views expressed within this blog are those of the author, and therefore do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Water Future.