By Tshering Palden

If South Asia is to achieve most of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, managing water resources is critical, say experts.

Discourse among scientists, activists, civil society organisations and senior government officials from the region at the CUTS International conference on sustainable trans-boundary water, agriculture and energy development, said the goals seemed far-fetched.

A CUTS International research show the key challenges for the region are retreating glaciers, waste draining into rivers, unplanned development activities, lack of water governance, upstream exploitation, and climate change, among others.

“Trans-boundary cooperation is not an option now, it has become a necessity,” said Archana Chatterji, national coordinator of International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The research showed more than 620 million people depend on the four most important river basins like Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna in the region.

Major uses of water for the communities living along these basins are agriculture, energy, fishery, industry, finance and tourism.

Representatives said SAARC has failed to achieve much on resolving trans-boundary issues. They said that the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal agreement could be much more effective.

“The countries have to work on a data base, share information, and control pollution among others for holistic development of water resources and water access security,” said Aneeta Dutta, assistant director of Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi, Assam.

The former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, Nitin Desai, said the SDGs are interconnected and that a goal cannot be met without pursuing others also.

For instance, the first SDGs are all related and related to water be it for drinking, irrigation and energy.

He said that for example, the biggest impact on girls education in a village in Tanzania came from improved water supply as the girls didn’t need to spend as many hours on collecting water.

“In Madhya Pradesh research showed that the uptake of nutrition by children improved after getting proper water supply,” he said.

He said the key is to decentralise the programmes to the communities.

Members said that payment for environment services should be implemented along the basins for better management of the watersheds.

Another significant issue was the depleting underground water level.

Poor surface irrigation systems have led to overexploitation of groundwater resource in the region, a CUTS International researcher said. Poor maintenance and operational costs recovery mechanisms for water canals and subsidised electricity have led to depletion of the ground water.

“Severe depletion of the resource will affect the availability across the border,” the researcher said.

CUTS international officials said the organisation conducted the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio in South Asia Programme between 2013 and 2016. Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade funded the programme to address food, water and energy security in South Asia.

“Favourable political environment exists among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal for civil societies to raise voices for trans-boundary cooperation,” an official said.

Lack of data could jeopardise the progress in sustainable water resource management for drinking water, irrigation, hydropower and inland water transport.

“The impact of climate change would further worsen the situation if the countries don’t make efforts together,” another representative said.