Whose water? The challenge of rivers that flow across borders

Avinash Singh Influencing, Rights, Water

What’s the best way to support communities to claim water rights from rivers that cross between nations? Avinash Singh and Marieke Meeske on four lessons from South Asia on tackling the unique challenges of “transboundary river basins”

A fishing boat in the Brahmaputra River basin (picture: TROSA/Oxfam India)

Hundreds of millions of people in South Asia depend on the water from rivers that flow across national borders. But how do communities in different countries negotiate over water resources if institutions divide on national lines? How do we make sure communities in so-called “transboundary river basins” can withstand shocks to their water supply, which might originate in another country? How do women in river basin communities get proper rights of access and control over water, especially in an era of rising water stress?

Our programme – Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA), which has been running for five years – aims to enable the communities who depend on these rivers to claim their rights, participate in decision-making on water governance, and build their resilience, with a particular focus on the water rights of women. Together with our partners, we work to increase community access to and control over the river basins.

In this blog we set out four key lessons from our recent impact evaluations, which involved conducting over 5,500 interviews and looked at the impact of our work on vulnerability to water-related shocks, access and control over water resources, and women’s participation in water governance. We highlight examples where Oxfam and partners helped communities win more access and control over water resources by enabling transboundary cooperation and collaboration.

1. We need to build bridges across borders

TROSA worked with river communities along the Sharda-Mahakali (Nepal & India), Brahmaputra- Saralbhanga-Teesta (India & Bangladesh), Meghna (Bangladesh) and Salween(Myanmar) basins. A crucial part of our work has been trying to build linkages between communities, civil society and government across borders.

After five years of TROSA implementation, transboundary awareness has improved in all basins resulting in improved cross-border cooperation and collaboration. One notable success has been the setting up of cross-border committees, which now allow early warnings of floods to be passed between communities in the Sharda-Mahakali and Brahmaputra-Saralbhanga-Teesta basins. We have also done research that suggests to governments how they might improve fisheries management across borders. In the Salween basin, we also helped establish a civil society network that supported communities to join forces and uphold their rights together.

However, efforts to promote cooperation and collaboration between government at national and local level have had more mixed results. In some basins, such as Sharda-Mahakali and Brahmaputra- Saralbhanga-Teesta, collaboration improved, while in others the unresponsiveness of government to demands raised by the community remains a challenge.

2. Communities really want to play their part

The project has revealed how communities are eager to have a say in water management. For instance, in all basins, community water governance groups are well attended. Furthermore, in one of the reflection sessions to validate the impact evaluation results, women from the Brahmaputra basin in Assam, India, spent three to four hours travelling just to reach a place where they could get stable internet to participate in an online reflection workshop. At the workshop, they listened, discussed, and shared their feedback on every finding from the project. This dedication to participating also reflects how community ownership has been at the heart of the TROSA initiative.

“Other than festival shopping and some other special occasions, we were not stepping out of our houses,” says one reflection workshop participant from the Brahmaputra River basin, in India. “But now we are participating in village-level meetings and also campaigning for our rights and entitlements at offices – along with taking decisions about the education of our children and other village issues in the village-level committees”.

3. Projects can provide useful support for community knowledge and awareness

TROSA has helped to improve knowledge and awareness in several areas. In Salween basin, for instance, we spread knowledge about responsible fishing practices, as well as how to cope with lost or decreased access to water resources. Meanwhile In Meghna and Sharda-Mahakali basin, communities learned how to reduce their vulnerability to the risks posed by floods. Furthermore, in Meghna basin we supported people to become more aware of their rights and entitlement to river resources, to voice their opinions, and to take an active role in water resource management.

4. For women, representation is just the first step to real power sharing

In all basins, more women are now attending water governance meetings than before TROSA implementation. In Meghna basin, for instance, Nodi-Boithoks, or river meeting forums (see picture below) , provide a community platform to speak up about and solve water-related problems. Encouraging women’s participation in such gatherings led to a marked rise in women’s attendance.

Women in meeting
Community members gather in a Nodi-Boithok (river forum) in Rajrajeshwar Union, Chandpur district, south-eastern Bangladesh (Picture: Oxfam in Bangladesh)

Women also take an important role in representing marginalised river basin groups, such as fisherfolk, boatmen/women and small farmers, in dialogue about water rights and access. “Women are putting forward the voice of the voiceless,” says one evaluation workshop participant, in Nepal.

Of course, simply attending in meetings does not necessarily translate into meaningful participation and decision-making power. In most basins, we found that social norms and traditional gender roles still hamper women’s meaningful participation.

One way the project has boosted women’s influence further is through Women Empowerment Centres. In Sharda-Mahakali basin, these build women’s capacity to negotiate with government departments and help them to bid for resources under government schemes. The centres have shown how women can be supported to claim their rights and will also help to sustain the benefits from the TROSA initiative longer term. 

Future projects to support women’s water rights need to build on this work and promote an environment more conducive to women’s leadership. They will need to put more emphasis on changing social norms, as well as including men in women’s empowerment activities.

Insights for programme development and implementation

From awareness generation in year one, to community actions and evidence-based advocacy in year two and three, to national and regional level influencing in year four, TROSA has made important progress in its five years of implementation in South Asia. However, there is still undoubtedly a long way to go to establish community-led water governance systems that can help to reduce poverty and build resilience to water-related shocks. Future projects need to apply and build on TROSA’s learnings to support communities in river basins in South Asia and around the world to claim their rights to the water that is so vital to decent lives.


Avinash Singh

Avinash Singh is a Programme Quality and Learning specialist with the TROSA Programme Management Unit, Oxfam in Cambodia


Marieke Meeske

Marieke Meeske is an Impact Measurement and Knowledge specialist focused on quantitative research methods. She is part of the Learning, Innovation, and Knowledge unit at Oxfam Novib

Want to find out more? You can download the full project impact assessments for Sharda-Mahakali (Nepal & India), Brahmaputra-Saralbhanga-Teesta (India & Bangladesh), and Meghna (Bangladesh) river basins. The evaluation of the Salween part of the project was done internally. Also see the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) programme website and keep up to date with  the TROSA project on Twitter: @RiversTROSA and @OxfamInAsia