Towards improved data and information exchange

BUSHRA NISHAT and MD. SHAMIM SHAMS

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RELIABLE data and information on trends and condition of water resources, climate and flow regimes, water use and development practices provide the backbone for sound decision making and effective water resources management. Information is especially important in the case of transboundary water management.1 Moreover, in transboundary basins, information exchange and sharing of data between riparian countries is regarded as a first and essential step towards fostering cooperation and trust.2 Unfortunately, restriction in the availability of data and information beyond borders in the riparian countries of the Ganges basin continue to prevail, and countries are often hesitant and cautious to share any kind of hydrological information.3

Spread over an area of around one million km2, the Ganga or Ganges basin extends across four countries – China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. The river rises from the Himalaya and flows eastwards through India and meets up with another mighty river, the Brahmaputra (locally known as Jamuna) and the combined flows merge with another third river named the Meghna before falling into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges plays a pivotal role in the hydro-geographic settings of the deltaic plains and dominates the socio-economic development of the countries within the basin. The hydrologic and characteristics of the basin affect the area with a variety of water related problems including floods in the monsoon, water scarcity in the dry season, sedimentation and erosion in the river and associated flood plains, drainage congestion in the low lying areas, salinity intrusion in the coastal regions and environmental and water quality issues.

 

The region, however, has considerable development potential which can only be achieved through sustainable management of resources of the basin. Against this background, this paper looks at the importance of sharing data and information between the riparian countries, and identifies the use of modern tools and technologies to facilitate this process.

The routine estimation of physical variables, such as precipitation, river discharge, soil moisture, snow-melt, land use change and the increased reliability and accessibility of the associated data means that information is not bound by borders any more. The availability of technologically advanced geographic information systems, remotely sensed data, decision support systems, innovative analytical tools and web-based communication materials in the public domain can be the catalyst for bringing changes in the current level of transboundary information exchange in the Ganges basin.4 Around the world and in the region, the use and existence of modern state of the art technology at the country level is copious, though in transboundary water governance examples are few but increasingly becoming more common.

All the countries in the Ganges basin have water resources data collection, assessment and monitoring systems which are stand alone and at country level. These systems need to be reconciled and upscaled to the basin level. The paper goes on to discuss the mechanisms and frameworks needed to facilitate modern data and information exchange programmes in the Ganges region to support, reinforce and strengthen integrated water resources management in the basin.

 

The importance of exchanging data and information in transboundary water governance was emphasized in the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, ‘…watercourse states shall on a regular basis exchange readily available data and information on the condition of the watercourse, in particular that of a hydrological, meteorological, hydro-geological and ecological nature and related to the water quality as well as related forecasts.’5

It is widely accepted that a structured process of transboundary water dialogue and cooperation often starts with the exchange of data and information.6 This is often a key factor in ensuring transparency within the basin and in the cooperation process. When countries agree to share data and information freely it leads to trust building and confidence in the commitment of the riparian countries. Conversely, Wolf and Newton identify unavailability and inadequacy of detailed hydrological data as an impediment to negotiations between Bangladesh and India in the Ganges basin.7

 

Producing reliable data on water issues, water uses, and quality at the national level and sharing this data contributes to developing mutual understanding of the basin. Moreover, basin level holistic datasets ensure that water resources assessments are comprehensive and inclusive. Flood forecasting, climate change impact studies, e-flow assessment, and water quality assessments are a few areas where basin level data has a direct effect. Examples from the Mekong River Commission show that riparian countries in the Lower Mekong routinely share water level and discharge data during the beginning of August to the end of September in each flood season. This data is then used by the commission for flood forecasting to the riparian countries.8 Flood forecasting through data and information sharing has been the entry point to increased cooperation.

Modern day decision making and planning with a focus on water resources management has always been dependent on ground monitored data. In the Ganges basin, India alone currently has over 6000 rainfall stations,9 Nepal has 440 stations10 and Bangladesh, 350 stations.11 Due to the complexity associated with, and, to a large extent, economic considerations in collecting and handling information and data such as rainfall, river discharge, topographic parameters, land use, cropping pattern etc, the general trend on global ground level measurements is reported to be on the decline.12 Similarly, topography/accessibility restrict routine data collection which can consequently affect the accuracy of the data. In international river basins such as the Ganges, further restriction in the availability of data and information beyond borders is a major hurdle.13

 

Emerging technologies and modern estimation algorithms are increasingly more reliable and accurate and are thus seen as an alternative to ground based monitoring systems for estimation of hydro-meteorological variables. India is the only nation in the Ganges basin with modern state of the art thematic satellites, such as Resourcesat, Cartosat and Oceansat/Metsat.14

Type of Data

Source

Topography

Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) of Consortium for Spatial Information, Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research (CGIAR-CSI)

Rainfall

Rainfall Estimates (RFE) from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

 

Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Water level

TOPEX/Poseidon (T/P) satellite altimetry measurements

 

Flying altimeters such as JASON-1, JASON-2, ENVISAT

Land use

Global Map of Land Use/Land Cover Areas (GMLULCA) of International Water Management Institute

Snow cover

Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Location of infrastructure

Google Earth

Furthermore, many websites collect and provide data for public use, some examples include: http://www.bafg.de/GRDC/EN/Home/homepage_node.html (Global Runoff Data Centre-GRDC), www.wunderground.com, http://www.ipcc-data.org/obs/cru_climatologies.html (Climate Research Unit – CRU), http://www.spatialhydrology.com/datawarehouse.html (Spatial Hydrology).

The easy access to mathematical modelling and various algorithms, the availability of satellite based data and different research reports in the public domain imply that even without collecting data across borders, riparian countries can estimate flows at the basin level. Recent studies have shown that it is possible to collect and compile a substantial volume of data and information for basin level modelling from secondary sources available on the internet and estimate Ganges stream flow to a certain level in Bangladesh.15 These examples show that the hesitancy to share data and information is more of a political issue. More regions around the world are adopting these innovative technologies to facilitate data and information exchange across borders.16 These modern tools and easy to access information can contribute and support data and information sharing among the countries in the Ganges basin.

 

Emerging water resources data is being extensively used by scientists and researchers, but only gradually by planners and decision makers involved in water resources management.17 The limited use of the data and information sources has often been because of translation and communication issues. The technical data needs to be translated into easy to use, accurate, relevant, tailor-made information for different users at different levels. Moreover, the need for people’s participation and transparency means that the information needs to be communicated to all stakeholders and be easily accessible.

 

The riparian countries of the Ganges – Nepal, India and Bangladesh (the Chinese portion of the basin is only 4%) – are already using advanced prediction tools and in many cases integrating them into the management and decision making process. One of the major areas of use of prediction tools in the region has been flood forecasting, but the lack of dissemination of warning to populations at risk is often the weakest link in the early flood warning system. The recent floods in Uttarakhand show that meteorological forecasts were available three days before the cloudburst and a timely alert could have saved lives.18 Nonetheless, the countries in the basin are capitalizing on the internet and modern communication technology.

 

Government initiatives in the countries include:

Nepal: The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), under the Ministry of Environment, is mandated to monitor all the hydrological and meteorological activities in Nepal. DHM provides general and aviation weather forecasts, forecasting and early warning of hydro-meteorological hazards. Flood alerts on major locations in Nepal are available on the website, http://hydrology.gov.np/new/bull3/index.php/hydrology/home/main

India: The Central Water Commission (CWC) under the Ministry of Water Resources is the national organization which carries out flood forecasting and early warning dissemination on the major rivers of India since 1958. Presently, a network of 945 hydrological observation stations issue level forecast for 145 sites and inflow forecasts of 28 dam barrage sites located on main rivers. The website, http://www.india-water.com/ffs/ provides the latest forecasts issued by the divisions of CWC.

Bangladesh: In response to annual floods every year the Government of Bangladesh established the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre (FFWC) in 1972. Over the years FFWC has been equipped with modern ground station facilities and mathematical modelling tools and has a state of the art flood forecasting system for preparing forecasts and warnings. The accuracy and reliability of forecasts are well established and provides a 72 hours lead time. The forecasts are sent to the relevant government departments and also regularly published on the FFWC website http://www.ffwc.gov.bd/

 

The conventional approach to water resources data collection, assessment and monitoring has essentially been stand alone country level programmes working in parallel. But water resources management at the basin level is increasingly becoming the predominant policy paradigm in international river basins. The need for data and information exchange and joint monitoring programmes is consequently mounting, and many regions have already started to cooperate.

Analysis also shows that in many cases there is ambiguity in the exchange mechanism specified in the agreements. This may stem from the concern that data and information can be used as a tool to directly blame riparian countries for basin degradation. Again, countries are concerned that bargaining positions may be weakened in negotiation if data or information is divulged.19 Inspite of these concerns, the number of transboundary water agreements that have data and information exchange mechanisms have increased over time. The study by Gerlak et al. of 287 trans-boundary water agreements shows that 37% make direct reference to exchange of water resources data and information. The analysis shows that benefits of data and information exchange can also be ascertained in three distinct areas of any agreement – formation, implementation, agreement and effectiveness.20

 

Even with the availability and easy accessibility of satellite based information there should remain a robust data exchange protocol between the riparian countries. Without a legal and institutional framework, the data and information cannot be used in formal dialogues and negotiations. For example, in the Rhine river basin an international monitoring network under the framework of the International Rhine Commission has been in operation for more than 40 years. International river basins in the European Union work in accordance with EU directives. At present a joint monitoring systems is being developed under the framework of the Environmental Programme for the Danube River Basin.21 A 1972 agreement on water quality in the St. John river and its tributary rivers between Canada and the United States categorically states that there should be ‘exchange of appropriate information about plans, programmes, and actions which could affect water quality in the Basin.’22 Agreements have also enabled the flood forecasting programme of the Mekong River Commission to perform successfully. Noteworthy in all of these examples is that innovative uses of technology are continually being achieved in riparian countries to support, reinforce and strengthen water resources management at the basin level.23

 

In the Ganges basin, there are no instances of regional data and information exchanges, but bilateral processes already exist to an extent. A Joint Team of Experts (JTE) between India and Nepal consisting of experts from both countries are mandated to jointly assess and study effects of the planned Sapta Kosi and Burhi Gandaki dams; this exercise entails sharing of information on both tributaries. Additionally, the India-Nepal Joint Sub Committee on Embankment Construction is looking into planning, design and construction of embankments. More importantly, since 1989, the Flood Forecasting and Warning System on rivers common to India and Nepal maintains 42 meteorological/hydro-metric sites in Nepalese territory.

Similar programmes exist between Bangladesh and India. The Joint River Commission between Bangladesh and India jointly monitor river flows at Farakka in Bihar during January-April according to the agreement in the Ganges Treaty. However, this is just focused on one location on the Ganges. Furthermore, there is a system of transmission of flood forecasting data on major rivers like the Ganga, Teesta, Brahmaputra and Barak during the monsoon season from India to Bangladesh.

While these initiatives are encouraging, they remain segregated and piecemeal. Fortunately, countries are using modern technology at the country level more intensively. Again, many non-government initiatives of joint assessments between scientists, researchers and civil society in the basin exist. But without government level political interventions they can only play a small role in effective negotiations.

For future reconciliation, it is important to ensure that data in all countries has the same authenticity level and adequacy. Data should be analyzed, interpreted, and converted in predetermined formats, with application of corresponding analytical methods. Standardization of data and information can be ensured by existing regional bodies like the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre as a necessary first step towards this type of exchange.

 

Modern tools and innovative technologies used in advantageous entry points in transboundary water such as flood management, climate change, energy security, and water quality improvement can facilitate the process of a more comprehensive and inclusive data and information exchange. While there are examples of data and information exchange in many international basins, these have taken time and experience to formulate. The countries in the Ganges basin are already using advanced prediction tools and in many cases integrating them into the management and decision making process at the country level. In order to combine and upscale country data and information for basin level assessment needs political will, institutional support as well as the availability of modern technological tools and expertise.

 

* In this paper data refers to hard numbers related to water. These include numerical data on river flows, water quality, precipitation, among others. Information is defined as the processed data that provides qualitative general information.

Footnotes:

1. Jonathan L. Chenoweth and Eran Feitelson, ‘Analysis of Factors Influencing Data and Information Exchange in International River Basins: Can Such Exchanges be Used to Build Confidence in Cooperative Management?’ International Water Resources Association Water International 26(4), 2001, pp. 499-512; Susanna Nilsson, The Role and Use of Information in Transboundary Water Management. Department of Land and Water Resources Engineering, Department of Land and Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 2003; Jos G. Timmerman and Sindre Langaas, ‘Water Information: What is it Good for? On the Use of Information in Transboundary Water Management’, Regional Environmental Change 5(4), 2005, pp. 177-187.

2. Jos G. Timmerman and Sindre Langaas, ibid.; A.K. Gerlak, J. Lautze and M. Giordano, Greater Exchange, Greater Ambiguity: Water Resources Data and Information Exchange in Transboundary Water Treaties. GWF Discussion Paper 1307, Global Water Forum, Canberra, Australia, 2013. Available online at: http://www.globalwaterforum.org/2013/02/25/greater exchange greater ambiguity water resources data and information exchange in transboundary water treaties. (Accessed on 15 August 2013). Haseen Khan, P. Dawe, A. Ali Khan and Thomas Puestow, ‘Innovative Approaches to Monitoring for Transboundary Water Governance’, International Conference on Environment Science and Engineering, IPCBEE 8, IACSIT Press, Singapore, 2011.

3. F. Hossain, N. Katiyar, A. Wolf and Y. Hong, ‘The Emerging Role of Satellite Rainfall Data in Improving the Hydro-political Situation of Flood Monitoring in the Underdeveloped Regions of the World’, Natural Hazards (special issue). Invited paper 43, 2007, pp. 199-210 (doi 10.1007/s11069-006-9094-x); Bushra Nishat and S.M. Mahbubur Rahman, ‘Water Resources Modelling of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna River Basins Using Satellite Remote Sensing Data’, Journal of American Water Resources Association (in ‘Satellites and Transboundary Water’), Vol. 45, 2009; Stimson Center, Fresh Water Futures: Imagining Responses to Demand Growth, Climate Change, and the Politics of Water Resource Management by 2040, 2010.

4. Jos G. Timmerman and Sindre Langaas, 2005, op cit.; Bushra Nishat and S.M. Mahbubur Rahman, ibid; Stimson Center, ibid.; Andrea K. Gerlak, Jonathan Lautze and Mark Giordano, ibid., 2013. Haseen Khan, P. Dawe, A. Ali Khan and Thomas Puestow, 2011, op cit.

5. United Nations, Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. United Nations General Assembly document A/51/869, 11 April 1997. http://ffw.mrcmekong.org/AHNIP/ahnip_ home.html (accessed on 15 August 2013).

6. Jos G. Timmerman and Sindre Langaas, 2005, op cit.; Andrea K. Gerlak, Jonathan Lautze and Mark Giordano, ibid., 2013.

7. Aaron T. Wolf and Joshua T. Newton, ‘Case Studies of Transboundary Dispute Resolution’, Appendix C, in Delli Priscoli, Jerry and Aaron T. Wolf, Managing and Transforming Water Conflicts. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008. Available at http://www. transboundarywaters.orst.edu/research/case_studies/index.html (accessed on 15 August 2013).

8. Mekong River Commission. http://www. mrcmekong.org/ (accessed on 15 August 2013).

9. M. Rajeevan and Jyoti Bhate, ‘A High Resolution Daily Gridded Rainfall Data Set (1971-2005) for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies.’ National Climate Centre Research Report No. 9/2008. National Climate Centre, India Meteorological Department, Pune (accessed on 1 August 2013).

10. Sunil R. Kansakar, David A. Hannah, John Gerrard and Gwyn Rees, ‘Spatial Pattern in the Precipitation Regime of Nepal’, International Journal of Climatology 24, 2004, pp. 1645-1659. Published online in Wiley Interscience (www.interscience.wiley.com). Doi: 10.1002/joc.1098

11. Nandan Mukherjee, Bushra Nishat, Rezaur Rahman, Malik Fida, A. Khan and Sultan Ahmed, ‘Monitoring Protocol for Hydro-meteorological Observatories in Bangladesh’, in A. Nishat (ed.), Protocol for Monitoring of Impacts of Climate Change and Climate Variability in Bangladesh. IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2012.

12. E. Stokstad, ‘Scarcity of Rain, Stream Gages Threatens Forecasts’, Science 285, 1999, p. 1199; A.I. Shiklomanov, R.B. Lammers, and C.J. Vörömarty, ‘Widespread Decline in Hydrological Monitoring Threatens Pan-Arctic Research, EOS Transactions 83(2), 2002, pp. 16-17.

13. F. Hossain, N. Katiyar, A. Wolf and Y. Hong, 2007, op cit.

14. South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, Regional Cooperation on Application of Science and Technology for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management in South Asia. SAARC Workshop on Application of Science and Technology for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, India, 2008.

15. Bushra Nishat and S.M. Mahbubur Rahman, 2009, op cit.; C.B. Moffit, F. Hossain, R.F. Adler, K. Yilmaz and H. Pierce, ‘Validation of TRMM Flood Detection System Over Bangladesh’, International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformatics, doi:10. 2011.

16. A.K. Gerlak, J. Lautze and M. Giordano, 2013, op cit.; Haseen Khan, P. Dawe, A. Ali Khan and Thomas Puestow, 2011, op cit.

17. Haseen Khan, P. Dawe, A. Ali Khan and Thomas Puestow, 2011, op cit.

18. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/uttara kahand-floods-a-man-made-disaster-not-natural.-know-how/1/285692.html; Andrea K. Gerlak, Jonathan Lautze and Mark Giordano, ‘Water Resources Data and Information Exchange in Transboundary Water Treaties’, International Environmental Agreements 11, 2011, pp. 179-199.

19. Jos G. Timmerman and Sindre Langaas, 2005, op cit.; Andrea K. Gerlak, Jonathan Lautze and Mark Giordano, ibid.

20. A.K. Gerlak, J. Lautze and M. Giordano, 2013, op cit.

21. Tim Lack and Steve Nixon, Wrc PLC, Harmonisation and Streamlining the ICPDR Reporting and Information Collection Needs in Line with EU Directives and National Obligations. UNDP/GEF Danube Regional Project, 2005.

22. A.K. Gerlak, J. Lautze and M. Giordano, 2013, op cit.

23. Haseen Khan, P. Dawe, A. Ali Khan and Thomas Puestow, 2011, op cit.

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