India will soon set up a North East Water Management Authority (NEWMA) to evolve a consolidated strategy for management of the region’s water resources, according to government officials.

NEWMA will be the apex authority for developing all projects related to hydropower, agriculture, biodiversity conservation, flood control, inland water transport, forestry, fishery, and eco-tourism in the region. It will also help spearhead India’s efforts to establish prior user rights on water from the rivers that originate in China.

The authority is being set up on the recommendations of a high-level committee headed by NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar against the backdrop of China’s ambitious $62 billion south-north water diversion scheme.

The committee was established in October 2017 to help India’s flood-ravaged North-East. Its mandate was to facilitate optimisation of the benefits of appropriate water management, with NITI Aayog, the federal policy think tank heading the efforts. This assumes significance given that India has been pushing to establish prior user rights on water of rivers that originate in China in an effort to fast-track projects in the North-East. Also, Japan has joined hands with India to aggressively develop infrastructure projects in the region with the setting up of the India-Japan Coordination Forum for Development of North East.

The chief secretaries of all the eight states of the region were also a part of the committee, so that all states are on-board and work in tandem to implement a concerted strategy. The committee also included secretaries from the ministries of development of north-eastern region, power, water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, as well as officials of the National Disaster Management Authority and the departments of border management and space.

“The committee’s report has been finalized and it is on that basis that a structured approach is being considered. The main purpose is to take care of power generation, irrigation, flood control, and soil erosion, among other measures," said a senior Indian government official requesting anonymity.

“The report has been submitted some months ago. We are going ahead with constituting NEWMA," said a second Indian government official who also did not want to be named.

With one of the focus areas being hydropower, the strategy will also help establish first-user rights to the waters of the Brahmaputra. The total hydropower generation potential of India’s northeastern states and Bhutan is about 58,000 megawatts (MW). Of this, Arunachal Pradesh alone accounts for 50,328MW, the highest in India.

Queries emailed to NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar and a NITI Aayog spokesperson on Thursday have not been answered.

Developing hydropower projects has been a vital part of India’s strategic play in the border areas, specifically with China and Pakistan in mind. A case in point is the 330MW Kishanganga hydro power project in Jammu and Kashmir that was commissioned last May on the river Kishanganga, a tributary of the Jhelum river. Pakistan had challenged the project under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, but the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in India’s favour in 2013. India now aims to expedite strategically important hydropower projects in Jammu and Kashmir to fully utilize its share of water under the Indus Waters Treaty. State-run NHPC Ltd plans to construct these hydropower projects in the context of China developing the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

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