Brahmaputra River Basin: A Game Theoretic Approach to Cooperation and Benefit Sharing

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Freshwater is a critical natural capital that is non-substitutable at the interface of economy and environment. Globally, demographic and socioeconomic drivers, along with the impact of climate change, have created unprecedented water scarcity, with demand exceeding supply. Collaborative water management can strengthen resilience and cope with risks from imminent water crises, aiding the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, management becomes increasingly complex for transboundary rivers, a global common good that flows without obeying borders. The complexity arises from the additional layer of political economy to the economy-environment interface, encompassing transboundary rivers. Transboundary interaction among power asymmetric riparians is influenced by overlapping state sovereignty and diverse strategic interests in river utilisation. Unilateral water interventions without internalising associated external costs strain international relations between nations. The non-cooperative behaviour exists because riparian nations equate transboundary negotiations with sovereignty bargains, interpreting lost autonomous control over the river. As the entire problem relates to water-sharing, an innovative principle called benefit sharing emphasises sharing the benefits derived from the water resource rather than the water itself. Despite hydro-political tensions, benefit sharing incentivises transboundary water cooperation as it overlooks sovereignty issues, producing win-win outcomes for riparians. This thesis focuses on the relatively under-researched transboundary river basin- the Brahmaputra River Basin (BRB). The mighty river that originates in China and transcends three South Asian countries, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, needs more institutionalised water cooperation. Although the basin has not faced an acute water crisis to date, growing and competing water interventions have been underway since the millennium to use the river as a power consolidation mechanism, particularly by China and India. This has intensified the vulnerability risks for the basin communities. Existing literature is silent on the economic and political factors driving the interaction between power asymmetric BRB riparians. Therefore, this thesis aims to examine the existing and evolving bilateral water interaction among the BRB riparians and the prospect of benefit sharing. It deploys the state-of-the-art analytical framework of game theory to analyse riparians’ strategic behaviour. Game theory is the science of rational decision-making for conceiving social situations among competing players and fits best to understand the economic and political dimensions of water management even without
Supervisor: Barua, Anamika