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Evaluating the South Asia Water Initiative

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Lucrezia Tincani

Lucrezia Tincani, Marlene Bucky, Pooja Singh

The South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI-II) is a five-year, multi-donor trust fund that aims to increase regional cooperation in the management of the major Himalayan river systems in south Asia (the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra Rivers). SAWI-II aims to improve knowledge-sharing on water resource management (WRM), build the capacity of water resource organisations, build trust among stakeholders, and inform the design of World Bank WRM investments in the region. We carried out the evaluation in Year 4 of SAWI-II, with the primary aim of providing learning for future programming on transboundary management of international rivers. The evaluation adopted a theory-based approach, carrying our case study visits in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh and interviewing stakeholders from Afghanistan and China remotely.

Challenges

Transboundary water resource management in south Asia operates in a highly political space, where political tensions can hinder cooperation on water despite joint interests in sustainable water resource management. As a result, observing the benefits of any initiative seeking to foster cooperation on south Asian rivers will take time – and many benefits will only be visible several years after the initiative ends. The evaluation therefore focused on understanding progress made along a continuum, rather than only on observable achievements.

The outcomes and impacts of SAWI-II were difficult to quantify, resulting in a strong reliance on subjective views of implementing partners, to assess progress made. Finally, due to the highly political and at times tense nature of international relations in the region, only stakeholders directly involved in SAWI-II were interviewed, resulting in a largely inward-looking evaluation.

Our approach

The objective of this evaluation was primarily to provide learning for future programming on transboundary management of international rivers. The evaluation used a theory-based approach, exploring to what extent and how the five pathways of change of the initiative delivered the desired outcomes and impacts, in different river basins.

Data collection methods entailed a combination of interviews during in-person country visits across south Asia, telephone interviews with SAWI-II staff, co-donors, and others, and the analysis of available SAWI-II documentation and World Bank lending data. In-person country visits focused on a sub-set of activities: 19 case studies were selected for analysis (13 were analysed in depth). These cases included examples from all five focal areas and six out of seven countries. We interviewed stakeholders in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh in person (during country visits), and interviewed stakeholders from Afghanistan and China on the phone. Obtaining the views of different stakeholders for each case allowed triangulation of findings. Several interviews were also held with independent sector experts to validate emerging findings and ensure the external validity of the conclusions.

The draft findings and recommendations were validated with the World Bank and SAWI-II donors during several workshops in Delhi.

Outcomes

Our evaluation concluded that SAWI-II had been effective at improving knowledge and awareness on WRM and on building capacity on transboundary WRM. SAWI-II has built trust, both among ministries in the same country and between different countries, to increase the willingness to engage on water governance issues. However trust-building is a long-term process that requires sustained effort and which can be limited by the external political environment. Overall, longer-term efforts are needed to sustain the momentum created by SAWI-II and to institutionalise capacity-building gains. It is too early to tell whether progress towards increased cooperation on transboundary rivers will continue in the longer term.

As a result of the theory-based approach, this evaluation report has provided the World Bank, and the three SAWI-II donors with clear lessons on the essential building blocks of a transboundary cooperation. The recommendations were received positively by DFID and the World Bank, who prepared a management response on how recommendations will be implemented.

It has been confirmed that SAWI-II will be extended for another 18 months, allowing the World Bank to implement the key recommendations of the evaluation.