Asia’s key river basins need to collaborate to avert climate risks

Kathmandu, Mar. 21: Three major new studies from the eight-nation Hindu Kush Himalaya body, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) describe climate change as the urgent catalyst for collaboration over three key river basins in Asia — the Indus, the Ganga, and the Brahmaputra.

According to a press statement issued by ICIMOD on Wednesday about the launch of the reports, it said, the three rivers provide food and water security to some of Asia’s most vulnerable communities, as well as underpinning industry, and industrial and economic policies in one of the most populous and geopolitically sensitive zones in the world.

The report was launched through a hybrid method on Wednesday at 10 am Nepal Time at ICIMOD’s Kathmandu headquarters.

With climate change compounding existing pressures on water resources and increasing risks from floods, land erosion, and salinity, researchers call for scientists, civil society, communities, and officials around the three crucial river basins that span Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan to join forces to avert “enormous and growing” humanitarian, ecological, and economic risks.

The Elevating River Basin Governance and Cooperation in the HKH Region report series zeroes in on key economic, ecological, energy, social, geopolitical, and governance issues and opportunities specific to the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganga rivers, and provides key recommendations to mitigate risks, the statement said.

Authors of the reports describe collective action in the region as fraught but, with governments’ water, food, energy, and security strategies at stake, also hugely urgent.

The reports flag ways to encourage negotiations and build fresh consensus, especially by rejuvenating existing treaties and potentially new forms of cooperation through the deployment of ‘integrated river basin management’ (IRBM) approaches.

IRBM takes a “basin-wide” approach to river planning – underpinned by increasing the availability and sharing of high-quality and reliable data around water availability, needs, biodiversity, pollution, and other indicators of ecological health, and disaster and other risks and by opening up discussions on the water to wider stakeholder groups, especially local and indigenous knowledge holders, and vulnerable communities, especially women, disabled people and lower caste groups.

The IRBM framework encourages riparian countries to focus on shared challenges and opportunities, paving the way for future collaboration.

Russell Rollason, eWater. lead author on the Indus report, said, “For too long, water security has  been cast as a zero-sum game, but as this research shows countries and stakeholders with varied interests can identify areas for collaboration – protect vulnerable communities, maintain bio-diverse ecosystems, and grow economies.” 

The reports emphasise the importance of harnessing indigenous and local knowledge systems. These hold so many insights into how local communities can act to resolve problems quickly and effectively during a crisis. Governments need to empower local communities with knowledge and technology to nurture their resilience in the face of rising uncertainty.”

Arun Shrestha, Strategic Group Lead, Climate and Environmental Risks, ICIMOD, said, “A water-secure future for all is still within reach, but we need to think beyond borders, and think of win-win approaches to water management.

The humanitarian, economic and environmental cost of our failing to embrace these new approaches now hugely outweighs the risks: and this is one arena in which science can galvanise action.”

The Indus provides water to 268 million people in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and China (including nine out of Pakistan’s largest cities); the Ganga to 600 million people in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and China (including 50 Indian cities); the Brahmaputra to 114 million people in Bangladesh, India, China and Bhutan – and accounts for 30 per cent of India’s freshwater sources.

The Indus, which holds a hydropower potential of 35,700 MG Watts only 12 per cent of which is currently being harnessed, is important to Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and China’s energy strategies. The Brahmaputra has the immense hydropower potential that both China and India aim to tap.

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