Basin management in Himalayan region of South Asia


South Asia’s water problems can be significantly reduced through improved water governance of its major trans-boundary rivers which support the lives of about one billion people, writes Dr. Arvind Kumar.

With more than 21 percent of the world’s population, the South Asia region has access to just over eight percent of global water resources. Average water availability per capita across the region has declined by 70 percent since the 1950s, and continues to decrease. Increasing population, intensified ag ricultural practices and irrigation, multiplying energy demand from greater industrial activity and economic growth, urbanisation, complex environmental consequences of climate change, deteriorating river ecology, and deteriorating water quality in the regions’ surface and groundwater resources etc., continue to unfold new challenges for the region’s already scarce water resources.

South Asia’s water problems can be significantly reduced through improved water governance of its major trans-boundary rivers: the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra, which straddle international boundaries and support the lives of about one billion people.

Water management of trans-boundary rivers in South Asia is governed by the mechanism of bilateral treaties, which are subject to domestic pressures and regional geopolitical compulsions. Trans-boundary river basin management is of crucial concern for all, as about 40 percent of global population resides in river basins that are shared by countries. They encompass almost half of the Earth’s land surface and provide over 60 percent of global freshwater flow. The avowed objective is to bring people out of poverty, securing their livelihoods and support development efforts in a sustainable manner.

Critical water challenges in South Asia

Recurring incidents of water and climate-induced disasters have put further strain on already scarce water resources of South Asia. Besides, water security in South Asia is under threat from many sources, which are mostly man-made. Current planning and management have proven insufficient to address the challenges of meeting South Asia’s diverse needs for water. The adverse impact of climate change transcends geographical boundaries. Any climate-induced or water induced disaster in border areas of South Asia is prone to cause damage to the geographically contiguous areas of the neighbouring country and vice-versa. The water and climate change induced disasters wreak havoc in terms of loss of human and cattle lives, damage to property and loss of livelihoods of the people. This eventually retards the pace of development and entails potentials of jeopardising security of the nation as well. Water is the main driver of economic growth and sustainable development.

The Ganga River Basin and the Brahmaputra River Basin are two major trans-boundary river basins in the Himalayan region of South Asia. The Ganga River Basin involves Nepal, India and Bangladesh; whereas Brahmaputra River basin involves China, India and Bangladesh. The trans-boundary river basin management in the Himalayan region is faced with particular challenges pertaining to different national interests, power disparities between riparian states, differences in national institutional capacity, limited information exchange and lack of sufficient basin scale knowledge and institutional capacity to make decisions.

Structural features of political geography in the Ganga River Basin pose some impediments to basin-wide management of this region. India’s upper riparian position gives it advantages vis-à-vis Bangladesh. Bangladesh suffers one of the least favourable river dependency ratios of 91.3 percent on the planet. A second structural challenge emanates from the political challenges facing governments of South Asian countries, especially the delicate coalition arrangement of the central government in India. This problem came to the fore in September 2011 when the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, withdrew her support at the 11th hour from a water-sharing agreement between India and Bangladesh over the Teesta River. Her exit dealt a severe blow to the hard-won agreement, which would have been the first formal India–Bangladesh agreement over Teesta’s waters since 1996.

Another visible challenge emerges from the changing demographic scene in the countries sharing the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins. Keeping pace with changing demographic numbers and the diminution in per capita water availability will require substantial augmentations in fresh water extractions from the region’s surface and ground resources to ensure the basic food security and meet the demand for adequate water supplies arising from the unprecedented scale of the region’s economic development. Massive dependence of agriculture for irrigation in India and Bangladesh is on water of the River Ganga. The farmers in these countries are turning to ground water supplies of fresh water to meet their needs. The fast depletion of aquifers portends imminent water crisis in the region.

Chronic shortage of power supply is another challenge in river basin management in this region, casting doubt over the region’s capacity to ensure future energy security. India is already the world’s sixth largest energy consumer and its primary energy demand is expected to grow overall by about 127 percent by 2035. The imperative to increase energy supplies has turned India’s attention to indigenous hydropower resources. Only about 19.9 percent of India’s hydropower potential has so far been developed. India’s strategy of tapping hydropower potential in the country’s north and northeast regions by launching a dam-building spree may run up against the fresh water needs of India’s lower riparian neighbour, Bangladesh.

The stumbling blocks

Following are the key stumbling blocks to closer cooperation among countries in South Asia in settling cross-border water disputes:

  • Lack of will on the part of political leadership
  • Absence of confidence-building measures in cross-border areas to improve livelihoods of the affected people
  • Negation of the role of the civil society
  • Absence of regional media’s role; and
  • Lack of mutual cooperation and coordination in tackling water related issues
  • Constructing security community in South Asia through water paradigm in mixed conflict and cooperation.


Significant progress has been made on cooperative transboundary river basin management by countries of the Himalayan region, especially in the aftermath of the Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas – Bhutan 2011. Nepal, India and Bangladesh (NIB) and Bangladesh, India and Bhutan (BIB) have coagulated alliances in water management initiatives for the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins. India has recently approved the formation of a working group to coordinate NIB joint projects for the exploitation of common water resources in the Ganga Basin. The NIB initiative will focus on hydropower generation and irrigation and will include the joint development and financing of projects.

The NIB initiative is expected to unfold the technically and geographically feasible means of augmenting, distributing water and power supplies and will collaboratively develop and finance identified projects.

The basic aim of the NIB and BIB initiatives is to implement programmes in partnership with member-states that will contribute to strengthen the co-operation mechanism and to long-term sustainable development, economic growth and subregional co-operation.

Regional cooperation for water security

There is a need for the establishment of a Regional Water Hub (RWH) to strengthen regional cooperation on water security issues in South Asia wherein all countries of the region should be represented. This Hub should have close synergy with water related national agencies of each member country of South Asia. The proposed RWH would serve as a repository on water-related knowledge to facilitate implementation of such programmes like judicious implementation of anti-flood measures, development of entrepreneurship and improvement in people’s livelihoods more effectively through convergence, coordination and cooperation with national/international agencies and respective governments.

The current trajectories based on ‘sectoral or silo approach’ have failed to attain the goal of sustainable development. Hence increasing attention is being focused on water-energy food nexus approach as a viable and sustainable solution. Trans-boundary river basin management cooperation based on nexus approach can be instrumental in enhancing a broader set of mutual benefits and opportunities than individual unilateral country approaches.

Nexus approach initiative for a living himalayas

The Bhutan 2011 Summit agreed upon a regional ‘Framework of Cooperation’ (FOC) aimed at building regional resilience to the negative impacts of climate change in the Himalayas with the themes of ensuring food security and securing livelihoods; securing the natural freshwater systems in the region, ensuring sustainable use of biodiversity and ensuring energy security.


Under the given situation in South Asia, where future water scarcity entails potential of acting as a constraint on much needed development, cooperative management of transboundary river systems is crucial to ensuring future water, energy and food security. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) can serve as important conduits for fostering dialogue and linking grassroots issues to the negotiation process.


Dr. Arvind Kumar

The writer is President India Water Foundation, New Delhi.