The Power of Working Across Boundaries

Research suggests that a cooperative, river basin approach to water resources management can be beneficial to all countries

In the Koshi basin, China, Nepal, and India are all interconnected by a common river and water system. As the population in the region grows, reliable access to this water becomes increasingly important. However, water supplies are erratic and are not equally distributed throughout the year: water is abundant in the monsoon season, creating hazards, but scarce in the dry season. These circumstances demand well-planned water resources management, which is also fundamental to the socioeconomic and environmental health of the basin. However, while water does not follow international boundaries, approaches to water management often do. This has created a fragmented and uncoordinated approach, which leads to the inefficient management of transboundary water resources. 

While certain researchers have argued that transboundary cooperation should be a central aspect of water management in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, putting this into practice has been difficult. One of the biggest challenges in bringing countries together for transboundary management has been in demonstrating that everyone can benefit in real ways. However, a recently-published paper with ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme might help to change this. The paper, published in Water Policy and entitled “Why Eastern Himalayan countries should cooperate in transboundary water resource management”, found that regional cooperation using a river basin approach is essential to maximize the benefits from the basin’s water resources. Importantly, it also found that there are potential benefits for countries using a river basin approach to water resources management. 

These potential benefits are varied and great: cooperation can help bolster everything from flood mitigation, hydropower energy and energy security, water transport, and political relations. Regional cooperation can play an instrumental role in harnessing monsoon water for more productive use in the dry season; however, this requires large investments and sound technologies, and can only be realized through a larger river basin approach. Similarly, cooperation can also facilitate a basin-level water transport network, which would promote the integration of local economies, better use of resources, and economic and industrial growth. On a larger scale, countries also have something to gain: Nepal can produce more hydropower, which means less time that communities spend gathering other fuel sources, such as wood, and improved forest and individual health; India can reduce its risk of flood damage and have fewer scheduled power cuts; and China can improve its relationship with its neighbours, which opens up profitable trade opportunities. 

Cooperation, the paper also argued, can take different forms ranging from active communication to joint projects, research, and investment. Joint research can produce information that all parties find credible, which is often a challenge when working on transboundary issues. Cooperation can likewise take the form of a basin-wide data system, which shares timely information on meteorological and hydrological developments.

In February 2016, more than 250 representatives from China, Nepal, and India came together for the first time to put regional cooperation around the Koshi basin into practice. A two-day forum in Bihar, India, hosted leading experts and government officials who discussed water security and livelihoods in the basin. Panel discussions and technical sessions looked at specific challenges around disaster management in the different parts of the basin, and how to bolster the collection of evidence-based data so that information can be more easily translated into policy. The forum was a tangible step towards further transboundary collaboration on issues of water management, and demonstrated a path for a more sustainable future for water and communities in the Koshi basin.

Article: Rasul, G (2014) ‘Why Eastern Himalayan countries should cooperate in transboundary water resource management’. Water Policy 16, 19-38.


This study was also part of ICIMOD’s Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE) Programme, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC); the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP), implemented jointly by ICIMOD, CICERO, and Grid-Arednal and funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway and the Government of Sweden; and the Koshi Basin Programme of ICIMOD funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) of Australia.

 
Photo credit: Alex Treadway, Nabin Baral