A New Perspective

Efforts to understand the Koshi basin’s upstream-downstream linkages have the potential to change river basin management

In the northernmost part of the Koshi basin in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, the snowy mountain landscape of the Himalayas turn into vast stretches of barren hills and marshland. The upstream section of the Koshi River cuts through this high-altitude landscape, and helps to feed a variety of freshwater ecosystems. The local communities are primarily Tibetan farmers and grazers living in small villages spaced out along the dusty roads and rugged mountain valleys. Approximately 300 kilometres southwest as the crow flies is the Nepali town of Dhankuta, a cluster of buildings perched on a ridge in the rolling forested foothills of the Himalayas. The town is the headquarters of Dhankuta District in eastern region of Nepal.

Although on the surface, these two areas do not seem to have much in common, they are intimately linked by the Koshi River. When ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme began in 2013, the programme made it a priority to better understand the basin’s upstream-downstream linkages and their relevance to water management at the basin and local level. Research found that a well-managed ecological environment upstream will directly benefit the ecological environment downstream – for instance, by allowing for clean and sustainable water for irrigation. More importantly, by sustaining soil conservation and vegetation cover in the upstream, risks of flash floods – which may trigger larger water induced hazards in the downstream – will be reduced. Integration of this upstream-downstream perspective represented a new approach to water management in the region, and something that could fundamentally improve resources in the basin in the years to come.

Integration of this upstream-downstream perspective represented a new approach to water management in the region, and something that could fundamentally improve resources in the basin in the years to come.

The Koshi Basin Programme began by thinking about upstream-downstream linkages on a local level. These days, Dhankuta faces challenges of both water quantity and quality. Forested areas upstream are turning into agricultural land, where farmers frequently use pesticides. These pesticides seep into the soil and water, and are carried downstream, contaminating Dhankuta’s drinking water. Additionally, in the past 15 years, water levels in the nearby rivers have decreased by nearly half due to an increase in agricultural activities. During the dry season, water for drinking and washing becomes difficult to access for members of the community who are located far away from reliable sources.

In response to this, the Koshi Basin Programme started working with Green Governance Nepal and the Dhankuta municipality to foster linkages between the communities close to the area’s drinking water sources and the residents of Dhankuta. The goal is to help meet the current demands for drinking water by promoting a system of benefit sharing. Under the benefit sharing system, Dhankuta residents pay a nominal monthly fee to the municipality, which is then transferred to upstream communities as compensation for helping to preserve the quality and quantity of the water supply. Instead of receiving cash, upstream communities asked that the compensation be invested in agricultural trainings, road construction, and school development. Current market alternatives for drinking water cost approximately 30 times more than that of the benefit sharing system, which means that these alternatives are unaffordable for many Dhankuta residents. The project is in its initial stages, but has the potential to make water more affordable for local residents as well as lay the foundation for sustainable water resource management in the area.

As local initiatives began to get underway, the Koshi Basin Programme also moved to implement the upstream-downstream approach on a basin-level scale. The programme focused on building partnerships with institutions that would encourage a healthy ecological environment in the northernmost part of the basin with the understanding that, in future years, this work would advance innovative and evidence-based research and benefit the downstream environment as well.

In August 2015, a team consisting of experts from China’s Yunnan Institute of Environmental Sciences and the Koshi Basin Programme carried out a two-week long field survey in Nyalam, Tingri, and Tingkey counties of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The goal of the survey was to establish a baseline of the current status of the area’s freshwater ecosystems, in particular wetlands, and how local communities have been interacting with these ecosystems on both economic and social levels. Except for the second National Survey of Wetland Resources conducted by the Government of China in 2010, which the public has limited access to, little information has been readily available on this evolving ecosystem.

The goal of the research was to examine the effectiveness of environmentally conscious government policies and incentive schemes, which were started in 2010. These schemes included the implementation of the ‘Incentive Mechanism for Grassland Ecological Protection’, the establishment of a network of grassland and wildlife monitors from nearby villages, and the erection of billboards in counties that promote wetland protection and conservation in village rules and regulation.

The initial results of the survey suggest that these policies have positively benefited the wetlands ecosystem: the researchers found that overgrazing and environmental destruction are increasingly under control. According to local statistics, the number of livestock in and near the wetlands has reduced by 30%, and will be further reduced to sustain the carrying capacity of monitored grasslands. In addition, in the wetlands near the town of Gangga and Dengmotso Lake in Tingri county, and the town of Jiangga in Tingkey county, a large number of fish and bird species have been identified, including Triplophysa, blacknecked crane, bar-headed goose, and the ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea). The researchers found that the wetlands have served as a key biodiversity habitat for migrant birds during their breeding period.

The team plans to use the results of the survey in a larger analysis on freshwater ecosystem services and the associated policy impacts. More broadly, the idea is that this pioneering study will contribute to wider discussions on the relationships between humans and their environment, as well as upstream and downstream linkages in the Koshi basin in the future.

Beyond the ecosystem survey, the Koshi Basin Programme is also in the process of initiating a variety of other projects in the Tibet Autonomous Region in order to foster a healthy upstream environment in the basin. This includes research in partnership with Tingri County’s Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Bureau on the impact of grazing on the area’s marshlands and floodplains, which are particularly


Photo credit: Pankaj Prasad Raturi, Yingtao Zhou, Jack D ives, Rongkun Liu , Nabin Baral