Rice and Reason: Planning for System Complexity in the Indus Basin

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I was at the local corner store in Uganda last week and noticed the profusion of rice being sold, the origin of which was from either India or Pakistan. It’s likely that this rice being consumed in East Africa was produced in the Indus basin, using Indus waters, and was then processed and shipped to Africa. That’s not exceptional in its own right and is arguably a sign of a healthy global trading system.

Nevertheless, the rice in question is likely from a system under increasing stress, one that is often simply viewed as a physical unit. What my trip to the corner store shows is that perhaps more than ever before a system such as the Indus is no longer confined – it extends well beyond its physical borders. 

Not only does this rice represent embedded “virtual” water (the water used to grow and refine the produce), but also policy decisions, embedded labour value, and the gamut of economic agreements between distribution companies and import entities, as well as the political relationship between East Africa and South Asia. Also important are global commodities prices and international market forces.

In that sense, the Indus river basin is the epitome of a complex system, in which simple, linear causality may not be that useful for decision makers trying to determine how to invest in managing the system into the future. This biophysical system has, integral to it, social, economic, and political systems where climate, population growth and movement, and political uncertainty make decisions hard to get right. 

Like other systems, the Indus river basin is constantly changing and endlessly complex, with a great deal of interconnectivity. This brings up questions about stability, sustainability, and hard choices and trade-offs that need to be made, not least in terms of the social and economic cost-benefit of huge rice production and export.

So how do we go about planning in a system that is in constant flux?

Coping with system complexity in the Indus is the overarching theme of the third Indus Basin Knowledge Forum (IBKF) being co-hosted this week by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and the World Bank. Titled Managing Systems Under Stress: Science for Solutions in the Indus Basin, the forum brings together researchers and other knowledge producers to work with knowledge users such as policy makers to develop a future direction for the basin while improving the science decision-making relationship. Participants from four riparian countries – Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan – as well as from international organizations that conduct interdisciplinary research on the factors affecting the basin will interact in a marketplace of ideas, funding sources, and potential applications. The aim is to narrow down a set of practical and useful activities with defined outcomes that can be tracked in future fora.

The meeting builds on the work already done and, crucially, relations already established in this geopolitical space, including under the Indus Forum and the Upper Indus Basin Network. By sharing knowledge, asking tough questions, and identifying opportunities to work together, the IBKF hopes to pin down concrete commitments, both from funders and policy makers, but also from researchers, to ensure quality outputs of practical relevance to this system. 

Scenario planning

Before the forum, the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy and Land Project (ISWEL) will bring together policy makers and other stakeholders from the basin to explore a policy tool that looks at how best to model the basin’s future. This approach will help the group conceive of possible futures and model the pathways leading to the best possible outcomes for the most people. This policy exercise approach will involve six steps to identify and evaluate possible future pathways: 

  • Specifying a “business as usual” pathway
  • Setting desirable goals (for sustainability pathways)
  • Identifying challenges and trade-offs
  • Understanding power relations, underlying interests, and their role in nexus policy development 
  • Developing and selecting nexus solutions
  • Identifying synergies
  • Building pathways with key milestones for future investments and implementation of solutions

The summary of this scenario development workshop and a vision for the Indus Basin will be shared as part of the IBKF3 at the end of the event. This will help participants collectively consider what actions can be taken to ensure a prosperous, sustainable, and equitable future for those living in the basin.

The rice that feeds parts of East Africa plays a key global role – the challenge will be ensuring that this important trade relationship is not jeopardized by a system that moves to eventual collapse. Open science-policy and decision-making collaboration is key to ensuring that this does not happen.

Alan Nicol is the strategic program leader for Promoting Sustainable Growth and one of the organizers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 

Mia Signs is a communications specialist working for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land, and Ecosystems, led by IWMI.


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