River Basins

Improved water resource management in mountain areas is essential for the sustainable development of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region and downstream countries. The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region extends 3,500 km over all or part of eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. It is the source of ten large Asian river systems -– the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and Tarim (Dayan), - and provides water, ecosystem services, and the basis for livelihoods to a population of around 210.53 million people in the region. The river basins of these rivers provide water to 1.3 billion people, a fifth of the world’s population.

The river basin approach strikes a balance between the existing natural functions of the river system and societal expectations for livelihoods, industry, recreation, nature management, and agriculture. The aim is to maximize the economic and social benefits derived from water resources in an equitable manner while conserving and, where necessary, restoring freshwater ecosystems. Over the past decade, ICIMOD has worked at the river basin level on flood-related topics (mitigation, preparedness, risk management, and vulnerability mapping); extended activities will encompass conservation, management, and development of water, land, and related resources across sectors.

The Regional Programme on river basins focuses on multidisciplinary resource management approaches that address climate change and variability; cryosphere dynamics; the hydrological regime and water availability; water-related risk management; mountain community water management; and vulnerability and adaptation. The programme emphasizes improved understanding of upstream-downstream linkages and the links between natural resources and livelihoods. The current focus is on developing programmes for the Koshi and Indus river basins, with more to be developed in the future. Key outcomes will include improved estimates of future water availability and its impact, and adaptive water management strategies at basin and community levels.

Goal: Improved integrated river basin management to reduce physical vulnerabilities and improve food and energy security for mountain and downstream communities in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region while recognizing upstream interests.

Outcome: Actionable proposals for integrated water resource management practices and policies, including measures for risk management and for equitable access to water for energy and food security, formulated, shared, and used at basin and community levels.

The ten major river basins of the Himalayan region

RiversBasin Area
(X 1000)
Population density
(per sq.km)
Amu Darya534,739Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan20,85539
Brahmaputra651,335China, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh118,543182
Ganges1,016,124India, Nepal, China, Bangladesh407,466401
Indus1,081,718China, India, Pakistan178,483165
Mekong805,604China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam57,19871
Salween271,914China, Myanmar, Thailand5,98222
Tarim1,152,448Kyrgyzstan, China8,0677
Source: IUCN/IWMI, Ramsar Convention and WRI, 2003.


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