Indus Basin Initiative

The transboundary Indus basin, with an area size of 1.1 million sq.km, is spread across Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan with upper portion resting in the Hindu Kush, Karakorum, and Himalayan ranges. The largest portions of the basin are in Pakistan (52%%) followed by India (33%).  The main river originates at Lake Ngangla Rinco on the Tibetan Plateau. There are 15 tributaries, which includes Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej in India, and Swat, Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Shigar, Shyok, Indus, Shingo, Astor, Jhelum and Chenab in Pakistan, and Kabul River drains parts of Afghanistan. 

The basin ranks among the most important in the world in terms of human dependence, supporting about 215 million people, directly or indirectly. The basin is the main source of water for agriculture, energy production, industrial use, and human consumption. This leads to a very high population density in the basin and an approximate water availability of 1,329 m3 per head.

In total the Indus River basin is estimated to have a total hydropower potential of 55,000 MW, out of which about 35,700 MW are technically feasible. At present, only 6,444 MW or about 12% of the potential has been harnessed. Socioeconomic development of the countries in the basin largely depends on optimal utilisation and prudent management of the precious water resources of the Indus River basin.

Challenges

One of the basin’s most serious problems is water scarcity while the demand for water has been growing. There is a high rate of population increase in the region. The lower part of the basin is now one of the most water-stressed areas in the world and the situation is going to further to deteriorate in future to reach permanent water scarcity. Anomalous weather episodes may increase the risk of flooding and droughts in the region. Extreme events such as intense rainfall and prolonged droughts are expected. Climate change is likely to worsen the water insecurity and is likely to be the key driver of change in the upper part above the timberline, impacting both upstream and downstream.  One of the key areas where climate change impact is likely to be severe is the cryosphere and dependent water supply. In the Indus basin, the runoff is generated predominantly due to melting of snow and ice. Disruption in the hydrological regime can have serious impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the people living in the basin. Socio-economic problems have been further aggravated by recent climate change impacts, which has produced more stress on the water supply from the Indus River Basin system.

Despite the importance of the basin, knowledge on the spatial and temporal aspects of the water balance in the basin and the HKH is inadequate. Rainfall as short-term provider of runoff, and melting snow, seasonal and melting ice as long-term inputs to run-off are theoretically well understood. But knowledge of the seasonal patterns of rainfall, spatial dynamics of seasonal snow cover, and overall volume of the ice-reservoir (including permafrost) in the Hindu Kush Himalaya is heterogeneous, with some areas well documented and others not. An overall, reliable climate sensitive water-balance model for the Upper Indus Basin is yet to be developed. 

Opportunities

It is important to understand the possible impact of climate change on the hydrological regime of river basins for better planning and implementation of adaptation measures. Policy and decision makers are increasingly stressing the need to improve the monitoring schemes of snow, ice and water resources in the Hindu Kush Himalaya to support evidence-based adaptation planning. Several initiatives are being implemented in the basin coming from national and international agencies and academia, proper sharing or information could result in more effective support to the policy environment.