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We urgently need to rethink how we manage the mighty rivers and disappearing springs of the Hindu Kush Himalaya to ensure a water-secure future

Pema Gyamtsho

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Sadarghat, Dhaka, Bangladesh | Photo: Nabin Baral/ICIMOD

Business as usual is no longer an option for the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. These three mighty rivers collectively span seven of ICIMOD’s eight member countries, and loom large in these countries’ cultures and histories. But with climate change compounding existing pressures on water resources, how we manage these rivers will have extraordinary consequences for the region’s future – prosperity, ecological health, and peace and security.

On the 20th March, ahead of World Water Day and in partnership with the Australian Water Partnership, we published three reports that zero in on the key issues and opportunities around these three majestic rivers that run through Asia: economic, ecological, energy, social, geopolitical and in terms of governance. Importantly, these reports focus not only on the rivers – the bodies of water that flow from high mountains to lowlands – but on the river basins, or the portion of land in which snow and rainfall collect, which cross national boundaries and are home to millions of people in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

How we manage land and water in upstream regions has direct and significant impacts on downstream communities – in terms of both opportunities and potential threats including floods, landslides and droughts.

The data the reports contain is breathtaking – the Indus provides water to 268 million people in Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan (including nine of Pakistan’s largest cities); the Ganga to 600 million people in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India (including 50 Indian cities); the Brahmaputra to 114 million people in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and India, and accounts for 30% of India’s freshwater sources alone.

To take just the Indus, as report co-author Russell Rollason of eWater reports, high population growth, rapid urbanisation and industralisation, environmental degradation, unregulated and inefficient water use, and poverty, aggravated by climate change, make the lower part of the basin one of the most water-stressed areas in the world.

In India and Pakistan, where water supply is already stressed and storage capacity low, water demand is predicted to increase by 50% by 2047. Pakistan already stands on the brink of a lasting and severe groundwater crisis – resulting in tension between urban and rural stakeholders, disproportionately impacting women, the poor and other marginalised populations.

Rollason argues: “The business-as-usual approach runs a high risk of destabilization in the region with a rippling effort that can trigger a series of intertwined crises.”

Another way is possible. “For too long water security has been cast as a zero-sum game,” Rollason says. He emphasized that, “This research shows that it is possible for countries and stakeholders with varied interests to identify areas for collaboration – protect vulnerable communities, maintain biodiverse ecosystems, and grow economies.”

This is an area that ICIMOD is working hard to advance – seeking to accelerate the adoption of ‘integrated river basin management’ (IRBM) in the basin countries.

IRBM takes a ‘basin-wide’ approach to river management – firstly by factoring in the interconnectedness of water resources, land use, ecosystems, and socio-economic activities within a specific river basin. Secondly, by opening up discussions on water to wider stakeholder groups, especially local and Indigenous knowledge holders, and vulnerable communities, especially women, people with disabilities.

The IRBM framework used at ICIMOD encourages riverine regions to focus on shared challenges and opportunities, paving the way for future collaboration.

Another area for urgent focus and collaboration is the devastating drying up of springs across the HKH.

An estimated 100 million people in the region depend on springs to meet their drinking water, sanitation, livestock rearing and irrigation needs. If springs continue to dry at the same rate, this could lead to widespread water stress, displacement, and conflicts. We have worked with partners to prototype technologies and approaches to revive drying springs and build autonomous water security. We are now working to scale these approaches with support from donors, local governments, and communities.

As with river basin management, managing springs sustainably requires management of the ‘springsheds’ – going beyond managing only the sources (springs) to focus on the ‘recharge area’, through which water infiltrates and reaches the aquifers, where groundwater is stored and emerges at the surface as a spring. Springshed management also delivers important co-benefits for biodiversity and climate resilience and addresses the gendered aspects of water insecurity – reducing the time and effort spent by women and girls on water collection, improving their access to clean water, improving health and agricultural productivity, and enhancing livelihood options.

Our river basin reports flag ways to encourage negotiations and build fresh consensus, especially by rejuvenating existing treaties and potentially new forms of cooperation through the deployment of IRBM approaches.

As water systems are interconnected, water monitoring and research must shift from nation-state management to an integrated regional approach. It is crucial that we build on the amicable and effective partnerships that ICIMOD has forged over decades in our river basin work with our member countries, in order to truly ‘Leverage Water for Peace’, stability and prosperity in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

We urge you to read our reports and join us in this effort on World Water Day 2024.


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