The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Managing Transboundary Rivers

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on January 11, 2011

ON 3 December 2010, the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies co-hosted a one day workshop with the Strategic Foresight Group titled the’Benefits of Cooperation in the Himalayan River Basin Countries’. This workshop underlines the need to move beyond bilateral cooperation and towards inter-regional cooperation.

The Hindu-Kush Himalaya (HKH) or simply the Himalayan region extends from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar and China in the east, and runs through Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. This region has the largest concentration of glaciers outside the polar ice caps and is therefore aptly referred to as the “third pole” or Asia’s “water tower”. Ten huge Asian river systems – Tarim, Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, and the Yellow – originate from the Himalayan region. Most of these rivers are transboundary rivers and are imporatant sources of livelihood for an estimated 1.3 billion people or around 20 per cent of the world’s population. A good gauge of the transboundary significance of Himalayan rivers is the dependency ratio. Dependency ratio is the amount of water resources originating outside a country. The dependency ratio of selected Himalayan basin countries are Afghanistan-15 per cent; Bangladesh-91 per cent; China-1 per cent; India-34 per cent; Kazakhstan-31 per cent; Myanmar-16 per cent; Nepal-6 per cent; Pakistan-77 per cent; and Vietnam-59 per cent. Despite the transboundary significance of Himalayan rivers, there is currently no institution that manages them. What exists is an assemblage of bilateral agreements or treaties among riparian states which are seen as an end in themselves. These treaties however are limited in scope as they address only water sharing, flood control/management, hydrological information sharing, cooperation on multipurpose hydel projects etc. There is an urgent need for countries of the Himalayan region to move beyond the current sectoral approach to managing shared rivers and initiate cooperation at the basin and watershed level. This is because Himalayan rivers are highly vulnerable to climate change as they are fed by melting ice from glaciers atop the Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau. Climate scientists and geologists warned that 70 per cent of glaciers in the Himalayas will disappear by the end of this century.

An integrated management of not just rivers but also the entire hydrological features is thus the only way to sustainably manage Himalayan rivers. Here, the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) approach could prove useful. IWRM implies not just the management of water but also the management of co-dependent natural resources namely soil, forests, air, and biota. At present, implementation of IWRM at the basin level in the Himalayan region is hindered by the lack of trust and confidence among riparian states. Trust and confidence can be established by first strengthening existing bilateral treaties. Bilateral treaties therefore must be seen not as an end but rather the means towards inter-regional cooperation.


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