… Hindu Kush (HKH) region calls for immediate actions

YK Poudel

The impact of climate change on South Asia’s major river basins; Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra is alarming,  a new report warns while recommending for immediate multilateral cooperation for streamlined approach for a climate-resilient approach to river basin management.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) report titled  ‘Elevating River Basin Governance and Cooperation in the HKH Region’—on these three rivers, from eight-nation Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region calls for an immediate actions.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan are the eight HKH regions.

The HKH countries are the freshwater sources of South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia with water originating from snow, glaciers and rainfall feeding 10 largest river systems in Asia.

Director General of ICIMOD, Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said that the scale of climate change impacts in the major river basins are overwhelming, undermining food security, livelihoods and water security.

“These three rivers provide food and water security to some of Asia’s most vulnerable communities, as well as a major driver of economic-growth,” Dr. Pema Gyamtsho said.

General Manager of Australian Water Partnership, Sarah Ransom stressed on the critical intersection of anthropogenic activities and shifting climate patterns that can spell dire consequences for about a billion people in the area.

“A water-secure future for all remains attainable, yet it demands a shift beyond borders, adopting win-win strategies for water management,” Sarah Ransom  said. “The humanitarian, economic, and environmental call of neglecting these innovative approaches far outweighs the risks—strategised approaches must be taken.”

The major rivers

Bhutan has four major river basins with a catchment area of around 47,000 square kilometers (Kms)—the river from Bhutan covers around nine percent of Brahmaputra basin.

The Indus river, which is projected to support over 319 million people across Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and China by 2025 is under unprecedented issue due to climate change. “Rising temperatures, erratic monsoons and environmental degradation are pushing the basin towards a crisis point.”

Ganges basin, which is over 2,500 Kms, faces challenges of water pollution, floods, precipitation and monsoons variation due to changing climate.

The Yarlung Tsangpo of China, called Brahmaputra in India, stretches about 2,880 Kms, is utilised by about 114 million people along its coasts. There is limited capacity for integrated river basin management while about 8,000 hectares are lost to erosion annually.

The HKH region is warming faster than the global average and if global temperature rises by  3°C, 75 percent of glaciers in Bhutan and Nepal could melt by the end of this century.

Call to action

Immediate call to action through geopolitical collaboration along with a water governance framework with people centred approaches is a must.

The human induced climate-related hazards disproportionately affect vulnerable groups, including women, people with disabilities and marginalised communities.

Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank (WB) and ICIMOD can enhance its bilateral cooperation and collaboration to multilateral approaches. “For example, multilateral cooperation can help in sharing regional data which can be employed to support and strengthen the capacity of community groups working within the country,” the report recommends.

India-China already has a data sharing agreement and Bhutan’s projects assisted by India is an opportunity to improve these existing bilateral cooperation into multilateral initiatives. More of ‘integrated river basin management’ (IRBM) approaches are suggested by the reports.

The ADB, through its technical assistance scheme, launched an initiative to help assess and manage climate related disasters in the HKH region on December 3 last year at COP28 in Dubai.

ADB has promised to provide USD 100 billion in climate financing between 2019 and 2030—this includes USD 34 billion for adaptation. In 2022, ADB committed USD 7.1 billion for climate finance; 4.3 billion USD for mitigation and USD 2.8 billion for adaptation. Moreover, the ADB mobilised an additional USD 548 million in climate finance last year.

Under this scheme, multi-hazard risks like landslides, earthquakes, and floods—including from glacier lake outbursts in Bhutan and Nepal are analysed. Risk assessment in major river basins would be conducted to develop early warning systems and risk management options for future infrastructure development.

The report recommends long-term strategies to prioritise adaptive infrastructure, flexible governance structures and inclusive policies to ensure reliable water supply amid climatic uncertainties.

Recognising the transboundary nature of climate impacts, the stress on the importance of regional cooperation is highlighted to foster evidence based actions. “A bottom-up approach involving local communities is timely.”