Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme
Sonali MittraAssociate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF)

A new paper sets out the factors that have made previous cross-border projects in South Asia successful, arguing that cooperation around water is feasible despite the region's political differences and economic assymetries.

Indian people walk in the Ganga riverbed in Allahabad on 1 September 2015. Photo: Ritesh Shukla/NurPhoto/Getty images.Indian people walk in the Ganga riverbed in Allahabad on 1 September 2015. Photo: Getty images.
  • The countries of South Asia share some of the world’s major river basins – the Ganga (or Ganges), the Brahmaputra and the Indus. These rivers and their tributaries flow through seven countries, support more than 1 billion people, irrigate millions of hectares of land and are of cultural importance to many of those who rely on them.
  • River management presents common challenges across the region. These include physical factors such as droughts, flooding, cyclones and climate change, as well political and institutional factors impeding the development of solutions and policies to improve resource management and reduce vulnerability. Water is increasingly seen as a source of competition, with population growth, industrialization and urbanization exacerbating the pressures on supply.
  • Although South Asian examples of regional cooperation in general are limited, there is a clear positive trend. In areas such as disaster response and cross-border power trading, regional and bilateral engagement is beginning to take place. Multilateral official arrangements exist for trade and other economic issues, but there is none on water or ecosystems. However, as the benefits from cooperation become proven, its desirability is likely to gradually enter mainstream policy thinking on water issues.
  • This research paper sets out the factors that have enabled cooperation, and the processes adopted, in previous successful cross-border projects.  It focuses on four categories of cooperation: development of early-warning systems for natural disasters, in particular floods; protection of cross-border ecosystems; sharing of learning, through the showcasing of innovative approaches in one country that can be adopted by others; and power trading, in particular the development of hydropower in Bhutan and its export to India.
  • The paper argues that cooperation around water in South Asia is feasible despite political differences and economic asymmetries. Different forms of collective action, and common understanding of both the threats and the shared benefits from cooperation, are required to foster more partnerships within the river basin states.