Cross-border water projects do exist and can be successful in South Asia, despite the region's political and economic differences. Suzanne Pritchard takes a closer look at the latest research offering from Chatham House which outlines how to make cross-border collaboration work.

South Asia is one of the least integrated regions of the world when it comes to sharing water. According to Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow at the independent policy institute Chatham House in London, and Sonali Mittra, Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation based in New Delhi, water-sharing can reinforce mistrust between countries. Often viewed as a zero-sum resource to be divided between South Asian countries, sharing of this precious supply can cause tension. Cooperation is often hindered by governments’ mutual suspicion and basic data are shared reluctantly.

As authors of a new research paper published in June 2016 by Chatham House, Price and Mittra take a closer look at South Asia’s water, energy and ecosystems. Supported by the South Asia Water Initiative (a partnership between the World Bank and the governments of the UK, Australia and Norway) the paper documents examples of cross-border cooperation on water issues. Highlighting how it was forged and the benefits accrued from such a regional approach, Price and Mittra show that cross-border collaboration can be made to work.

Complex systems

Cross-border river basins are described as being complex and interlinked systems that have been the source of competition and cooperation throughout history. “Population growth and finite supplies of water have led to growing fears of conflict, but recent history suggests that there are many more examples of cooperation – in the form of treaties and agreements – than of conflict,” the authors claim.

South Asia’s river systems include the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers. They flow through seven countries and support more than 1B people. River management here has many common challenges: challenges which should create opportunities for collaboration yet, with few exceptions, Price and Mittra say this has not happened.

Examples of regional cooperation in South Asia have focused on disaster response, cross-border power trading and regional engagement.  Co-operation in these areas is beginning to take place, but the authors caution, they are generally limited. However, Price and Mittra add: “Our overall conclusion is that cooperation around water in South Asia is feasible despite political differences and economic asymmetries.”

Greater engagement

Natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and droughts are recurrent events throughout South Asia and the region has suffered several cross-border incidents in recent years. Close communication and a co-ordinated response strategy between communities could help to avert damage, particularly in the case of flooding which continues to affect millions of people. Of all the countries in the world, those in South Asia are among the most affected by flooding.

As the report states: “Despite the shared risks, examples of cross-border cooperation on floods are relatively rare in the region. The absence of effective warning mechanisms exacerbates a trust deficit. There is scepticism among experts in Nepal and Pakistan, for instance, over India’s dam-building and sharing of data and information on shared rivers. Pakistan and Afghanistan do not share or exchange hydrological data even though the Kabul river (which originates in Pakistan, crosses into Afghanistan and then flows back into Pakistan) presents a flood risk for both countries. Nepal used to fax water data to Bangladesh, but in recent years the data shared are said to have been reduced because of staffing constraints.”

The current situation is described as being “clearly suboptimal” but the trend is reported to be pointing towards “greater engagement”. There is growing acceptance that cross-border cooperation is “imperative” for effective flood forecasting but progress on the ground is slow.

At present, flood warnings are generally based on river levels upstream but in the future meteorological data could provide longer lead times by working out the time taken between rainfall upstream and flooding downstream. This will provide affected communities with greater warning but such a process will require cross-border cooperation.

Indeed a project to provide people with a window of opportunity to move to higher ground in the event of flooding, has connected communities in Nepal and in India. It involves an Indian NGO, along with UK organisations Practical Action and Christian Aid, and has succeeded in significantly reducing the number of deaths from flooding. Price and Mittra explain that the project team had previous experience in establishing early-warning systems in Nepal, existing relationships with local government in India and proven scientific expertise. The training programme succeeded by focusing on a small number of villages at first to demonstrate that the system worked and after that other villages were keen to take advantage of the project.

On the flipside of the coin steps to forecast droughts on a regional basis are also under way. One such initiative involves the Global Water Partnership South Asia and the International Water Management Institute who are setting up a drought monitoring system in partnership with the relevant government departments in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Sharing data

Another obstacle to cross-border collaboration is the sharing of data on rivers which has been described as being “contentious” and historically associated with secrecy. As rivers such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra are categorised as classified in India, for security reasons, their flows are not publicised.

However the authors do give the example of a bilateral arrangement between India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Due to the significance of discharge and flow data the countries have agreed to share information through official channels. Although this is progress, the authors do point out that interpretation and use of the data is problematic and information frequently does not reach at-risk communities in time. However: “there is a clear shift in thinking towards data sharing on classified rivers”.

Hydropower trading

Cross-border hydropower, among other energy trading possibilities, could be part of the solution to the problem of energy shortages across South Asia. Despite its abundant hydropower potential (estimated at 300GW but with only a fraction of this exploited), Price and Mittra go on to explain that South Asia still struggles with energy shortages.

“Achieving energy security is just one of the reasons why the region’s countries must cooperate to harness their hydropower potential,” they state. “Cooperation could also provide economic benefits and allow for more amicable relationships in the region. It could even facilitate integrated planning for sustainable water resource management.”

Examples of cross-border hydropower cooperation in the region are rare and all differ in their context and success. While hydropower has been a contentious issue between Pakistan and India, India has gone on to make agreements with Nepal and Bhutan and develop joint projects.

The authors describe the case of India and Bhutan as being the most significant and “clear-cut example of bilateral cooperation over water resources providing mutual benefits”. India has large unmet energy demands and an average energy deficit of 3-4% per year. It has helped to construct several major hydropower projects in Bhutan, which in turn exports power to India for most of the year, and imports power from India between January and March.

There are mutual benefits to this collaboration. Although Bhutan only has one-fifth of India’s hydropower potential, it offers a crucial support for India’s energy security. The research paper cites the example of a major blackout in July 2015 when India’s northern grid failed. Bhutan was approached to release additional power from its hydro plants which instantly enabled the grid collapse to be repaired.

Bhutan made hydropower development an important component of its economic and social agenda, and the country has since reaped the dividends from hydropower export earnings and its agreements with India. Despite being the smallest country in South Asia, Bhutan’s per capita GDP increased five-fold between 1992 and 2013.

The majority of Bhutan’s hydropower plants are run-of-river and comparatively benign environmentally: upcoming hydropower plants have even incorporated climate mitigation, risk reduction and ecological conservation in their designs and allow maximum benefits to the population. These institutional and legal arrangements have facilitated further development of the sector in Bhutan.

Price and Mittra say that the political relationship between India and Bhutan was a key factor in the successful development of hydropower. Cordial relations date back to the colonial era, while mutual trust has strengthened along with India’s political and military support for Bhutan. Energy interdependency, the authors add, stems from and contributes to the positive relationship between the two countries.

“This case highlights the relevance of mutual-benefit approaches to water use to meet basic developmental needs and threshold economic development, which in turn promotes greater environmental responsibility and unlocks economic resources for conservation,” the report states. “Political factors, compatible strategies of economic development and the sheer technical requirements of hydropower projects are crucial catalysts for cooperation.”

Key recommendations

In conclusion Price and Mittra say that the case studies explored in their paper reflect different approaches to cross-border cooperation and variations in the size of operations, as well as differing political, social and economic contexts. General recommendations which have emerged from their research include:

  • Successful cross-border projects require champions. Most of the successful projects cited in the report needed stakeholders to be convinced of the benefits before they were willing to engage with the process.
  • Government engagement should be sought at an early stage in any project.
  • The appropriate level of official engagement is likely to vary according to the project. In providing early-warning systems for floods, the project team engaged with local district officials who were already known to it.
  • Consultation with communities, critical to ensuring project support, needs to be focused.
  • Sensitivities over cross-border water issues remain a challenge for cooperation. To reduce this it is paramount that project advocates and planners adopt a transparent approach and engage with all relevant stakeholders, whether through formal or informal approaches.
  • Data access and analysis need to improve.
  • Successful cross-border solutions tend to be costly and relatively large-scale. Smaller projects are feasible but frequently fail to generate the necessary political traction to enable tangible outcomes.
  • International politics cannot be avoided. Bilateral relations affect the feasibility of cross-border cooperation.
  • The media need to play an informed and responsible role in communicating policy issues and successful cases of water management across South Asia. Several projects are under way attempting to sensitise journalists to water-related issues.
  • Cross-border cooperation needs to be demonstrably beneficial to both sides. The benefits may not always be financial. For example in the case of flood warnings the benefit for the upstream community could be awareness that it is helping to avert a disaster that would afflict another community.

In their research Price and Mittra outline the factors that have made previous cross-border projects successful, arguing that cooperation around water is feasible despite the region's political differences and economic asymmetries. Ultimately there is scope for shared learning across South Asia: challenges faced across the region are similar and solutions are readily transferable and replicable. The authors stress that a common understanding of both the threats and the shared benefits from cooperation are required to foster more partnerships within river basin states. Furthermore, they believe that successful cross-border water cooperation could be expanded and developed to improve water-resource policy and resilience.



Information from this article was obtained from Water, Ecosystems and Energy in South Asia: Making Cross-Border Collaboration Work. Research Paper by Gareth Price and Sonali Mittra. Chatham House Report. Asia Programme. London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs. June 2016.

The full copy of the report can be seen at