The Himalayas are home to some of the most important river systems in the world, and the Ganges-Brahmaputra is probably the most important of these rivers. This massive river system is the largest of all the rivers originating in the Himalayas and the third largest in the world, only surpassed by the Amazon River and Congo River systems.
The Ganges-Brahmaputra River is the main source of water supply for five countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China (Tibet), India and Nepal. The river’s water functions as a lifeline for the entire basin, supporting the lives and livelihoods of nearly 700 million people, as well as its diverse biodiversity and vibrant ecosystem.
Although rich in water resources, the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin is one of the poorest regions in the world. With an annual population growth of around 1.04%, the region is already home to almost 10% of the world’s population.
The growing population, economic growth in the region and unsustainable development activities are alarmingly increasing the demand for water and the need for more food and energy. To make matters worse, the availability of freshwater resources in the basin is rapidly decreasing due to less rainfall, warmer weather and groundwater depletion. Water pollution, particularly from untreated industrial and domestic waste, is another major concern.
Climate change has added tensions and deep uncertainties to the already strained water situation in the basin. The South Asian region has already been identified as one of the most climate-vulnerable areas globally. The climatic regime and water availability in the countries of the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin are expected to change significantly due to global warming.
With increasing temperatures and erratic rainfall, less water is available during the summer when the demand for water, especially for irrigation, is high. During the monsoon season, the Ganges-Brahmaputra system experiences devastating floods more than ever. The combination of drought and flooding has also posed a huge challenge to food production in the region.
Most countries in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin, which have one of the lowest per capita electricity consumption in the world, struggle to meet their energy needs and experience a shortage of electricity supply.
Many people in the basin still do not have access to electricity and many have to rely on energy sources that are not environmentally sustainable to meet their energy needs. About 400 million Indians do not have a reliable supply of electricity. Most rural areas in Nepal have little or no access to electricity. Bangladesh also faces severe power cuts, especially during the summer.
While the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin faces a crisis of fresh water availability to meet growing irrigation and hydropower needs, there is a serious lack of cooperation between countries in the region. The river crosses five countries, all of which experience bilateral and internal suspicions, mistrust and political tensions.
Competition between most countries in the basin is centered on the non-literal use of water, often limiting their ability to develop and manage water resources cooperatively. The lure of acquiring more water has led to political tension and conflict with other riparian countries in the basin and their affected population in their own country. This has contributed to the sub-optimal development of water resources in the Ganges-Brahmaputra.
An Incredibly Difficult Task
I have just conducted a study for Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) by Oxfam to understand and estimate the cost of non-cooperation between countries in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin. The study identified various costs resulting from non-cooperation in four different sectors, namely water, energy, food and environment.
It is incredibly difficult and to some extent almost impossible to comprehensively quantify and monetize all types of costs. Based on various published reports and works, the study made a very conservative estimate of the annual cost of non-cooperation in the basin, around 14.2 billion dollars.
Due to a lack of cooperation between basin countries, as the study reveals, the cost is already high in the irrigation, flood management and hydropower sectors, and is expected to increase further if no action is taken. Maintaining the status quo would further deteriorate the water, energy, food and environmental security of the basin countries.
Thus, it is crucial that the countries of the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin realize the cost of non-cooperation and sincerely assess the full potential of the immense river and the missed opportunities that collaborative arrangements and cooperative actions could accomplish. Dwelling on identifying lost cooperation opportunities would hamper the region’s development prospects and social and environmental sustainability.
Unfortunately, despite the high cost and huge risks, collaborative water resources management remains a long way off in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin. Mutual suspicions and reluctance to cooperate hinder timely regional cooperation approaches to addressing water challenges and food, energy, environmental and climate issues in the basin.
Ensuring energy, water and food security for an ever-growing population and safeguarding biodiversity and the ecosystem have become the biggest challenges for the countries of the Ganges-Brahmaputra River.
It is undeniable that the river’s rich water resources have the potential to accelerate economic growth and social development in the region and raise the living standards of millions of poor people.
Through collaborative efforts among basin countries alone, it can be expected that the shared resources of the river system can be utilized optimally and sustainably, and the benefits generated by these initiatives could contribute to bringing peace and progress in the region.