What are Key Areas for Regional Cooperation in South Asia?


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As discussed in my last two entries, South Asia's Infrastructure Deficit and Integrating the two South Asias, regional cooperation can be a key instrument in meeting the development needs of South Asia. In this piece, I will discuss specific areas that will bring the most region-wide benefits in my view.

The three priority areas for regional cooperation include telecoms and internet, energy, and transport. A regional telecom network and a high-bandwidth, high-speed internet-based network could help improve education, innovation, and health. A regional network would facilitate better flow of ideas, technology, investments, goods and services. It would facilitate greater interactions between knowledge workers in areas such as high-energy physics, nanotechnology, and medical research. There are untapped positive synergies at the regional level that would come from information sharing and competition in ideas among universities, non-university research and teaching entities, libraries, hospitals, and other knowledge institutions.

It also could help in the building and sharing of regional databases, and in addressing regional problems, including multi-country initiatives such as flood control, disaster management, climate change, and infectious disease control. Importantly, such an effort could help spark higher and more sustainable regional growth. Regional cooperation in telecoms and the internet could strengthen the competitiveness of South Asia in the services-export sector. India has established itself as a global player in ICT and outsourcing. Other countries in South Asia could potentially benefit from neighborhood and spillover effects. The expansion of services exports would contribute to growth, create jobs, and other sectors would benefit from improved technology and management.

The service-export sector, although less infrastructure intensive than manufacturing, needs different types of infrastructure than the traditional export sectors. For these exports, there would be a need to invest in fiber optic highways, broad band connectivity, and international gateways and uplink facilities. Investments in tertiary education, and in technical and English proficiency would need to be increased. South Asia would need to remove barriers to trade in ICT services, eliminate restrictions on the flow of intraregional FDI, and remove visa restrictions on the flow of people.

In addition, the potential gains from regional trade in energy are substantial. After decades of insignificant cross-country electricity trade and the absence of any trade in natural gas through pipelines, regional political leaders and businessmen have recently evinced a great deal of interest and enthusiasm in cross-border electricity and gas trade, not only within South Asia but also with its neighbors in the west (Central Asia and Iran) and in the east (Myanmar).

There are two regional energy clusters in South Asia. The Eastern market includes India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, extending to Myanmar, and the Western market includes Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, extending to Central Asia and Iran. India bridges the two clusters. While all countries would benefit from energy trade, in relative terms the gains would be especially large for Nepal, which could double its GDP if it could trade its hydro-power with India and Bangladesh.

High growth in South Asia cannot be sustained without better management of natural disasters and regional public goods. Benefits of regional cooperation in water and climate change would be immense in South Asia. From the Himalayas, where glacier melt is already changing water flows in ways that remain to be understood, to the coastal floodplains of Bangladesh and Pakistan, South Asian countries need to adapt to climate change. The melting of Himalayan glaciers leading to the disastrous prospect of reduced water availability in the South Asian rivers, the frequency of floods and cyclones, and the evidence of rising sea level have given South Asia a wake up call for collective action for managing climate change to reduce vulnerability and poverty over the longer-term. This can provide the much-needed trigger for opening a dialogue on regional water cooperation. Cross-border cooperation on water between among India, Bangladesh, and Nepal offers the only long-term solution to flood mitigation, and would benefit over 400 million people.

The benefits of cooperation are clear. For example, watershed management and storage on Ganges tributaries in Nepal could generate hydropower and irrigation benefits in Nepal and flood mitigation benefits in Nepal, India (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar) and Bangladesh; water storage in northeast India could provide hydropower and flood benefits in India and Bangladesh; and both would also provide increased and reliable dry season flows. There is an emerging and promising opportunity on the specific cooperation between India, Nepal, and Bangladesh on the Ganges. South Asia needs to strengthen regional governance institutions. This is vital for managing the provision of regional public goods, and management of common pool resources.

Regional cooperation initiatives could unlock the growth benefit of South Asia’s geography and people, consistent with improved management of regional public goods. Better regional cooperation can also contribute to reducing regional conflicts, which will remove an important long-term constraint to growth.

What other areas of cooperation do you think will be beneficial to South Asia's growth? What is holding this back? 


Join the Conversation

December 17, 2009

The regional approach is a wise way forward, I like that idea. The proper sharing of natural resources, as well as other technology can be an economic boom for the whole region.

Hydropower is not the ultimate solution, DONT EVER PURSUE IT AS THE ULTIMATE SOURCE. Investment in diversified alternative resources is the way forward. Either construct multiple smaller hydro systems, if not then be prepared for scenarios like in Tanakpur, Mahalisagar, Khurdalotan, Gandak and other barrages. Forget about the regular inundation in Nepalese territory, those dams haven’t been fruitful to the Indian side too. I am not a hydrologist nor I am a river engineer, but hearing decry of big dams all over the world I find it obvious to believe that big dams are not the solution. We should definitely harness water for drinking, irrigation and electricity, but big projects come with more predicaments. It’s impossible to tame big rivers so it will be wise to go along with it, relocate people from flood zones rather than build dams that helps one location but inundates lot more. If people keep settling on river delta, there will be lot more flooding reoccurrences.Even if political boundary exists, natural boundaries have the bigger impact in the long run.

Water is the next fossil fuel, it's just a matter of time before people start fighting for it; especially the way we now consume and disregard the nature. And when it comes to sharing, make sure all the partner countries have the equal say. No one "bigger" country should exploit the uncertainty in others for their benefit. There should be mutual respect, mutual benefits, and equal say, regardless of the GDP or the might of their arms.

Afaq Ali Khan
January 08, 2010

The Regional Approach is necessary for economic growth as well as for reducing poverty in the region. world is shrinking toward a global village and developing and underdeveloped economies can only survive if they cooperate each other especially in the field of health , education, and information technology.South Asia will be business hub in future. More than 60% jobs opportunity of the world will be in this region. It is also necessary to make need based assessment that will not only promote regional trade but it helps improving trade outside the region.

rajeev jha
December 25, 2009

The Regional Approach for the development especially for the purpose of eradication of poverty in Souh Asia is really a wonderful idea to work on. I feel apart from energy, telecom and transport, regional cooperation in the Agriculture and its related work will be one of the potntial area where lot of achievment can be made. Most of the South Asian countries are primariliy dominated by agro services but the cooperation in this sector is highly negligible. Through regional cooperation , not only south Asian countries will be able to harness the food security problem which may be becoming very- very important due to prospective climate change scenario. This will also give South Asian countries a collective bargaining power like Cairns countires or South East Asian countries in agricultue related WTO negotiations. Strenthening of insitutional linkage among South Ssian countris would be an ideal begining. Can we rememeber that in entire South Asia doesn't have a single world class unversity on agriculture or its related services. In India we have at least quite a number of IITs and IIMs known at world over by thier sheer quality. But not in a agriculture. Although, we are still a largely agriculture economoy so the South Asia.

January 11, 2010

South Asia has tremendous potential but due to border disturbance the growth is holding up. South Asia country can exchange Technology, computer and grow together.

Health, Trade, Engergy are other areas cooperation will be beneficial to South Asia's growth.