Helping South Asia Navigate Shared Waters

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Nature pays no attention to boundaries—land or water—and especially not to the trajectory of rivers, which have continued to crisscross countries for millennia, birthing numerous civilizations and economies. South Asia is no exception. Six of the region’s eight countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan—are traversed by several transboundary rivers, creating complex interdependencies and geopolitical conflicts among its people and states, especially where waters flow through national boundaries. The aqua stalwarts of the region—the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra—continue to be fed by glacial melt and annual precipitation to produce abundant amounts of fresh water for South Asia.  

Yet, it is an irony and a paradox that South Asia today is water stressed and faces water scarcity.   

While South Asia is home to almost 1.9 billion people or 23% of humanity cradled by its 20 major rivers, historically, the region accounts for only 4% of the world’s annual renewable water. This reserve is not only disproportionately insufficient for its large population, but also not stable across geographies—lately even more so due to climate change. Further, a sizable portion of renewable water is polluted, and excessive extraction as well has made it unsustainable.  

The South Asia Water Initiative or SAWI—a recently closed program supported by the United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway, and administered by the World Bank—offers insights from its work with South Asian governments, agencies, and civil society organizations on cooperation over shared waters and building climate resilience with riparian neighbors. 

A Dark Secret at the Source  

South Asia’s water woes start high in the Himalayas where climate change is causing melting glaciers, diminishing seasonal snow, and significant changes in precipitation, posing great risks to the stability of water resources in the region. Glacier water is a lifeline to more than 750 million people who depend on it downstream. A recent study funded by the SAWI program revealed a double whammy in glacier water management: in addition to changing temperatures and precipitation patterns from climate change, soot, or black carbon (BC) generated by activities such as biomass burning, industrial and vehicular emissions, and forest fires is raising air temperatures and accelerating the melting of glaciers in the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush (HKHK) mountain ranges by more than 50%.  

The good news? Unlike climate change, which is a global phenomenon, black carbon can be reduced by up to 50% with economically and technically feasible policy actions taken by South Asian countries . However, most long-term data on glaciers is absent from the public domain and there are no suitable mechanisms to share data. In 2018, the SAWI program gathered policy makers, think tanks, academics, and NGOs from Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan for a first of its kind conference in Kathmandu to facilitate collaboration on the region’s majestic heritage of glaciers and mountains and build an evidence base. Called the Hindu Kush Himalaya Glaciers and Mountain Economy Network, an outcome of this forum was the Kathmandu Declaration on Cryosphere, Glacier Melting, and the Mountain Economy creating room for future policy and research collaboration on fighting pollution and climate change. 

Water as a Connector: Inland Transport 
To counter water stresses in an already thirsty region, the SAWI team facilitated critical dialogue downstream in the river basin on utilizing inland waterways as a greener and more cost-efficient alternative to road transport in the sub region of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN).  

men on a river
Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra continue to be fed by glacial melt and annual precipitation. Credit: Talukdar David, Shutterstock

Rivers are the oldest means of transport in the massive Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana delta, where a dense lattice of waterways once carried over 70% of goods and passengers within the region. Yet, today, less than 2% of goods are transported by water and 75% of exports and imports in South Asia occur on road, even though inland waterway transport consumes 25-30% less energy than road transport. In addition to being greener, the cost of transporting bulk goods by water is also cheaper—just one fifth of that by road.   

Studies facilitated by SAWI program, which lasted well over a decade, led to discussions at the highest levels among the BBIN countries to explore new trade routes between India and Bangladesh for integrated river transport across the region via the Eastern Waterways Grid. The grid has the potential to rejuvenate the economies of the eastern subcontinent, generating rich dividends for millions of people in the region, many of whom are among the poorest in South Asia. Further, with improved navigation, the establishment of terminals, jetties, container depots, and storage facilities along the way will facilitate new jobs. Beyond the region, inland waterways can lead to new commercial corridors with Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand, generating multiple impacts across the region. Overall, regional cooperation has the potential to increase intraregional trade by $44 billion and that can contribute to building back better after the COVID-19 pandemic that triggered 48-59 million new poor in 2021.

Rising Waters, Ebbing Life: The Sundarbans 

Badal Mandal’s story depicts the vicious fickleness of the waters of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest delta stretching across Bangladesh in the east and the Indian state of West Bengal in the west. “What I am looking at here is new for me…everything is engulfed by the Ganga River today,” Badal grieves, staring at the vast muddy waters in front of him—once Kasimira island, his family’s home before they were forced to move to nearby Ghorimara island. The family lost this second home as well to swollen waters, forcing them to move a third time to Sagar Dweep, located at the tail end of the Ganges’ 1500-mile trajectory from the Himalayas. Given the rising waters, this is not likely to be the family’s final stop.  

The Sundarbans is the world’s largest delta stretching across Bangladesh in the east and the Indian state of West Bengal in the west. Credit: World Bank

The Sundarbans represent one of mankind’s biggest adaptation challenge: how do you protect its people stretched across 40,000 square kilometers between two nations from the relentless onslaught of surging seas while also protecting and developing other forms of water—freshwater, wetlands, and groundwater stores— that is needed to sustain life and jobs? 

Work carried out under the SAWI program, we hope, has broadened the focus in the Sundarbans from just an environmental and a climate change challenge issue to one focused on human development and vulnerability of its residents. 
Through its work establishing the Bangladesh-India Sundarbans Region Cooperative Initiative or BISRCI—a group of policy think tanks, civil society organizations, and academic institutions—the SAWI program helped carry forward agreements in place between the two governments since 2011 on managing and developing the Sundarbans sustainably. The high-level BISRCI forum facilitated discussions on a multitude of development issues, including water resources management, biodiversity and landscape conservation, climate change adaptation, ecotourism, and more. Activities and dialogues from BISRCI also informed several new collaborations between Bangladesh and India—from scientific cooperation on geological surveys and maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean to media collaborations to keep the region’s visibility high in the world’s development circles.  
The reality is work on the Sundarbans is never enough, and always a work in progress . As our colleague Tapas Paul explains, “Unless greater, braver, and urgent action is taken, climate change will displace many of its 13 million residents, which would be among the largest migrations in history.” 

As the SAWI program partners and institutions carry on their work in the region, we hope that the arteries of cooperation the program has established continue to flow fresh ideas and dialogues across the region from source to sea, timeless as water itself.  



Cecile Fruman

Director, Regional Integration and Engagement, South Asia

John Roome

Director, South Asia

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