GBM basin countries could save at least USD 14.2 billion annually through cooperation

River in South Asia
Paper author: 
Ashok Swain & Sajid Karim
Paper publication date: 
Monday, May 16, 2022

Non-cooperation over shared waters governance in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin results in basin countries losing over USD 14.2 billion annually. Such a high cost of non-cooperation in one of the most climate-stressed regions warrants for more urgent action by various stakeholders to improve and sustain cooperation on shared waters and associated natural resources.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin countries, which include Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal, are endowed with rich natural resources like rivers and forests which span across political boundaries. For example, the transboundary rivers of the GBM basins, support the lives and livelihoods of more than 670 million people. The region is one of the most water-stressed region and climate change impacts are further exacerbating the water, food and energy security of the region. Most of these drivers and impacts are transboundary in nature and hence the need for better cooperation mechanisms at the basin and regional level.

According to initial estimates by the UNESCO Chair on International Cooperation at Uppsala University, due to limited or lack of cooperation on shared waters, GBM basin countries are losing more than USD 14.2 billion annually in the water, energy, food, and environment sectors. This analysis, titled Understanding the Costs of Non-Cooperation in the GBM Basins, was commissioned by the Government of Sweden-funded Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) regional program. This is one of the first such analyses for the GBM basins, which has attempted to quantify the economic costs due to non-cooperation. The other social and cultural costs, including the differential impact across various countries, sectors and social groups, are yet to be explored and quantified.

The research team, led by Prof Ashok Swain, have analyzed the economic costs across the water, energy, food and environment sectors and has identified nine different costs of non-cooperation. These include adverse Impact on the flow regime of the rivers and water availability; deteriorating water quality and associate health hazard; higher transportation cost due to lack of water connectivity reduction of agricultural productivity and output; reduction in fisheries; increased environmental stress and degradation of ecosystems; adverse impact of climate change; untapped hydropower potential, higher energy price and energy insecurity and loss of life and Livelihoods due to natural disasters.

The cost of non-cooperation in the GBM is already remarkably high, which would degenerate in the future if no action were taken. Maintaining the status quo would augment the existing vulnerabilities and emerging risks emanating from population expansion, unsustainable economic growth, unilateral infrastructure development, and the adverse impact of climate change. If ignored, the existing non-cooperative atmosphere would have a tremendously negative impact on the economic potential of the basin along with its water-energy-food-environment security, which in turn could adversely affect the peace and stability of the entire region.

To reduce the non-cooperation cost and facilitate cooperation, this study identifies three areas of consideration, i.e.,

  • Shift in policy outlook and decision-making processes
  • Development of institutional arrangements
  • Promotion of benefit sharing

A major shift is needed in the policy outlook of the riparian states and the decision-making process to maximise synergies and reduce negative externalities among the water, energy, food, and environment sectors.

Additionally, to strengthen the collaborative framework and create a cooperative atmosphere, the current institutional arrangements need to be better developed to create a conducive atmosphere for cooperation.

Furthermore, the riparian states need to shift their focus primarily from volumetric distribution of water to sharing of multiple benefits derived from multifaceted utilisation of freshwater resources that would create additional opportunities and foster an enabling environment for reinforced cooperation.

Programs such as TROSA, which promote more cross-sectoral and multi-stakeholder partnerships at the basin levels, with a strong focus on including of communities and civil society group, are playing a critical role in mobilising action across boundaries. There is a need to maintain this momentum and complement existing state-led initiatives to promote basin-wise cooperation and collaboration on shared waters.