Transboundary cooperation a potential route to sustainable development

The Indus River Basin in South Asia need planning for sustainable development. Countries in the region could lower costs for development and reduce environmental stress, by cooperating on water resources and electricity and food production.

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Could you imagine people living few kilometers apart and sharing culture, land and interests, but not being able to interact or plan a better future together because separated by a border? Before working on the Indus River Basin I could not (apart from war situations) and I could not imagine the enthusiasm of these people when this interaction became possible. This motivated me to study and write about transboundary cooperation in the context of sustainable development.

Within the ISWEL project, a number of colleagues and I have been responsible for highlighting the major challenges related to climate, energy, water and food of the South Asian Indus Basin and addressing them with quantitative methods to scope sustainable development policies for the future.

We did not do it alone, but in collaboration with stakeholder with different background and nationality (Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and China), who at different stages worked with us on our focus. Our meetings also worked as a bridge for our stakeholders from different countries, who in some cases have never had the possibility to exchange ideas or information, although having same research interests or development goals.

The Indus Basin is one of the most intensively cultivated regions on Earth, highly water stressed, and lacking energy security. It is home to a rapidly growing population of 250 million people and the impacts of climate change are placing further stress on these already challenging conditions.  These are issues that interest everyone in the basin, regardless their nationality. However, before our analysis, no other study focused on solutions for the entire basin, studying cross-sectoral and cross-boundary system dynamics.

In this article on Nature Sustainability we present a quantitative scenario-based analysis that captures synergies and trade-offs within the water, energy, land and climate systems of the Indus Basin. We first assess costs and required changes to achieve regional Sustainable Development Goals for each country in the basin. Then we show how countries could lower costs for future development by about 10 per cent and also reduce soil pollution and water stress by working together on the management of water resources, improving cross-border trade of electricity and developing a basin-wide food market.

As people from some Indus countries are not able to interact with each other, so governments do not cooperate. We show that more dialogue and collaboration is needed to face challenges on common resources and allow development in the entire basin.

When writing this paper I was also wondering how to channel findings and overall messages not only to scientists or policy makers, but rather to a broad audience, that might be as well interested in such discussion. In a very experimental way, I shared my research with artists, started a discussion on sustainable development and resource management. The figures and video in this post are inspired by these discussions. However, the most mind opening outcome was to discuss with people not in the scientific sphere and get very different perspectives on thematic and challenges that we, as scientist, tend to approach every day in a one-directional way.

Vinca, A., Parkinson, S., Riahi, K. et al. Transboundary cooperation a potential route to sustainable development in the Indus basin. Nat Sustain (2020).

Adriano Vinca

Research assistant & PhD Fellow at UVic, International Institute for Applied System Analysis

Involved in quantitative multi-sectoral policy analysis on sustainable development issues regarding water, energy, land and climate.

1 Comment

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Saleem Ali about 1 month ago

Good paper - having worked on this topic for past 2 decades - specially with reference to science diplomacy between India and Pakistan, I am heartened to see young scholars still interested in the topic despite the cynicism from the politicians. Will try to spread the word about your suggested cost savings - that may get on radar of policy makers but mediation from international community will likely be needed.