Brahmaputra Focus Area Strategy: 2013-2017

The Brahmaputra Basin presents an important opportunity for regional cooperation and economic development in South Asia. The basin covers 580,000 km2 across four countries: China (50%), India (34%), Bangladesh (8%) and Bhutan (8%). Despite the transboundary nature of the basin investments to-date have been country-by-country, constraining the optimal development of the basin and co-benefit sharing. Shared water resource management and related investments would not only help augment basin-wide benefits but would also help inform policy discussions and increase regional cooperation, contributing to reduction in poverty and acceleration of regional economic growth.

The basin presents significant economic development opportunities for the riparian countries. In particular, the agriculture sector has considerable scope for development. Agriculture plays an important role in the economic livelihood of the basin communities (approximately 80 per cent of its more than 100 million inhabitants are farmers) and contributes to nearly 50 per cent of the GDP in India’s Brahmaputra Valley.[1] The agriculture sector, however, is inefficient; it represents 95% of total water use and water productivity is low (GDP per unit of water used is typically US$1.4 per m3 compared to an average of US$23.8 per m3 for the world’s top food producers’[2]). Improving water productivity and water efficiency would significantly contribute to food security, poverty reduction and economic growth in the basin.

Of the Himalayan Rivers, the Brahmaputra has the highest hydropower potential. In Bhutan, for example, hydropower provides almost all of the country’s electricity and contributes to over 21 per cent of its GDP and 45 per cent of its revenue. In 2011 the total hydropower developed in Bhutan was around 1.5 GW, which is only 5 per cent of the country’s hydropower potential of 30 GW. Like the agriculture sector, improving hydropower development within the basin would help to reduce poverty and accelerate economic growth. Given the current and planned development in the basin, an in depth understanding of the basin dynamic is needed to support plans to mitigate the negative impacts of development as well as to help realize the full economic potential of investments.

Flooding, erosion and climate change are water resources challenges faced by all riparian states of the Brahmaputra Basin. The high intra-seasonal variability of flow, as influenced by the southwest monsoon (which contributes about 60-70% of total annual average flow) gives rise to a complex water management challenge. Recurrent floods and rapid geomorphologic change damage life, property, and infrastructure, while in the dry season low water availability and unequal spatial distribution of water leads to water stress and competition amongst users. Climate change offers no reprieve as it is expected to increase evapotranspiration (thus increasing the demand for water), alter the spatial and temporal distribution of precipitation, increase the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts, and accelerate the rate of glacier melting. Finally, in the Meghna Estuary (where the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna meets) sea-level rise poses serious environmental concerns.

Supporting Technical Documents:

Room for improvement: Hydroclimatic challenges to poverty-reducing development of the Brahmaputra River basin

The Brahmaputra basin’s hydro-climatological, economic, and political complexities are such that a basin-wide water system knowledge platform is needed to organize quantitative thinking on potential water-related investments in the basin.


Water resources management challenges in the Brahmaputra stems from the complex topography and hydrological environment; the absence of cooperative frameworks for the management of the river; incomplete water resources knowledge base and limited exchange of information among riparian stakeholders; and long-held tension and mistrust among downstream and upstream riparian countries. These challenges and fragmentations of effort and investment in the basin have resulted in a number of missed opportunities for economic growth (e.g. hydropower) and disaster risk reduction (e.g. flood risk reduction). Here, significant scope exists for the FA to play an important role in promoting basin management capacity and cooperation.

In the Brahmaputra Basin, the key rationale for engagement is to demonstrate that mutual economic benefits and mitigation of potential loss can be acquired from cooperative water management across the basin. Hydropower, flood management, and erosion control are issues of high importance to riparian countries. Developing a shared knowledge base to support riparian countries to address these issues can serve as an entry point for regional cooperation. Specifically, the program is intends to first increase an in-depth and unbiased physical understanding of the Brahmaputra River dynamic. This knowledge can then be used as a basis to help riparian countries realize the potential economic benefits of cooperation (e.g. hydropower development and agriculture) and reduce the costs of shared problems (e.g., floods and erosion).

Reaching cooperation among countries also requires careful dialogue and facilitation. The World Bank has a track record of working in partnership with other bilateral and multilateral donor agencies to promote cooperation and to act as an independent broker in negotiations. These modes of operation are vital to addressing water challenges. The Brahmaputra Focus Area will utilize the World Bank’s comparative advantage in bringing the riparian countries together to help improve water resources management from a basin perspective.

The overall objective of the Brahmaputra Focus Area strategy is to improve the shared understanding and management of the Brahmaputra River Basin as means to strengthen resilience and support economic growth for the riparian countries.

The two specific goals in support of this objective are:

  1. Strengthen knowledge and institutional capacity for basin management and investment planning
  2. Reduce communities’ vulnerability to flood and erosion in the basin

The program is structured into two components, aligned with each of these goals.

Component 1: Knowledge and Capacity Building for Basin Management and Investment Planning

Due to the complexity of the basin’s geography, climate and topography, an evidence-based study of the entire system is necessary to guide management and investment decision processes. While the number of investment projects in the basin are rising, with over 300 dams having been proposed within the past few years, no common knowledge base or basin-wide river system model exists. As a result, the potential cumulative impact (both positive and negative) of development on the basin resources and community livelihood remains vague. To fill the knowledge and technical capacity gap, as well as to benefit future investment planning and decision making, this component will fund activities related to the development of the Brahmaputra basin hydrologic database and the development of a state-of-the-art modeling platforms and decision support systems of the Brahmaputra basin. It is expected that these two sub-components will work to promote shared learning on evidence-based integrated water resources management and planning. Here, emphasis will be placed on building local technical and institutional capacity to collect and manage the hydrologic database and river basin modeling tools through small workshops and knowledge exchange activities. Building upon the hydrologic database and model developed, the activities will apply the model to aid specific investment planning and policy decision making processes through identification of the potential cumulative impacts of hydropower in the basin[3] (including options analysis for investment planning and environmental flows), and assessment on interventions to improve irrigation productivity and integrated water management practices.

Component 2: Reducing Vulnerability to Flood and Erosion

The basin is vulnerable to natural disasters, including floods, erosion, channel migration, and earthquakes. These natural disasters have social and economic impacts that result in infrastructure damage, loss of life and loss of fertile agricultural land. Fragmented investments, lack of coordinated effort and system-wide understanding of the basin morphology are key barriers to sustainable investments programs in the basin. The goal of this component is to strengthen the riparian countries’ capacity to respond and adapt to changes in the basin by adopting innovative solutions to strengthen resilience against floods and erosion. Activities on this component include: (i) identification of improvements of existing flood early warning systems and improve the design of related investment projects; (ii) improving knowledge of erosion trends and development of basin-wide sediment accounting model to aid erosion management and (iii) capacity building, training and south-south knowledge exchange on the applications of flood and erosion management. To support on-ground investments and operations, recipient executed activities will be explored for preparation of flood mitigation infrastructure in Northeast India and preparation of a river training plan to reduce the impacts of erosion and channel migration in Bangladesh.