Ganges Focus Area Strategy: 2013-2017

The Ganges River Basin is one of staggering scale. It is one of the largest basins in the world, encompassing an area of almost 1.2 million km2 and traversing three countries.The vast majority of the basin lies in India (85%), with the remainder upstream in Nepal (12%) and downstream in Bangladesh (3%). However, despite Nepal and Bangladesh representing small fractions of the basin, all of Nepal and over one quarter of Bangladesh lie within the basin; meaning is the Ganges remains a hugely important river system to these countries.

The Ganges rises in the Himalayas, traverses the fertile plains of India and Bangladesh, and flows into the Bay of Bengal through the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem, the Sundarbans. Within approximately 200 km, the northern landscape plunges from peaks including Mt Everest at 8848m, to the Ganges plains at less than 100 m above sea level. Its major tributaries are the primarily rainfed Himalayan rivers of India and Nepal (e.g. the Yamuna, Mahakali, Karnali, Gandaki and Kosi). There is an extensive distributary system, including the Damodar-Hooghly River, but the main outlet is the mainstem of the Ganges (called the Padma in Bangladesh) that merges with the Brahmaputra (called the Jamuna in Bangladesh) before flowing into the sea through a 380 km wide delta. The delta system with its distributary channels is a vast and dynamic meandering system.

Hydrologically, the Ganges is a complex interplay of runoff, glacier and snow melt and groundwater aquifers compounded by pronounced seasonality and climate variability. The monsoon delivers about 80 percent of annual rainfall in just three months, with a corresponding peaking in river flows from June to September. As a result, the South Asian monsoon largely defines the climate and hydrology of the Ganges. In an average hydrological year around 1200 billion m3 of precipitation falls in the basin. Of this, around 500 billion m3 becomes streamflow with the rest directly recharging groundwater or returned to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. While glaciers and snow contribute only a small fraction of the total flow (for example, in Nepal it is around 10 per cent) they represent important storage that contributes to the perennial flow.

Sedimentation, declining dry season flows, floods, droughts, and declining water quality are enduring challenges in the basin, all of which are expected to be further exacerbated by climate change and the limited capacity of the countries of the basin to deal with current and anticipated variability in climate and hydrology. Floods in particular cause frequent and large damages with huge loss to lives and livelihoods, with the flood-prone areas of the basin extending far beyond the mainstem and the major tributaries.

The Ganges is also the world’s most populous river basin, home to more than 655 million people. Population density is high with an average 551 people per km2 (more than 10 times the global average) and as many as 1285 people per km2 in Bangladesh. Poverty is widespread, with average GDP per capita under US$2 per day and poverty rates around 30 per cent. In India and Bangladesh national poverty estimates show that, on average, poverty rates are higher in the states and districts in the Ganges basin than elsewhere in the country.

The basin provides significant economic opportunities for the riparian countries. Agriculture dominates water use, with irrigation currently representing about 90 per cent of the basin’s combined surface and ground water use. However, agricultural productivity in the basin is extremely low relative to global averages. Improving water use efficiency and water productivity would significantly contribute to food security, poverty reduction, and economic growth in the basin. As the basin urbanizes and industrializes changes in water demand and use patterns will occur, with significant local trade-offs with other uses, such as irrigation and ecosystems.

Understanding and anticipating changes in water use and allocation will be important to future economic opportunities, as will increasing active storage in the system. The current surface storage capacity is about 55 billion m3 – equivalent to only 10 per cent of total average annual flow. Many other river systems have storage-to-flow ratios of 100–200 per cent. Currently therefore, there is little capacity to regulate the system, either for flood mitigation or for water supply. Despite extensive irrigation development, many development opportunities remain, including multipurpose headwater storage dams, run-of-river hydropower stations, decentralized storages, river training and embankment rehabilitation, and urban and industrial water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Although many of the required investments and policy reforms can be undertaken at the national level, all of them would be better informed by a basin-scale approach to understanding and managing the dynamics, challenges and solutions of the Ganges basin. Many of them require effective cooperation between countries through data sharing, joint investments, benefit sharing, joint monitoring, and joint operations and management. Despite a half century of incremental bilateral treaties (the Gandaki Treaty of 1959, the amended Kosi Treaty of 1966, the Ganges Treaty of 1996, and the Mahakali Treaty of 1997) there are no basin-wide treaties. And despite several official bilateral mechanisms, for example, the Joint Rivers Commission between India and Bangladesh, there are no organizations with a clear mandate to facilitate cooperation in transboundary water.

Download Ganges Strategic Basin Assessment:

Ganges SBA Overview Report


Supporting Technical Documents:

Water Systems Modeling for Ganga Basin: By INRM Consultants Delhi

Ganges River Basin Modelling: By IWM


Papers based on the Ganges SBA:


The need for cooperation at the basin scale is demonstrated by the complex interplay of water resources that cannot be understood or managed in national isolation and by the need for specific investments that cannot be optimized without bilateral or multilateral action. The want of regional cooperation has contributed to: (i) limited available robust hydrological and meteorological data, (ii) sub-optimal use and sharing of existing data, particularly between riparian countries, but also in-country, (iii) multiple organizations managing water resources across an already fragmented sector, and (iv) the absence of any formal basin wide mechanisms – treaties, institutions, or otherwise - with the mandate to study and manage shared river resources (in particular to develop and sanction investments with regional benefits). As a result, projects are uncoordinated and many interventions are sub-optimal without a full understanding of the entire system.

Despite multiple challenges, the riparians have repeatedly shown interest in engaging in cooperative dialogue and in developing a shared knowledge base in order to pursue sustainable solutions. Over recent decades this has led to the existing bilateral treaties and joint mechanisms and to the participation by official and non-official representatives of the riparians in multiple Track 1 and Track 2 dialogues. Nepal, India and Bangladesh have all voiced some level of willingness to engage in cooperation in the management of transboundary waters. The guiding principle of the Ganges Focus Area strategy is that application of a basin-scale lens to water resources management in the Ganges will generate significant economic opportunities for the riparian countries. Basin-scale analysis can deepen and change the understanding of the river system, and help countries realize the economic benefits of cooperation which stem from harnessing the productive potential of water (e.g. irrigation, hydropower, urban supply, navigation) and from reducing its destructive power (e.g. floods, droughts, erosion). Countries cooperate, not when they are compelled by ethics to do so, but when cooperation offers economic and political advantages over unilateral development. This happens when riparians perceive the net benefits of cooperation to be greater than the net benefits of non-cooperation, and when they perceive the distribution of these net benefits to be fair. Ganges Focus Area will seek to provide a more profound understanding of the Ganges system and to demonstrate opportunities for joint management and development, based on the principle that this is what will enable a deeper and more sustained shift in perceptions and action. The World Bank is well positioned to support riparian countries on this journey due to its perceived status as a neutral broker, its significant convening power in the region and its track record as a knowledge bank.

The overall objective of the Ganges Focus Area program is to improve the shared understanding, management and development of the Ganges River Basin in order to support economic growth for the riparian countries and to support resilience to existing variability and climate change. Aligned with this the broad objectives of this strategy would be:

  1. Valuing the environment and ecosystem services
  2. Moving from data to information services.

The Ganges Focus Area is structured around these two specific areas of engagement or “components”. The components of the strategy build upon prior work supported by SAWI Phase 1, notably the analytical work done under the Ganges SBA but also the institutional support provided to the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) in India, and the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) in Nepal. These components also support the development plans of the riparian countries, including existing pipeline projects in the hydropower, irrigation, water supply, and water resources sectors. Finally, the strategy supports careful and well-articulated engagement with civil society across both components to ensure balanced voices and representation, particularly with regards to assigning economic, social and environmental values, and with regards to implementation on the ground.

The program will be structured around its two components, which are briefly described as:

Component 1: Valuing the Environment and Ecosystem Services

The quest to build dams and harness the hydropower potential of the Ganges Basin has to date been undertaken with limited understanding of the values associated with the environment and of careful analysis of the downstream impacts of upstream development. Recent catastrophic flooding in Uttarakhand has brought this issue to the fore in India, but merely echoes decades of debate and discussion in both India and Nepal. Furthermore, while large dams are often deemed the culprit, the cumulative impact of centuries of diversions and structures throughout the basin is equally important to understand. A richer and deeper understanding of the river and how it has changed historically through modifications and abstractions at the basin scale is critical to enabling the region to assess the environmental consequences of additional change under future development and to pursue sustainable development pathways that provide adequate protection to river flow regimes, groundwater recharge, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

While the absence of proper environmental assessment, planning, valuation, and risk mitigation has led to much unsustainable development, it has also stalled projects that might otherwise have proceeded and generated regional benefits. In Nepal, for example, the cumulative impact assessments now demanded of hydropower developers by financiers, often come too little, too late. Incorporation of environmental benefits in the triple bottom line is sorely lacking in the Ganges Basin. In addition, the determination of environmental flows for the basin has to-date been only piecemeal, and little has been said about the values of low flows for the environment as a co-benefit of developing upstream storage, for example for in-stream biodiversity or to combat saline intrusion. This has particularly important implications for the cooperative relations between Bangladesh and its upstream riparian neighbors given the huge drop in flows during the dry season and the limited attention to date on valuing dry season benefits for the environment, as compared to irrigation.

This component will focus on building new knowledge on the environmental dimensions of the Ganges and ensuring that this new knowledge is injected directly into investment planning. The activities to build new knowledge will be undertaken in a way that both utilizes leading local and international expertise, and also builds the capacity in national agencies in order to mainstream environmental flows assessments into broader water resources planning and management in the region. A key output, will be the development of at least one cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects for an upstream tributary using the knowledge generated by SAWI and others. The Ganges Focus Area will demonstrate how the new knowledge and capacity can support better management and development of projects on the ground, particularly with regards to hydropower development and trade for regional benefits.

The specific types of activities envisaged under this component include:

  • Basin or sub-basin assessment of environmental flows
  • Study on values of low flows for ecosystem services
  • Study on unimpaired flow regime
  • Joint learning (3 country) event
  • Cumulative impact assessments of hydropower projects for an upstream river/tributary

The overall impact is expected to be raised awareness in the Ganges Basin of the environmental aspects of integrated water resources management, and their associated values, and the incorporation of this knowledge into best practice management in the basin. The component will also contribute directly to feasibility studies of investments, for example for hydropower and storage projects.

Component 2: Moving From Data to Information Services

The provision of water information services is a critical underpinning to water resources planning, management and development. While there are signs of some willingness to begin to share water data across agencies, sectors, and even borders – an important shift from data collection and analysis conducted in institutional and national silos – the focus among riparians remains on raw and basic data collection with very little compilation, analysis or transformation to deliver water information services for specific end users. Water information services are required to: support water resources planning, development, investment, management and operations; guide irrigation management by both governments and landholders; and inform flood planning and management, including operational management via early warning systems and disaster response. Water information services require a range of analysis and modeling based on a range of meteorological and hydrological data, and formal approaches to data management (collection, transmission, storage and retrieval) including careful attention to data quality and provenance. In additional to the technical dimensions there are multiple institutional and governance challenges, especially with respect to transboundary cooperation.

Water information services is a large and complex area that will require long-term effort and significant investment to progress. Using flood forecasting as a specific entry point, this component will therefore focus on envisioning what regional water information service delivery might look like and articulating and quantifying the benefits such services would deliver. The component will build on flood forecasting examples that exist in the basin, as well as global best practice, and will support capacity building including via study tours or exposure visits. This component will support strong engagement with civil society since much of the last-mile sensitization and  mobilization associated with the delivery of flood related information services is often provided by NGOs, CBOs, and other local grassroots organizations.

Although ambitious, this component will strive to support early pilot applications in information services for flood management since it is clear that hard (structural) measures, such as large upstream dams to hold back floodwaters and embankments to train rivers, can never comprehensively manage basin scale flooding. A redoubling of efforts on soft (non-structural) measures is therefore critical, especially through investments in joint forecasting and warning systems and through strong engagement with civil society and local governments to retain the strong link to actual users of flood information services and, in fact, to demand better information. While data will always remain national assets, the existing data are usually not even collated in one central repository in-country, meaning different agencies using different data sets provide their own information services to their own sets of users according to different levels of demand. Usually these agencies are specialized in data collection, and to a lesser extent analysis, but not necessarily well equipped to deliver services to end users, to disseminate their findings, and to respond to changes in patterns of demand. There are, of course, exceptions in the basin on which this component will build, but building the shared knowledge, appetite, and potential for undertaking a joint flood forecasting and joint information service provision will be a concrete way forward for regional cooperation.

To be specific, the kinds of activities this component will support are:

  • Advocacy piece on value of water information services
  • Joint learning (3 country) event
  • Capacity building of agencies doing joint flood forecasting
  • Pre-feasibility study for an in investment in joint flood forecasting
  • Pilot undertaken for an in investment in joint flood forecasting.

The overall impact is expected to be the beginnings of a move away from data collection and sharing in-country to packaging and formulation of a set of transboundary data services designed for targeted users, especially with regards to data services for flood forecasting and warning. The component aims to raise awareness of the importance of data to a range of services (not just as a historical archive) and to go beyond the current focus on establishing centers and protocols.