Indus Focus Area Strategy: 2013-2017

The Indus rises in the Tibetan Plateau in China and its tributaries feed from the Hindu Kush, Karakorum and Himalayan mountain ranges. The total basin area of 1.12 million km2 is located in four countries: Afghanistan (6%), China (8%), India (39%) and Pakistan (47%). Annual precipitation ranges between 100 and 500 mm in the lowlands to a maximum of 2,000 mm on mountain slopes. Most of the precipitation falls in winter and spring and originates from the west. The basin is characterized by high inter- and intra-annual flow variability, with regularly reoccurring floods.

Glaciers and snow contribute more than 40 per cent of the average annual flow in the Indus. Around 70 per cent of the average annual stream flow occurs during July and August these being the peak months respectively for snow melt and glacier melt (Yu et al., 2013). However, the more than 18,000 glaciers feeding the basin are not adequately studied or monitored. Climate change and resulting changes in seasonal runoff patterns (expected to lead to a rise in severe flood and drought events) pose new challenges for the already highly complex water resources management in the basin.

Average available renewable water resources are estimated at 287 km3 annually, of which around one third is groundwater. The annual renewable water availability per capita is expected to decrease from estimated 1329 m3 to below 750 m3 by 2050 as the basin population increases from over 300 million to around 380 million (Indus Basin Working Group, 2013)[1]. Rapid urbanization is worsening relative scarcity and the inadequacy of public services (water supply and sanitation), threatening human health and livelihoods. Municipal water withdrawals have quadrupled in Pakistan and doubled in India over the past twenty years (Indus Basin Working Group, 2013), and exceed rural domestic water withdrawals.

The Indus system is rapidly becoming a “closed” basin in which all of the available renewable resources are already allocated for use, with India (36%) and Pakistan (63%) representing almost all of the demand on the river’s water resources. In recent decades, irrigated agriculture in the Indus Basin has moved towards conjunctive use of surface and groundwater. Irrigation withdrawals in the basin account for 278 km3 or 93 per cent of total withdrawals. Low irrigation efficiency (e.g., in Pakistan losses are 40 per cent of diversions), poor drainage and extensive use of nitrate, herbicide and pesticide to promote crop growth have led to surface and groundwater deterioration and soil salinization.

Extensive upstream water use led to a reduction of average annual flow of fresh water to the Indus Delta from 172 to 49 km3 over the last fifty years creating two major challenges. Firstly the salinity of the sea water has increased to 50 ppt leading to a decline of the world’s largest desert climate mangrove forest, and secondly the flow of alluvium – fine grained nutrient-rich soil carried by the river – has declined from 160 to 60 MT per year while river-borne pollutants have endangered the habitat of the endangered Indus River Dolphin. The sediment loads are now largely trapped behind dams and barrages silting up reservoirs and the extensive irrigation canals. Reservoir siltation poses water security challenges for both India and Pakistan and is reducing already limited storage capacity. For Pakistan, it is estimated that an average of 25 per cent of the live storage capacity of small dams in the basin has been lost as a result of sedimentation. The heavily quartz laden sands affect hydropower infrastructure damaging turbines and tunnel works.

Water management challenges are compounded by the basin’s transboundary nature, the uneasy relationships between its riparians and the absence of effective basin management institutions. Bilateral relations between India and Pakistan on the Indus River are regulated by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. The treaty established the Permanent Indus Commission (consisting of one Commissioner from each country) that meets regularly. No other bilateral or multi-lateral basin management mechanisms exist. Within Pakistan the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord regulates water allocation among the provinces for the kharif (wet summer) and rabi (dry winter) seasons. Implementation of the Accord remains a challenge given the limited institutional capacity and mandate of the Indus River System Authority, ongoing disagreements among the provinces on the interpretation of the Accord, and the reality that the volumes of water allocated exceed average flows.





In a bid to foster regional cooperation around managing water resources, government officials and academics from four South Asian countries that share the waters of the Indus (Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan) undertook a joint study tour to Ecuador this January. Download Report


[1] Connecting the Drops. An Indus Basin Roadmap for Cross-Border Water Research, Data Sharing and Policy Coordination. Observer Research Foundation, Stimson & Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Washington DC.


Opportunities of engagement have been identified through dialogue with riparian representatives and are informed by two recent “situation analyses”: (1) the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP) report “A Productive and Water-Secure Pakistan” (2012), and (2) the Stimson, ORF and SDP report “Connecting the Drops – An Indus Basin Roadmap for Cross-Border Water Research, Data Sharing, and Policy Coordination” (2013).

South Asia is the region which will be hardest hit in terms of water resources availability by the compound effects of population growth and climate change; and the Indus basin, with its high snow and glacier melt dependency and a fast growing population is particularly vulnerable. Climate change is viewed by the Indus riparian countries (and the international community) as a common challenge. The topic is therefore a good entry point to promote cooperation among riparian countries, through additional knowledge, information exchange and by catalyzing investments to enhance climate resilience. The Indus Focus Area will address this issue by providing opportunities for dialogue, learning, information exchange and coordination through its consultative process, capacity building and technical assistance that will equip water management institutions with the right tools for glacier monitoring, sediment management and data exchange.

New investments to enhance storage capacity are critical for most countries in the Indus, and especially for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which currently have only 113 m3 per capita and 150 m3 per capita respectively compared to 6000 m3 per capita in the US. Pakistan, an already water scarce country, has less than 30 days storage capacity in the Indus Basin Irrigation System making it extremely vulnerable to droughts. Additional storage and better flow and sediment management are required to improve security of water availability, generate power and mitigate floods.

However, reservoir development faces two key challenges. Firstly, reservoir design and management need to be able to cope with high sediment loads in the river. Climate change induced glacier retreat is likely to increase the sediment loads in the river. Secondly, storage infrastructure is a source for tension between and within riparian countries because of upstream/downstream impacts. SAWI can help to improve water resources management by filling critical knowledge gaps on sediments; identifying mutually beneficial investments (and assessing their benefits and costs); and facilitating dialogue amongst stakeholders.

These reservoir-related studies will not only directly contribute to the identification of environmentally sustainable new storage options, but will also provide important basin-scale water resources knowledge to better guide the design and implementation of major irrigation infrastructure projects in the basin.

Other opportunities for investment and policy dialogue relate to environmental and water resources degradation. Water quality degradation resulting from a lack of sanitation, sewage treatment and unsustainable fertilizer use, has severe consequences for the public health and the livelihoods of the poor. Water quality deterioration is a major concern for water supply in the basin’s cities, in particular for Kabul, one of the fastest growing cities in the world (~11% per year since 2000). Quality deteriorates further downstream. Chemical discharge from fertilizers and pesticides from upstream regions, and untreated sewage and industrial discharge from the city of Karachi threaten the Indus Delta mangrove forest, the world’s sixth largest mangrove forest and habitat of the endangered Indus River Dolphin.

Inter and intra-state competition over water resources is expected to intensify with population growth and is likely to increase tensions within and between riparian countries. Given its engagement in the negotiations and implementation of the Indus Water Treaty, the Bank has a history as a neutral broker in bringing the riparian countries to the table. It is recognized as a global knowledge broker and can assist the countries by tapping into a wealth of global experience and experts. Finally, the Bank has an established track record of working in partnership with other bilateral and multilateral donor agencies to promote transboundary cooperation; a partnership which will be vital to addressing the water challenges in the Indus Basin as the challenges are many. SAWI will utilize the World Bank’s comparative advantage in bringing the riparian countries together to improve water resources management from a basin perspective.

The overall objective of the Indus Focus Area strategy is to strengthen water resources management and coordination among riparian countries to improve water and energy security. The two specific goals in support of this objective are:

  1. Strengthen Knowledge and Capacity for long-term Basin Development and Investment Planning
  2. Support Investments and Capacity Building for Improved Water and Energy Security in the Basin

The program is structured along two components that are aligned with these two goals and are closely interrelated and support each other.

Component 1: Long-Term Basin Development and Investment Planning

The Indus river system is subject to constant change in hydrologic and climatic conditions, vegetation cover, geomorphology and human water demand. These long-term transformations need to inform basin development and investment planning, in particular with respect to flow regulation, storage and hydropower infrastructure, given the long “gestation period” and life-span of these investments. Some of these long-term trends (including the climate change-forest cover-sediment nexus) are poorly understood. This component will fill key knowledge gaps in the understanding of long-term basin dynamics and will enhance riparian capacity for long-term basin development and investment planning. This will be achieved through targeted joint studies (including on social impact and biodiversity) that involve national planning and research institutions as well as leading international expertise and that share data between countries in order to build transboundary cooperation. The targeted studies will be geographically linked with investments supported under Component 2 and will directly inform investment planning. They will involve collaboration with national research centers and results will be disseminated widely.

Component 2: Investments and Capacity Building for Water and Energy Security

Growing populations, climate change and increasing water and energy demand in the Indus basin require significant investments in achieving water and energy security, including in storage, flow control and hydropower infrastructure, as well as the capacity to predict and monitor flows to optimize the infrastructure management, disaster risk mitigation and climate adaptation schemes. Infrastructure investments in transboundary river systems frequently have significant impacts on riparian countries. These impacts may include changes in flow regime and water quality. In the Indus basin, the lack of knowledge, information exchange and trust among riparian countries have made investment in water management infrastructure a major challenge. Additionally, the Indus River system is managed on a country basis not on whole-of-basin basis. While some issues can be adequately managed on a national basis, the riparian countries all face some challenges that require cross-border coordination. Limited transboundary coordination means a number of opportunities for more effective and efficient water resources management and for knowledge exchange are being missed. This component will assist investment and capacity building for water and energy security and to respond to riparian demands for collaborative and joint activities through (i) support for pre-investment studies and collaborative research, (ii) technical assistance for policy reform, (iii) assessment of transboundary impact and benefits of investments and (iv) facilitation of high-level transboundary dialogue relating to infrastructure investments. Capacity building will be focused on technical assistance to equip national (and transboundary) institutions with the appropriate water management, hydrologic monitoring and forecasting tools and to strengthen management and advisory capacity. One specific area for capacity building is expected to be glacier and hydrologic monitoring and data exchange. Additional activity areas may include issues that may promise early wins for collaboration such as management of water quality, floods, groundwater and water use efficiency.