The Koshi basin provides an opportunity for transboundary cooperation to address and manage shared disasters, and help save lives and livelihoods
The Koshi River flows from the Tibet Autonomous Region of China through Nepal before it finally joins the Ganges in northern Bihar, India. Agriculture, hydropower generation, and other major activities in the Koshi basin are dependent on sustained water supply from the Koshi River and its tributaries, with millions directly dependent on the river’s waters.
The Koshi River basin, part of one of the most important river systems in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, covers approximately 75,000 square kilometres. It is characterized by a range of ecosystems and habitats: glaciers, snow lands, rock formations, wetlands, rangelands, forests, alpine meadows, and floodplains. However, the basin is extremely prone to hazards and disasters—glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), landslides and sedimentation, floods, and droughts—which often have disastrous consequences for its inhabitants.
Most of the GLOFs recorded in Nepal have occurred in the Koshi basin. Eight of 22 GLOFs reported in the basin between 1935 and 2016 were recorded in Nepal; the remaining 14 were recorded in China. At present, 42 glacial lakes in the Koshi basin—18 in Nepal and 24 in China—are identified as potentially dangerous.
GLOFs, however, are only one issue. There have been about 6,872 landslides recorded in the basin from 1992 to 2015. The relatively recent Jure landslide, which happened in Sindhupalchok in 2014, resulted in 156 casualties, displacement of 436 people and damage of 165 houses. The estimated economic loss was more than 130 million rupees.
Then there are floods, which happen almost on an annual basis. Between 1954 and 2014, Nepal experienced 41 flood events, which killed almost 6,500 people, and cost the nation billions of rupees in economic losses. What is truly worrying is that with the escalating climate crisis, extreme weather events are predicted to increase in both frequency and intensity.
There are numerous grassroots organizations and practitioners working to address disaster risk reduction in the Koshi River basin. While this is a good sign, coordination to address common issues, threats, and hazards on a transboundary level is still weak. Given the inextricable link between the three countries—China, India and Nepal—who share the Koshi River and the basin, efforts to improve disaster risk reduction, and its related policies and practices have to be explored and formulated collectively. After all, any decision or intervention made in any one of the countries will have implications for the other two.
As such, the Koshi basin provides an opportunity for transboundary cooperation to address and manage shared disasters, and help save lives and livelihoods. Effective cooperation can be achieved by sharing knowledge and adopting practices that address the transboundary scale of disasters. It is therefore important to establish a common platform where stakeholders such as policy makers, scientists, practitioners, researchers, academics, media personnel, and private-sector institutions can share their experiences, challenges, and success stories in addressing hazards in the basin, and exploring how it affects both upstream and downstream communities.
The Koshi Disaster Risk Reduction Knowledge Hub (KDKH) has been conceptualized as a regional platform, led and driven by members to foster transboundary collaboration and promote science, policy, and practice between the three countries. The KDKH was developed through a consultative process with various stakeholders between 2017 and 2018. It aims to facilitate integration of research, policy, and practice among stakeholders across the three countries. It also aims to develop collaborative activities and projects that will improve decision making related to the management of the Koshi River basin.
The KDKH prioritizes the engagement of graduate students, private sector institutions, and the media in promoting transboundary cooperation, in reducing the spread of misinformation across borders, and in working towards improving understanding between upstream and downstream communities.
Effective cooperation can be achieved by sharing knowledge and fostering practices that address the transboundary scale of disasters, which is something stakeholders often struggle with. It is important to consider that marginalized communities and at-risk groups, especially women, are most vulnerable to such adverse events as they lack access to information and the capacity to prepare for disasters and deal with the aftermath.
Hubs and platforms like the KDKH can contribute to minimizing transboundary impacts of disasters by sharing data and knowledge, and adopting and fostering good practices collectively. This can be complemented by timely sharing of vital information between upstream and downstream communities and agencies to ensure better preparedness and response to hazards. Enhancing transboundary cooperation through hubs like the KDKH can also lead to improved mutual understanding between nations and address common transboundary disasters.
The author is Programme Officer of Koshi Basin Initiative at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which hosts the Secretariat of the KDKH