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. 

The Brahmaputra River Basin Map

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.