Australia extends its expertise in water resource management to Asia

By June 25th, 2013

Scientists from Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, are applying their knowledge in transboundary river basin management to improve the livelihoods of people living in some of the poorest parts of Asia.

CSIRO and its partners have begun work in the Koshi River Basin which stretches from China, across the Himalayas through Nepal and discharges into the Ganges River in India.

The Koshi Basin is home to millions of people who rely on its fertile floodplains for their livelihoods. There is growing pressure to address development challenges in the Basin, in particular population growth and an increasing demand for energy, whilst working within constraints of natural hazards exacerbated by a changing climate, such as floods, drought, landslides, sediment movement and debris flow.

“There is much the Australian water experience will bring to this project to help improve sustainable development and climate resilience, reduce water stress, and inform water-related decision making and transboundary issues.”

Dr Carol Couch, CSIRO Water for a Healthy Country Flagship Director

In a collaborative four-year project, scientists from CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship will provide technical assistance to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s (ICIMOD) Koshi Basin Programme. CSIRO scientists will develop an integrated basin-wide modelling system to improve management of the Koshi River Basin. This system will incorporate information on water availability, freshwater environments and the ecosystem services they provide and social considerations such as the effect of changes in water availability on livelihoods. The system will contribute to development in the Koshi Basin in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner and support national and transboundary water reforms.

“Australia has a long history of managing a scarce and variable water resource, and sharing this resource amongst competing users,” said CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship Director, Dr Carol Couch. “There is much the Australian water experience will bring to this project to help improve sustainable development and climate resilience, reduce water stress, and inform water-related decision making and transboundary issues. We will draw on the suite of large river basin assessments undertaken across Australia in recent years, such as the Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields assessment.

“Research will be undertaken as a partnership between Australian organisations and ICIMOD researchers, based in Nepal. We will also be learning from ICIMOD, particularly in relation to sediment movement, snow melt and glacial processes,” said Dr Couch.

“At ICIMOD, we have taken a long-term, transboundary approach to support river basin management. This includes testing, piloting, and monitoring the innovations needed to address common issues related to climate change, cryosphere, water resources management and livelihood promotion,” said Dr David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD.

“The Koshi Basin Programme will provide a platform for national and international researchers and decision makers to come together to promote transboundary cooperation and integrated water resource management practices and policies. This will also include the development of measures for risk management as well as equitable access to water for energy and food security,” said Dr Molden.

Work undertaken by CSIRO this year will consist of a review and analysis of the existing knowledge base, capacity building and the development of a prototype model for the Koshi River Basin that incorporates information on water, climate, hydropower, freshwater environments, irrigation and social issues including poverty alleviation. The knowledge gained from this project will culminate in the development of a robust integrated basin-wide modelling framework, using eWater’s hydrological modelling platform, Source.

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User agreement: Koshi River Basin
CSIRO scientists are applying their knowledge in transboundary river system management to improve the livelihoods of people living in the Koshi River Basin, a river system that stretches from China in the north, down through Nepal and across the Himalayas including Mt Everest and discharges into the Ganges River in India.


Glen Paul: G’day, and
welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. Australia is no stranger to the
complexities of managing trans-boundary river systems. The Murray Darling Basin,
for example, covers five States and Territories, and took many years of
negotiation before agreement on control of the waters was reached.

More recently CSIRO
completed a series of reports which assessed the current and future water
availability in the Murray Darling Basin for the 18 regions that comprise it. This
wealth of CSIRO knowledge is now being called upon to improve the livelihoods
of millions of people living in the Koshi River Basin, a river system that
stretches from China in the north, down through Nepal, and across the
Himalayas, including Mount Everest, where it discharges into the Ganges River
in India.

Funded by AusAID, a
collaborative four year project with the International Centre for Integrated
Mountain Development, or ICIMOD, will see CSIRO Scientists developing an
integrated Basin wide modelling framework for the region. To find out what this
means I’m joined by CSIRO’s Geoff Podger in Canberra, and on the phone from
Kathmandu in Nepal, Programme Coordinator for the Koshi Basin River initiative,
Dr Wahid.

Welcome to you both.

Mr Podger: Thank

Dr Wahid: Yeah,

Glen Paul: OK, well
we’ll start off with you, Geoff. How will the Australian water experience be of
value in this very different part of the world?

Mr Podger: Yeah. Look,
we’ve learnt an awful lot from our experiences in Australia. We think that a
lot of what we learnt can be useful to others, and it’s a golden opportunity
for us to work with others to learn more, and apply our research to get some
great outcomes in other locations.

Glen Paul: And Wahid,
what are the main areas of research required in making the Koshi Basin
initiative successful?

Dr Wahid: Thanks,
Glen. What we think, and what we should know, is that the Koshi River Basin, as
you have mentioned, it crosses three countries, and it starts in the high
Himalayas, including the Mount Everest, the highest peak on earth, and it goes
down to the great rivers of the Ganges system.

But it has been on
the media for all sorts of wrong reasons. One being that it’s susceptible to
erosion, landslides, and as well as floods. But this has been there for a very
long time, and the last hundred years we have had several events which have
actually affected millions and millions of people. So when ICIMOD started actually
looking into the issues, we observed that the issues go far beyond the rim of
the traditional water managers, and that’s where the experience from Australia
is very crucial, and we are happy to be associated with CSIRO in order to give
us a platform whereby several disciplines will come together, can understand,
and try to build what if scenarios.

A little bit moving
away from the earlier stand on structural interventions, but we’re rather
integrating the aspects of livelihood and the ecosystems.

Glen Paul: Geoff, so
what is the expertise that CSIRO is bringing to this? Obviously it’s a little
different, as we don’t see too many glaciers along the Murray River.

Mr Podger: (Chuckles).
Yeah, indeed. This is going to be an exercise in us learning as well. In fact
most recently we’ve had one of ICIMOD’s people out working with us in terms of
building this model for the Koshi Basin. Only just recently we’ve integrated
into our modelling platform some ways of modelling snow melt, and some ways of
modelling glacial melts, so we’re already learning as part of this process, and
you know this is one of the great things about collaboration.

I think one of the
good things that we offer here, and Wahid had touched on some of this, is that
what we offer is the ability to take things that happen up in the mountains for
the mountains people, things like dams, etcetera, and be able to translate
those impacts down through the system and have a look at what that does to
others. And of course in this case some of the others could be another country,
such as India.

And so what this
offers is the ability to move away from perceptions about what happens, and
actually put some science and facts behind what the impacts of these things
could be, which will help the countries negotiate those sorts of issues, and
hopefully allow countries to move on and develop and thrive in agreements
between parties on how best to manage the water. And I think this management of
water and a moving from perception to fact is something that we can bring from
our experience of Murray Darling Basin, but something we also bring with our
models, which allows us to integrate things together to look at the broader
impacts on people and economies.

Glen Paul: And we
certainly do have plenty of experience there. Wahid, just touching on that,
agriculture is the dominant activity, but there’s also moves for hydropower and
irrigation in the downstream areas, plus the Basin contains important
ecosystems and protected areas. How difficult will it be to balance all that?

Dr Wahid: Well the
thing is that the knowledge base for in the Koshi Basin has been very poor. We
know that things are changing when we go in the upstream, take for example the cryospheric
dynamics of the river systems, and when we try to gather information from these
very high mountain and very harsh places, it’s often been very sketchy, and
that’s where we stumble all the time.

So what we want to do
as far as the high mountains are concerned, we want to understand it a little
bit better through observation, through remote sensing and so on, and unmanned
aerial survey, so those kind of new technologies that we are trying to bring in
to understand the cryospheric processes. And if you know that this region is
geologically very young, so things that are happening in these mountain areas
are very abrupt and rapid, and they have impact on the livelihood of the
mountain people.

There isn’t any
irrigation as such in the mountains actually, they rely on rainwater mostly,
but they have actually very little resources to pump water from downstream, for
example, for their agriculture. So we have to have some innovation, some
understanding of how their spring systems, for example, the ponds, their rainwater
harvesting, how they perform. So those are the things that we are looking in
the high mountain.

As we come down, the
Koshi River is one of the largest alluvial fans in the world, so they’re
continuously shifting, and this shifting nature of the river actually has
impact on the agricultural fields on both the sides. So what we want to do is
actually understand this a little better, so for that purpose we have initiated
a larger study to understand the process of erosion, landslide, sedimentation, and
try to model, so that with those understanding and modelling at first in the
irrigation areas downstream we will be able to give better information to the
decision makers, so that they know what if scenarios – what if we build a big
dam, what happens downstream where in terms of sediments that’s coming down;
and what happens to the shifting of the rivers for example; and flooding on the

So those things we’ve
started to model now, and we will do it in experience, and again the experience
that CSIRO will bring to this dialogue would be very, very crucial.

Glen Paul: Geoff,
what about other pressures such as urbanisation and climate change, how are
they being factored into the model?

Mr Podger: Uh, yeah,
look there’s a host of issues, and Wahid has touched on some of the major ones.
One other that comes to mind for me is they have a thing which they GLOFs, but
it stand for Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, and what’s happening in the mountain
regions, as temperatures are rising around the world, is glaciers are melting,
and some of these glacial lakes then fail and a big flood goes down through the
river, which creates all sorts of problems, and as Wahid said, largely problems
for very vulnerable people that are in the path of some of these quite extreme

And the evidence of
this is that these things are on the rise, and they’re increasing, and problems
associated with that are quite major, and they’re a major hazard. There’s also
as he said some of these floods and landslides affect you know sediment. So
climate change is pretty important in the mix as being one of the drivers for
these, and certainly climate change for ICIMOD is a pretty important thing. And
in fact they have quite extensive work in this area that you know we’re hoping to
tap into and use, and be able to translate down from what they know down to
people lower down in the system, to see what the impacts from climate change
would be there.

Glen Paul: I see. And
just continuing with you, Geoff, in Australia we know sharing a valuable
resource amongst competing users can be tricky, but with the Koshi River Basin,
and what Wahid said earlier, you’re not only dealing with very different groups
of people, you’re dealing with different countries. How is that being

Mr Podger: Yeah,
well this is where I think one of the big strengths of partnering with someone
like ICIMOD, and in fact they already have built fairly strong relationships
with China, Nepal, and India, well of course they are probably experts because
they sit there locally. So what we can do is provide some tools, technology,
some knowledge that can be used to inform people and inform the knowledge.

Glen Paul: OK. Well
it certainly sounds like a very exciting and big project that lay ahead of you
both, and great to see Australia playing such a pivotal role in such an
important international project. Thank you both very much for discussing it
with me.

Mr Podger: Thank
you, Glen.

Dr Wahid: You’re

Glen Paul: CSIRO’s
Geoff Podger, and from ICIMOD, Dr Wahid. To find out more about the project, or
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