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.
14 June 2013
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 you.
Dr Wahid: Yeah, thanks.
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 floodplains.
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 floods.
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 approached?
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 welcome.
Glen Paul: CSIRO’s Geoff Podger, and from ICIMOD, Dr Wahid. To find out more about the project, or to follow us on other social media, just visit www.csiro.au.