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Stakeholders call for more transboundary cooperation to address disaster risk in the Koshi River basin

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ICIMOD
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Earlier this year, the South Asian floods of 2020 were declared a humanitarian crisis when millions across the subcontinent were impacted. Already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, some 9.6 million people in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal were displaced or adversely affected by the monsoon floods. In the transboundary Koshi River basin, spread across China, India, and Nepal, the situation was equally grim this year with a number of landslides and an alert on potential glacial lake outburst risk from China to Nepal. Many of these disasters have major cascading impacts on downstream communities, affecting sustainable development in the basin.

The Koshi Disaster Risk Reduction Knowledge Hub (KDKH) was conceptualized in 2018 to develop a common understanding and to address transboundary disasters like this year’s monsoon floods. The hub aims to create a smooth mechanism for scientific and people-centered research to feed into inclusive policy and decision making that takes a basin approach to reducing disaster risks and building resilience.

The KDKH is in its second year of formation, with ICIMOD as its Secretariat. The hub has established several transboundary working groups (TWGs), bringing experts from three basin countries and has conducted country consultations. “The hub’s role in convening leading minds and agencies working on disaster risk reduction and development in the basin is much needed impetus towards regional collaboration. Its involvement with national level agencies shows just this – the need for science-based decision making, looking beyond state boundaries,” observed Pema Gyamtsho, Director General, ICIMOD.

The annual dialogue

Last week, over 100 participants from different government organizations, research institutes, and development agencies met at the KDKH Annual Dialogue to deliberate on the vision for collaborative effort and the governance structure of the KDKH, comprising country chapters and TWGs that bring together diverse stakeholders. The TWGs discussed recent research findings, good practices, and specific areas for transboundary collaboration to reduce disaster risks.

Participants and organizers of the four-day event called on government agencies to support the development of the country chapters to enable transboundary collaboration. Pushpa Raj Kadel, Vice-Chairman of the National Planning Commission, Nepal, commented, “Reducing these disaster risks in the basin is not possible without cooperation across administrative boundaries and with upstream and downstream countries. We need strong collaboration between different stakeholders to move the needle from disaster response to disaster risk reduction in the basin.” Kiran Rupakhetee, Division Chief /Joint Secretary, National Planning Commission, Nepal, added that the draft strategy and guideline can be a sound basis for further discussion at the national and provincial levels to establish the country chapters.

More basin-scale research and transboundary collaboration to tackle multi-hazard risks

Experts observed that inhabitants of the disaster-prone transboundary basin live with piecemeal information and risk knowledge. Climate models predict that the Koshi basin will face “overall warmer temperatures”. This is likely to have an impact on snow and glacial reserves, leading to an increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). A recent report by ICIMOD and UNDP identified 42 potentially dangerous lakes in the Koshi basin.

Yang Yongping, Professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, shared that a regional mechanism is needed for monitoring of glacial lakes and floods while integrating research on downstream impacts. Rijan Kayastha, Professor at Kathmandu University, noted how a standardized guideline for management and mitigation of GLOFs is still missing in Nepal. The TWG on GLOFs is prioritizing the development of such a guideline with experts that can be applicable for the region.

“The ongoing cross border community-based flood early warning system from Nepal and India demonstrates the benefits of transboundary collaboration,” said Vyas Ji, Vice Chairman, Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA). He added that BSDMA would support discussion with central government agencies to develop the KDKH country chapters. Krishna S. Vatsa, Member, National Disaster Management Authority, commented that although there are bilateral government mechanisms in place, the KDKH adds great value by bringing basin-level research and the needs of communities to the forefront. He also supported further country-level dialogues to establish country chapters.

The TWG on Landslides shared recent approaches to monitor landslides and sedimentation in the basin, the successful community-based landslide early warning system, and sediment management practices. The group noted the high cost of non-cooperation in the Koshi basin given the high sediment flux and the scale of infrastructure development in the basin. The TWG on Floods emphasized transboundary collaboration and integrating technology for flood risk management in close collaboration with the vulnerable communities.

The TWG on Community Based Disaster Risk Management shared replicable good practices such as citizen science to support local communities, citizen-based flood forecasting/information system, index-based flood insurance, and cross-border community-based flood early warning system and innovation in WASH. Aditya Bastola, Gender Specialist, ICIMOD, stressed on the need to manage these disasters while ensuring gender and social equity.

Recent findings from the TWG on Drought were also shared. The incidence of drought within the basin is increasing, noticeably after 2000. The annual demand for water within the basin is around 26 billion m3 and rising. However, there are uncertainties in the forecast and future projections of drought. Participants highlighted the need to transfer knowledge products to local farmers and capacity building for effective drought management and mitigation.

Anil Pokhrel, Chief Executive at National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, Nepal, shared, “Many communities in the mid-hills of Nepal are being forced to leave their homes because of the lack of water. This raises important issues of equitable water access, well-being, and livelihoods. Through the KDKH, we could build a roadmap for both transboundary collaboration and contribute to these multidisciplinary issues.”

“Greater inter-governmental collaboration is needed to address problems which are transboundary in nature. Achieving the targets of the Sendai Framework for DRR, the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development, and the Paris Agreement is only possible with meaningful engagement of multilateral agencies, government at all levels – international to local – academia/research institutions, and local communities,” said Ayshanie Medagangoda Labe, Resident Representative of United Nations Development Programme.

The organizers of the KDKH Annual Dialogue – ICIMOD; Caritas India; DP-Net; IDMR-Sichuan University; Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment; International Water Management Institute; Lutheran World Relief; Patna University; UNICEF Nepal; UNDP Nepal; and Yuganter – agreed to continue to work together with KDKH members and government agencies to establish and strengthen the country chapters and transboundary working groups.