How River Basin Organizations Improve Water Security

The Bagmati River flows through Kathmandu Valley, providing drinking water to the capital. It is considered holy by the people of Nepal. Photo credit: ADB.

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In South Asia, stakeholders worked together to enhance integrated water resources management in mountainous river basins prone to precipitation extremes.


The area widely regarded as the “water tower of Asia” is a climate-vulnerable region with increasing rural and urban populations. 

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), with financing from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, supported a project to mainstream river basin organizations and strengthen integrated water resources management in the Hindu Kush Himalaya Region. With significant snowpack and ice, the region is the source of 10 major river basins. It is home to around 1.9 billion people, while three billion people consume food produced by the associated water resources.

The technical assistance project, which was implemented by consulting firm Landell Mills from 2016 to 2019, helped improve water security to support economic growth in landlocked countries Bhutan and Nepal, which have mountainous river basins at the middle to upstream portion of major river basins (Brahmaputra and Ganges). River basin organizations have been legislated and are emerging in some river basins in Bhutan but are yet to be fully formed in Nepal. 

Promoting Integrated Water Resources Management

Historically, water resources have been managed either at the administrative level, by national, provincial, or district governments, for example; or by sector, such as for hydropower, irrigation, and flood risk management. In recent decades, however, there have been moves globally to recognize the river basin itself as the best management unit for promoting integrated water resources management (IWRM).

The coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources help maximize economic and social benefits in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. Management of a river basin area according to these IWRM principles requires a well-coordinated management structure. A river basin organization (RBO) can be an effective body for such coordination or can be charged with additional functions. It can be formed to consider both the upstream and downstream users within a river basin in an equitable manner. RBOs look to maximize resource use efficiently and bring varied stakeholders together.

Managing Mountainous River Basins

The Hindu Kush Himalaya Region is approximately 4.2 million square kilometers and includes parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The region is dominated by a long chain of mountains, including the highest peaks in the world. 

Countries in the region need bolstering in all aspects of water resources management as they rely on highly vulnerable water resources. The region has had either too much or too little water due to seasonal variation of precipitation and steep terrain. These extremes will be intensified by the impacts of climate change through changing volumes, rates, and patterns of precipitation, snowfall, melting, and evapotranspiration.

RBOs are believed to be the best way of managing water in the context of the region with its competing resource demands and changing climate. A basin-level perspective enables integration of downstream and upstream issues, quantity and quality, surface water and groundwater, and land use and water resources in a practical manner. 

NARBO Method of Assessment

River basin management includes a process of devolution of responsibility and capacity for management. Tailored support is needed in benchmarking performance assessment of RBOs to demonstrate progress and define capacity development needs as well as in using technologies, such as water forecasting, databases, and decision support systems, to improve practice.

A technology training session was held in Kathmandu. Photo taken from Keeping Asia’s Water Tower Alive—Strengthening Integrated Water Resources Management with River Basin Organizations

RBOs can assess their performance once they are established and have become more functional. Like any entity that is tasked with a mandate, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of an organization’s performance allows a targeted approach to capacity development. Measuring the achievement of objectives provides indicators of advancement. During the project, the results of the performance assessment were used in the design of human resource capacity development plans for the RBOs.

The technical assistance project customized the NARBO performance assessment process for the river basins in the region.

NARBO stands for the Network of Asian River Basin Organizations,[1] which developed a system for measuring the performance of RBOs that uses a balanced scorecard approach. The NARBO method connects “big picture” strategy elements—such as the mission (purpose of the RBO), vision (what it aspires for), core values (what it believes in), and strategic focus areas (themes, results, and/or goals)—with the more operational elements, such as objectives (continuous improvement activities), measures (key performance indicators that track strategic performance), targets (the desired level of performance), and initiatives (projects that help the RBO reach its targets).

Lessons in Strengthening RBOs

The following are key lessons learned from the successful strengthening of RBOs in the region:

A sound enabling environment is required, including an established legal framework.

  • Enabling policy, strong political leadership, and a sound legal basis are needed for an RBO to fully grasp its mandate.
  • These organizations function best where there are capable, well-trained, and articulate senior administrators.

Performance assessment can lead to improved strategy and implementation.

  • The NARBO performance assessment method improved the RBOs’ understanding of their purpose and mandate.
  • In Bhutan, the assessment enabled the RBOs to clearly identify their strengths and weaknesses using this as evidence to request the funding of a secretariat.
  • In Nepal, although an assessment was not undertaken, the consultative process of agreeing on indicators helped to identify the challenges for the RBO to become fully established.

Technology can assist RBOs to make better decisions.

  • Targeted technology was shown to improve water allocation, reduce potential conflicts, and bolster RBOs’ reputation among stakeholders.
  • In Nepal, the highly successful Wangchhu Basin Water Security Index demonstrated how different stakeholders and levels of government could work together to produce a collaborative assessment report. A basin-level database was developed and linked to the national water security index database. The technology allowed for linkage to geographic information systems (GIS) to inform government decision-making. An interactive GIS system was developed and handed over to the government.
  • Decision support systems, which process and analyze massive amounts of data, were shown to be effective at helping water planners in Nepal to hypothesize about future change and consider development control.

This article was adapted from Keeping Asia’s Water Tower Alive— Strengthening Integrated Water Resources Management with River Basin Organizations.

[1] NARBO, established in February 2004 to promote IWRM in monsoon areas of Asia, comprises 92 member organizations from 19 countries that implement or promote IWRM.

Landell Mills
Management Consulting

Landell Mills is an international development consulting firm, which provides a range of development-oriented services that aim to assist countries and their peoples in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. Its mission is to assist clients to participate actively in the global economy while protecting fragile environments and vulnerable communities in the process.

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Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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