25 October 2019

Integrated solutions for the Indus Basin

New framework helps decision makers find science-based pathways to address water resources and connected sustainability challenges in the Indus River basin.

© Josef Skacel | Dreamstime.com

© Josef Skacel | Dreamstime.com

A new integrated modeling framework could help the Indus Basin region find solutions to water resource challenges and interconnected sustainable development goals. The new framework, described in a perspective article published today in the journal One Earth, was developed by IIASA researchers and colleagues working on the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land (ISWEL) Project.

The Indus River basin includes parts of four countries: China, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and has a population of 200 million people (around the same number as the entire country of Pakistan). From its headwaters high on the Tibetan plateau, the Indus River flows 3,180 kilometers to the Indian Ocean, through a region long troubled by conflicts over land and water. Future pressures such as population growth and climate change are expected to further challenge the region, which already faces limited water resources, food insecurity, and energy access.

“The Indus treaty has long provided a very good basis for allocating water resources between India and Pakistan, the two largest riparian countries within the basin,” says IIASA researcher Barbara Willaarts, who coordinates the ISWEL project and served as a coauthor on the paper. “But this treaty does not reflect the existing and future challenges linked to climate change and population growth and does not consider other emerging conflicts within the basin.”

In order to address these challenges, the ISWEL research team designed a stakeholder process, combined with state-of-the-art integrated assessment modeling, to create an evidence-based, non-politicized, and neutral discussion around the topic.

“Overall, the magnitude of the challenges in this part of the world is huge, with climate and population growth expected to have massive implications and likely to exacerbate existing problems,” says IIASA Water Program Acting Director Yoshihide Wada, the lead author of the new article. “When it comes to water, decision making occurs at the basin level. There is a need to engage with stakeholders to identify priorities, draft visions, and develop tools that can support decision making by using evidence base.”

The tools developed as part of the ISWEL project represent a full suite of tools to support an inclusive decision making process. This includes fully integrated regional assessment models for water, energy, and land, as well as other qualitative tools suitable for less technical audiences such as simulation exercises, participatory scenarios, and serious games.

“Combining models with more participatory approaches is a very powerful approach to help build evidence for decisions using strong practical knowledge from stakeholders. This process also includes their priorities and values, which helps close the gap between science and decision making,” explains Wada.

As a participatory project, the design of the research included collaboration with regional stakeholders such that the project methods are already contributing to decision making in the region. More than 50 participants from the four riparian countries, from 32 different organizations within academia, regional and federal governments, think tanks, and NGOs participated in the project. Tangible outputs included three shared visions articulated for the Indus basin and quantitative analysis of resources management options through integrated assessment modeling.

The researchers say that the new methodological approach could also be applied in other regions facing similarly complex and intertwined development challenges, such as the Zambezi River basin in Africa.

“IIASA in its role of neutral and forefront scientific organization can play a significant role in supporting the development of capacities within the riparian countries to address these complex challenges,” says Willaarts.


Wada Y, Vinca A, Parkinson S, Willaarts B, Magnuszewski P, Mochizuki J, Mayor B, Wang Y, et al. (2019). Co-designing Indus Water-Energy-Land Futures. One Earth DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2019.10.006 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16118]

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Last edited: 23 October 2019


Yoshihide Wada

Program Director and Principal Research Scholar Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 241


Barbara Willaarts

Research Scholar Water Security Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 323


Ansa Heyl

Press Officer and Editor Communications - Communications and External Relations Department

Press Officer and Editor Communications and External Relations Department

T +43(0) 2236 807 574

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