Talk17 and Webinar on Mountain Water Crucial for Downstream Food Production in South Asia'

Thursday, 24 May, 2018


LEAD Pakistan hosted its 17th interactive session (webinar) on ‘Mountain water crucial for downstream food production in South Asia’ as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. LEADING Perspectives aims to bring together a diverse set of experts to accelerate the thought process on pressing water and environmental issues. There is an increasing focus on the issue of water with respect to South Asia, due to depleting water sources, the impact of global warming and poor management. The discourse on mountain water and its downstream effects on food production in South Asia provides important information for food security and climate change adaptation policies in a climate change hotspot where strong shifts in water availability and demand are projected as a result of climate change and socio-economic growth. The guest speaker was Dr. Hester Biemans, a senior researcher climate change, water and food security at Wageningen Environmental Research in the Netherlands. She shared findings and key learnings from her research in which she used state-of-the-art high-resolution cryosphere-hydrology-crop model forced with a new high resolution climate data set that has been corrected for orographic effects on precipitation.

Research Overview

Dr. Hester is the co-principal investigator for Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience (Hi-AWARE) which is funded by DFID/IDRC. The program she is specifically looking at is CARIAA (Climate Adaptation Research in Africa and Asia), which is running from 2014 to 2018 and has 5 consortium partners and subcontractors. This project aims to improve our understanding of sources of mountain water and the impact that this water has upon food production. For this reason, we need better and more efficient targeting measures and take into account the impact of climate change upon downstream flow of mountain water. The research aims to answer a few questions regarding the volumes of water that are stored in the Himalayas as snow and ice, and are popularly known as the water towers of Asia. It aims to see how many people are dependent on the mountain water and how important is snow and glacier melt for downstream agriculture. The project also aims to examine the importance of meltwater with respect to certain crops and geographical localities. It aims to see what happens if the glaciers retreat further or if the timing of meltwater runoff shifts; will agricultural practices be able to adapt to this?

Analyzing Importance of Mountain Water for Downstream Food Production

Water sources in mountains are crucial for downstream food production for at least part of South Asia. Dr. Hester emphasized this whilst shedding light upon how global change is local change when it comes to climate hence adaptation measures are local. It was argued that it is not advisable to ignore local circumstances, local contexts and population increases. The challenge is to develop a toolkit that helps and understands these complex local situations that lead to equally complex security issues. We need to focus on adaptation, so the scientific model system adopted needs to encompass adaptation measures that have proven to be effective on ground. Dr. Bashir Ahmed, Program Leader from Pakistan Agricultural Research Centre added that if we do not collaborate to study the impact of mountain water upon downstream food production, Pakistan could head towards a national food crisis.

Challenges and Hurdles

One of the most pressing challenges we face today with respect to water is that of climate change. This is leading to unprecedented seasonal variations in heat, rain and the monsoon season. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate which is leading to floods downstream, destroying both land and crops. The water cycle is such, according to Dr. Hester, that water moves from upstream to downstream, which is where most of irrigation takes place and where most of the population lives. Downstream users are directly dependent on upstream water supply, which is why fluctuations due to climate change threaten food security. The climate is monsoon dominated leading to variability in water availability, which is determined by sources such as high altitude precipitation in the mountains, snow and glacier melt as well as rainfall. Dams and reservoirs store this water, which is then transported into fields through irrigation canals. However, groundwater withdrawals is leading to groundwater depletion and multi cropping is causing shifts in patterns of water demand.

Lower Indus sees little rain which shows that it is more dependent on water from upstream sources. For the upstream part of the river, Dr. Hester and her team have developed a mountain hydrology model which calculates the amount of water that is leaving glaciers and snow melt into the downstream water supplies. In the tributaries that are part of the Indus river basin, their research shows that the contribution is the highest. For the downstream part, water shortage and food production data are used to calculate water variations. Overall, Dr. Hester’s research shows that susceptibility to climatic variations is the most significant reason for water shortages.

Methods for Overcoming Constraints

Despite a multitude of constraints impacting the flow of mountain water onto downstream areas, it is imperative to develop avenues for further collaboration, research and dialogue in order to tackle constraints. Research highlights that some regions in the Indus are extremely dependent on water. A clearer understanding of timing of water demand is required which depends upon location of crops, how much precipitation is already there and the growing season of crops. For Indus River, the timing of irrigation demand is largest for sugarcane, which grows all your around, whereas demand for wheat is during the winter season as that is when it grows. Melt water is important in the hotter period, just before Monsoon. All of these variations highlight the importance of studying temporal variations in water, as season demands are not constant. For instance, rice and cotton use the largest amount of water, especially melt water, with respect to other crops in Pakistan. Any changes in future availability of meltwater will have impact on production. Increased insight in the link between sources of water demand and sources of supply is important for developing appropriate adaptation measures. For this reason, a water resources model will help to understand risks and to manage the water budget and can therefore be useful tool in policy support, if used in the iterative process.

A key point raised by Mr. Salaar Saeed, GIS Officer Pakistan Agricultural Research Centre (PARC), was that awareness regarding the need to conserve and manage water in a better fashion needs to be cultivated. This is because if a region is dependent on melt water, and if there is a shift in melt water, it cannot always be replaced by groundwater. Water resources from the mountains are crucial for downstream agriculture, in particular for the Indus basin. A suggestion raised by Ali Kamran, Watershed Management Specialist PARC, was of increased usage of laser levelling whereby the top soil is removed using lasers. This technology has reduced water requirement in key areas within Punjab by 31-37%, and increased yield output by 16-18%.

The basic scale model that is currently being used by HI-AWARE can be simulated for other locations so that data can be generated for larger areas. When this data is combined, as was suggested by Dr. Bashir Ahmed, then an overall macro perspective can be garnered regarding impact of climate change upon water availability in South Asia. The objectives should be to promote mutual cooperation amongst all countries in South Asia impacted by variances in mountain river water, and to share knowledge, identify benefit sharing ventures and further invest in scientific studies.


As populations continue to increase and demand for water rises, prioritizing further research and dialogue on mountain water will become imperative. By 2030, Pakistan stands to lose wheat yields by 20% - this is a staggering amount for a country whose backbone is formed by wheat. Researchers, policy makers and all relevant stakeholders need to be cognizant of the impact of climate change upon availability and temporal variances in water flow. This research needs to be linked to policy in such a way that it is able to assess the combined effect of climate change and socioeconomic change on water resources and food production. Research tools need to be made more useful for supporting decision makers, by active engagement, co-creation of scenarios and selection of reliable indicators. The evaluation of adaptation measures at basin scale need to be linked to fieldwork. It is imperative for Pakistan to take the lead in increasing its capacity and resilience to climate-induced variances in water availability, in order to enhance adaptability.