Managing Shared River Basins: Benefit Sharing for Kabul River

August 30, 2017


Transboundary basins are constrained by complex social, economic and environmental processes which require decision making in a sophisticated framework involving many stakeholders. The transboundary Kabul River is no exception to such challenges, where sensitive geopolitical relationships and an unconventional political order have arrested efforts for any cooperative water resources management system between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Benefit sharing is an innovative approach with strong prospects for facilitating cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan in areas of design and operation of infrastructure as well as knowledge sharing. LEAD Pakistan hosted a session on this important topic as part of its LEADING Perspectives series.

Project Overview

Transboundary boundary water cooperation and management yield dividends for communities living in and around river basins, especially poor and vulnerable people. Under USAID's Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program, LEAD Pakistan is undertaking a project titled 'Using water resources systems analysis to guide transboundary Kabul River water partnership'. This project aims to develop a case for benefit sharing through basin-wide integrated water resource management. The multi-country project includes scientific partners from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States.

Water Resources Systems Analysis for Transboundary Water Cooperation

Hassaan Khan, water modelling expert, elaborated the application of Water Resources Systems Analysis (WRSA) for guiding transboundary water cooperation in Kabul River Basin. This approach is being implemented by LEAD Pakistan under the ongoing project for transboundary cooperation in Kabul River Basin. WRSA involves the study of water systems using mathematic representations of the different components and their interactions in order to improve understanding and assist in decision-making (Brown et al., 2015).

The objective of systems analysis in this project is to evaluate the water balance impacts and power production potential of future development in the Kabul River Basin under a range of operational and climate scenarios. The major challenges for water resources in Kabul River Basin revolve around reducing water scarcity, vulnerability to natural disaster and energy shortages. This scientific approach provides a solid footing to initiate bilateral dialogue on benefit sharing in the basin. . As data availability and accessibility also present a challenge, this strategic assessment provides a set of analytic tools for planners, engineers, and negotiation teams to move forward in Kabul River Basin development.

Benefit Sharing on Kabul River Basin

Ashfaq Mehmood, a former Federal Secretary, presented key findings of the upcoming study by LEAD Pakistan on prospects of benefit sharing in Kabul River Basin. It was shared that Kabul River Basin is an important natural resource for both countries, passing through marginalized socio-economic zones. In absence of any formal cooperation framework over the river basin, future conflicts over resource sharing are likely to impact the bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But this challenge also presents an opportunity for both countries to optimize net benefits from the river basin through cooperative development and operation of water resources infrastructure.

Opportunities for Cooperation

There are various avenues for water cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan which can yield a diverse array of benefits for both countries. Cooperative development and operations of upstream multipurpose dams can enhance disaster risk reduction and water management in the river basin. Electricity production and trade is also a promising area for cooperation which can generate long term benefits for both countries. Establishment of cooperative frameworks can also open avenues for knowledge sharing to enhance mutual learning.

Implementation of a benefit sharing regime will provide both tangible and intangible benefits to all stakeholders. The most obvious of these is an economic windfall that can alleviate the socio-economic indicators of marginalized groups that inhabit the basin. Livelihood creation can also contribute towards improved social stability and political relations.

Constraints for Cooperation

The key challenge for initiating transboundary cooperation over Kabul River Basin remains the adverse geopolitical environment, which has, in the past, been marked by mistrust. This, in turn, has created secondary hurdles such as lack of data sharing and bilateral dialogues over basin development. Thus, any intervention for transboundary cooperation needs to work on confidence building among the stakeholders, as this is a crucial element for operationalizing benefit sharing.

Given the historically volatile security situation in the region, data availability is a significant challenge for Kabul River Basin. Ground observation infrastructure across many sections of the basin was affected by the prolonged civil war, which has led to data gaps. Accessing official records for the available data sets also remains an obstacle, given the mistrust over transboundary water studies. Remotely sensed data and other surrogate methods can be utilized to fill the information gaps, but they introduce uncertainties and limitations in the analysis.


Despite the adverse geopolitical environment surrounding the Kabul River Basin, a water cooperation framework is inevitable to avoid future conflicts over water resources. The policy narrative on both sides needs to be grounded in a scientific evidence base as opposed to politically motivated rhetoric. Opening diplomatic discussions on water issues will provide a useful starting point that may eventually lead towards institutionalizing water cooperation on Kabul River Basin. Although there are challenges, there are numerous global examples where successful water cooperation has been achieved in contentious geopolitical landscapes. These examples can provide useful lessons moving forward. Such arrangements can not only enhance water security in the basin but also serve as a confidence building measure for the parties involved.