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26 May 2016, Gateway House

Bioregions: India’s strategic imperative

Prime Minister Modi’s term has been marked by a resolve to improve cooperation among South Asian nations. These proactive efforts can bear rich fruit if the Modi government promotes the concept of geoeconomic and geopolitical equations being seen through the lens of bioregions. There are significant precedents which the Modi government can build upon

former Gandhi Peace Fellow

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A recently released World Bank report on the linkage between water scarcity and the Gross National Domestic Product (GDP) of a nation offers a stark incentive for looking at geopolitics through the lens of bioregions. According to the World Bank study, if business continues as usual, India and its neighbours could see a 6% decline in GDP by 2050 due to water scarcity.[1] If that is not alarming enough, consider the projected impact of climate change on South Asia. By 2050, rising sea levels could inundate 17%of Bangladesh’s land mass, destroying cultivatable land and displacing 35 million people—climate refugees who will most likely migrate to India in a struggle to survive.[2]

It is clear that, in various contexts, traditional national  boundaries are now less significant than trans-border environmental realities. For instance, the ongoing war in Syria is partly a consequence of successive droughts and the inability of nations to work together to address the water crisis.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) defines an ecoregion as a “large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions”.[3]

Framing geopolitical strategy on the basis of bioregions or ecoregions poses its own challenges, but the Modi government can take the lead in this regard. The first step would be to acknowledge that the nations of South Asia need to work together for the ecological regeneration and sustainable use of transborder bioregions. This means going beyond the conventional issue-specific focus of diplomacy, such as water sharing and border disputes.

What would a bioregional approach signify for nations in the Hindu Kush Himalayas –namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan? Stretching 3,500 km across, this mountain range is the source of 10 large river systems that provide water to over 1.3 billion people—i.e., a fifth of the world’s population.

There is already a history of collaboration for nature conservation in the Hindu Kush region. Since 1983, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has worked as an intergovernmental mechanism to promote the ecologically sound development of the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

However, so far, knowledge sharing on eco conservation of the kind facilitated by Kathmandu-based ICIMOD has tended to be a domain cordoned off from the hurly-burly of pushing economic growth. After all, this region is also home to the largest concentration of poor people.

A bioregional approach would be a radical departure from existing policies that tend to focus on the utility of natural resources—water, land, or flora and fauna—for human economy rather than the ecosystems that actually sustain life on the planet.

This is why water treaties between nations are traditionally about sharing cusecs of water, since economic planners and diplomats alike have been taught to treat rivers as water-carrying channels rather than complex, delicate, multi-dimensional ecosystems.

For example, increased salinity in the Ganga basin is due to mismanagement of the river by both India and Bangladesh, to which is now added  the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change. Such problems cannot be solved through conventional Indo-Bangladesh collaboration on better ‘water management’ or ‘water sharing’. There is need for a holistic assessment of all that ails the ecosystem of the Ganga basin; what will help nurture it; and the kind of economic activity it can sustain in the medium to long term.

Similarly, conventional foreign policy efforts by India to prevent China from diverting more water from the Brahmaputra remain important in the short term, but the future for both nations is bleak if a combination of climate change and mismanagement depletes the bioregion that gives rise to the Brahmaputra.

In the next three years of its tenure, the Modi government could make vital contributions to the future stability of the South Asian region by mobilising consensus among our neighbours on adopting a bioregional approach.  Watersheds and rivers would be the logical starting point for this endeavour since water is more directly related to geoeconomic and geopolitical strategy.

One way of moving forward would be for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) to jointly commission a study that distills the knowledge and impact of existing initiatives in this area.

For instance, the ICIMOD’s Cherrapunjee-Chittagong Hill Tracts Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative works for better ecosystem management, improved livelihoods, and climate change adaptation across Meghalaya, Assam, and Tripura (all in India) as well as the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.[4] There are also issue-based and area-specific initiatives by multilateral agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supports the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) Project, which enables Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to collaborate for improving the lives of their coastal populations by improving the region’s environment and its fisheries.[5]

The World Bank supports the South Asian Water Initiative, to foster regional integrated water resources management, which–includes water, soil erosion, and land use management to balance higher agricultural productivity, hydropower production, and the conservation of natural resources.

So far, most of these initiatives appear to be stand-alone efforts. Even within India, coordination between the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF) is limited to three areas: climate change, water, and forests.

A white paper by the Prime Minister’s Office, outlining a bioregional approach to India’s relations with its neighbours, would build upon this government’s earlier outreach to its neighbours and add a visionary dimension to diplomacy in South Asia. The magnitude of data and interdisciplinary skills required to put this perspective into action may seem daunting, but investing in this vision now would give India the lead in adopting an idea whose time has come.

Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow, Gateway House.

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[1] World Bank, Press Release, Climate driven water scarcity could hit economic growth by up to 6% in some regions, <>

[2] Ismail, Haweya, Climate Change, Food and Water Security in Bangladesh, Future Directions International, 29 March 2016, <>

[3] World Wildlife, Ecoregions, <>

[4] International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Cherrapunjee-Chittagong Hill Tracts Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (CCHTLCDI), <>

[5] Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem, The Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project, <>