Initiative to restore part of Indus River Basin named as UN World Restoration Flagship

6 Mar 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Indus Basin Restoration

An initiative to restore more than 30 per cent of Pakistan’s Indus River Basin by 2030 has been named one of seven UN World Restoration Flagships. Announced ahead of the 6th session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi between the 26th of February and the 1st of March, the World Restoration Flagship awards are part of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The announcement was made by Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in a letter addressed to Pakistan's Minister for Climate Change and Environmental Coordination.

“The Living Indus initiative presents a unique opportunity to enhance the resilience of the Indus ecosystem in the face of climate change,” said Ahmad Irfan Aslam, Pakistan’s Minister for Climate Change and Environmental Coordination. “This holistic strategy employs community-led, gender-responsive, and transparent nature- based solutions for restoring the entire Indus Basin, safeguarding its resources for the people of Pakistan.”

The initiative for the World Restoration Flagship awards is led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). It aims to prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. Under the initiative, countries have pledged to restore 1 billion hectares of nature by 2030.

The Living Indus Initiative is an initiative within Pakistan which aims to restore 25 million hectares of river basin, representing 30 percent of Pakistan’s total area. Currently, the basin-wide initiative has already restored 1,350,000 hectares through 25 different projects – and the total cost is estimated at up to USD 17 billion.

The Indus River rises in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya mountains and flows in a south westerly direction to the Arabian Sea. It is the 12th largest river basin in the world and is shared by four countries: Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan, with most of the basin located in India and Pakistan. It has an annual flow of some 243 km³. It is a crucial resource for Pakistan, as more than 90% of the country’s population lives within the boundaries of the basin. In addition, it is the main source of water for the country: more than 80% of Pakistan’s arable land is located in the basin, and production on this land represents 90% of the country’s agricultural output. The river system is highly biodiverse, being home to at least 668 different bird species and more than 150 fish species. Last but not least, nine of Pakistan’s largest ten cities are located within 50 km of the Indus.    

The river basin however is exposed to multiple risks and challenges: recent predictions suggest that by 2025, the water storage capacity will have reduced by over 30% due to climate change. Over 60% of the waters of the upper Indus originate from ice and snow melt. Water scarcity is increasing: by next year, the country’s effective water deficit is expected to reach 32%, leading to a food deficit of about 70 million tons. In addition, the basin is exposed to flood risks: in July and August  2022, Pakistan experienced extreme rainfall conditions which led to the loss of more than 1,440 lives and the destruction of 65%  of the country’s food crops.

In response to these challenges, the ecological restoration of the Indus River for a climate resilient future was proposed in 2022 in a partnership between Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environmental Coordination, provincial authorities, and UN bodies. The ‘Living Indus Initiative’ is a broad initiative which aims to use all the tools in the toolbox: it is a movement to mobilise tools and ideas at every level of state and society and combine different areas of work towards the restoration of the basin. Primary areas of intervention across the 21 different projects are governance, biodiversity, pollution, livelihoods and groundwater.