South Asia

Great rivers are the cultural and economic backbone of South Asia. The Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra have contributed to the rise and prosperity of some of the earliest civilizations in history and today are the source of livelihood for millions. The South Asian river basins, most of which have their source in the Himalayas, support rich ecosystems and irrigate millions of hectares of fields, thereby supporting some of the highest population densities in the world.

Rivers are, however, also a source of conflict between countries and people in the region. The question of whether and how to harness rivers for hydropower generation and commercial irrigation is an issue of great concern and a source of controversy. Large-scale water development schemes have in the past contributed to the impoverishment of many river basin communities in South Asia. For nearly 30 years, South Asian civil society, including the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has been a leader in the fight against the social ravages of large dam projects, such as the Narmada Valley Development Project.

However, many governments in the region exaggerate the irrigation and power benefits of large dams and neglect their social, environmental and economic costs, and continue to promote them as the best option for increasing access to energy and water. Better ways to harness water and generate energy are too often overlooked. Decentralized renewable power supply options, such as off-grid micro-hydropower, biogas plants, solar and wind power – would often be more cost effective and better suited to supply rural villages with electricity. Supporting poor farmers to trap rain when and where it falls would often be a better investment for rural poverty reduction than the construction of large storage dams.

International Rivers is working with civil society groups and peoples' movements all over South Asia to protect their rivers and watersheds and to promote a socially just development path. Please explore these pages to learn more about efforts to protect the great rivers of South Asia.

More information: