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Transboundary cooperation a potential route to sustainable development in the Indus basin


With a rapidly growing population of 250 million, the Indus river basin in South Asia is one of the most intensively cultivated regions on Earth, highly water stressed and lacking energy security. Yet, most studies advising sustainable development policy have lacked multi-sectoral and cross-country perspectives. Here we show how the countries in the Indus basin could lower costs for development and reduce soil pollution and water stress by cooperating on water resources and electricity and food production. According to this analysis, Indus basin countries need to increase investments to US$10 billion per yr to mitigate water scarcity issues and ensure improved access to resources by 2050. These costs could shrink to US$2 billion per yr, with economic gains for all, if countries pursued more collaborative policies. Downstream regions would benefit most, with reduced food and energy costs and improved water access, while upstream regions would benefit from new energy investments. Using integrated water–energy–land analysis, this study quantifies the potential benefits of novel avenues to sustainable development arising from greater international cooperation.

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Fig. 1: Expected growth in demand in the Indus basin from 2020 to 2050.
Fig. 2: Maps of annual water stress indicators.
Fig. 3: Total basin average yearly costs.
Fig. 4: SDG versus SDG–coop scenarios for electricity, agriculture, river flows and sectoral annual savings.

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Data availability

Processed input data used for model runs that support the findings of this study, and associated model code, are publicly available (in the .RData format) at Availability of raw data is in some cases subject to third-party restrictions. The data are however available from the corresponding author upon request, subject to permission, when this applies.

Code availability

Model code updated to the scenarios described in this publication is also available for download at


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We acknowledge the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for funding the development of this research as part of the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land (ISWEL) project (GEF Contract Agreement: 6993), and the support of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). This research has also been supported by the University of Victoria’s Building Connections internal grant and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We thank A. Hillers, R. Novak, D. Grey, L. Srivastava and Y. Sokona, members of the ISWEL steering committee, for the enthusiasm and support that characterized the whole collaboration.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.V., S.P., A.S., A.M., A.I., P.M. and K.R. conceived of the research questions and scenario design. A.S., A.M., A.I., B.W., N.Y. and M.A. helped enrich the regional background of the research. A.V. and S.P. led model development. A.V. led the analysis of results, the preparation of figures, data tables and online repositories, and the writing of the manuscript. All the authors contributed to reviewing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adriano Vinca.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Neal Graham, Joseph Guillaume and Mark Howells for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Population and GDP projections.

Population trend and GDP per capita in the Indus basin, from 2010 to 2060.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Exogenous demands.

Exogenous agriculture products (a) electricity (b) and water (c) demands. For each country and the whole Indus basin, from 2010 to 2050. Endogenous cross sectoral demands (that is water for agriculture, energy far water management) depend on the scenario considered.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Sectoral cost differences.

Total cost changes between SDG-coop and BAU (a) and between0020SDG-coop and SDG (b) scenario by country, changes refer to areas within the basin boundary.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Country socio-environmental benefits.

Sectorial socio-environmental benefits of SDG and SDG-coop scenarios with respect to BAU in 2050. indicators: Cumulative air pollutants’ emissions from electricity generation and land use (SO2, CO, NH3, VOC); cumulative CO2 equivalent emitted; average surface and groundwater use per unit of crop product; cumulative release of pollutants from fertilizers (K2O, N, N2O, P2O5, VOC); number of people with not access to sanitation and clean water; difference between lowest and highest discharge river level across scenarios.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–5, Tables 1–7, Discussion and Methods.

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Vinca, A., Parkinson, S., Riahi, K. et al. Transboundary cooperation a potential route to sustainable development in the Indus basin. Nat Sustain 4, 331–339 (2021).

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