Villagers in Bhutan and Assam come together to share river

Women in purple dress

The experience of the Saralbhanga River, which flows from Bhutan to India, shows the power of involving local people in river management.

There are 56 rivers that flow down from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to the eastern state of Assam in India to meet the Brahmaputra River. The hills of Bhutan are covered with lush forests, but on the Indian side of the border there are vast tracts of dry plains with occasional patches of severely denuded forests. Not very long ago the forests were contiguous across the borders but internal migration, poverty and increasing demand for fuelwood changed the landscape drastically on the Indian side of the border.

A large share of Bhutan’s revenue comes from hydropower projects, although it has been declining over the years, from 44.6% in 2001 to 20% in 2013. Most of these hydropower projects have been developed in cooperation with India. Bhutan currently has an installed hydropower capacity of 1,488 MW, although it hopes to increase this to 20,000 MW.

Due to climate change all the rivers flowing from Bhutan to India have changed their behaviour dramatically in the last decade – with long periods of dryness, shallow flow and then repeated flash floods, followed by massive amount of silt, sand, sediments, stones and boulders hurtling downstream across the border into India, constantly altering the river’s course. This has caused hardships and misery to people on both sides of border.