Pakistan Institute of Development Economics



An Ecosystem Valuation for Enhanced Transboundary Water Cooperation in the Kabul River Basin (Article)

The ongoing water conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the transboundary Kabul River Basin are narrowly focused on quantitative water distributions, which lead to winlose situations. This study proposes a novel idea of using the biodiversity and ecosystem services (BESS) concept to bring together multiple stakeholders across the KRB and transform the water-sharing conflicts. The study redefines the water management problem in the context of a green water economy and evidence of shared environmental benefits. The study found that the BESS provided by the Kabul River are vital for the livelihood of the residents and the natural flow of water is a win-win situation for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The study recommends designing PES schemes for the sustainability and shared prosperity of the region. A new perspective on transboundary water conflicts in the KRB is needed, one that focuses on shared environmental benefits and the BESS of the river basin. This new perspective could lead to more cooperative and sustainable water management solutions.


Biodiversity and the ESS is a complex but significant area, which influences the well-being of humans in diverse ways. The ESS can provide provisioning services as well as regulate services. The literature shows different approaches to the of provisioning ESS (Häyhä, Tiina, & Franzese, 2014). Placing an economic value on nature can be a powerful tool as it makes the invisible benefits identifiable. ESS represent outcomes of a natural system which benefits the people. The significance of water as a natural resource and ecosystem provides a wide range of services and various functions as the use of water for drinking, irrigation, or livestock (Radoslav, 2018).

River water services provide numerous benefits in terms of social and ecological facilities, which benefit the people and contribute to the well-being of the area. Globally, in 150 countries, there are a total of approximately 310 transboundary rivers. Water-related conflicts are not only frequent but are increasing due to the current worsening situation of water globally. Several water treaties are in place between various countries, yet the conflicts emerge frequently (Wang, et al., 2021). The water politics of transboundary rivers are emerging as a compelling research field in social hydrology. Many international basins are governed by multi-level institutions. Besides, the valuation of the benefits of river systems can positively contribute to efficient river-water management and reduce water-related conflicts and problems (Khan & Zhao, 2019). However, this is not the case with managing the Kabul River Basin (KRB).

The KRB between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not governed by an international agreement and boundary problems, that is, the contested Durand Line, affect the relationship (Yousaf, 2017). Water conflicts in the KRB between Afghanistan and Pakistan have intensified since 2000, coupled with security issues due to the ongoing insurgencies in the region. Growing industrialisation, urbanisation, and climate change which affect the continuity of snow-fed rivers, environmental hazards, and the geostrategic importance of the area further exacerbate these disputes. The existing transboundary water mechanisms are state-centric and bilateral, exclude other relevant actors, and emphasise water quantity as the basis for water sharing (Yousaf, 2017). These agreements disregard the broader biodiversity and ecosystem services (BESS) of the river basin and what these services could imply in terms of enhancing human well-being. The BESS of water includes biodiversity, provisioning (e.g., food production), regulating (e.g., climate & water regulation), supporting (e.g., nutrient cycling), and cultural services (recreational, spiritual) (Pavan, Wittmer, & Miller, 2014). The value of global BESS was estimated at $145 trillion in 2011 at a time when global GDP was $73.3 trillion 1 (Robert, et al. 2014). Extrapolating to the river basin between the two countries, one can argue that understanding the value of the BESS in the region could lead to a different problem framing and enable integrative multi-level bargaining leading to winwin solutions. While the BESS values the interdependence of humans and nature, it also offers conceptual and empirical tools to communicate with a wide-ranging audience (Robert, et al. 2014) and reveals the cost of damage, it may lead to the commoditisation or privatisation of such resources (Sullivan, 2013). Therefore, an analysis is required for a better understanding of the water BESS (it may still avoid such commoditisation) to evaluate if a change in the behaviour of relevant and powerful actors can be pursued while addressing socio-relational (dispute resolution, capacity building, and intergenerational equity) and ecological (pollution prevention, and the protection of BESS) goals and, thereby, contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By embracing economic, ecological, and social-relational mechanisms, the BESS concept connects the environmental system with politics and decision-making as well as fosters interdisciplinary science (Schröter, et al). It enables integrated trans-disciplinary approaches to solve such complex issues by building bridges between science and practice (Robert, 2011). The water conflict arising due to transboundary river basins can be analysed using an ecological valuation. Hence, the focus of this study is on estimating the provisioning ecosystem services on Pakistan’s side of the KRB. An objective of the study is to develop an understanding of transforming a win-lose situation into a win-win situation for both parties.


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