The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Pakistan - U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program
Development, Security, and Cooperation
Policy and Global Affairs
Home About Us For Applicants Funded Projects Special Events

Pakistan-US Science and Technology Cooperation Program                                                            
Phase 3 (2007 Deadline)

Upper Indus River-Flow Reconstructions Using Tree Rings: Implications
for Agriculture and Hydroelectricity 

Edward R. Cook, Columbia University
Moinuddin Ahmed, Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences, and Technology, Karachi
Pakistani Funding (HEC):  $ 140,000
US Funding (USAID):    $ 100,000

Project Dates on US Side: April 1, 2008 - March 31, 2011

Project Overview

Pakistan is one of the world’s most arid countries, with an average annual rainfall of less than 240 mm. The population and the economy are heavily dependent on an annual influx of water into the Indus river system, primarily from melting snow. Severe declines in the flow of the Indus River pose a great threat to Pakistan, particularly if they are especially severe and long-lasting (so-called “megadroughts”). Elsewhere there is strong archaeological evidence for the destabilizing influence of past droughts on advanced agricultural societies, something that should resonate today given the increasing vulnerability of modern water-based systems (both agricultural and hydroelectrical) to relatively short-term droughts. Understanding how past river-flow changes have developed and persisted is a timely scientific problem. However, a recent World Bank report on the topic clearly states that the science is in its infancy and that there is an inadequate knowledge base. The researchers involved in this project worked to address this point. Monitored river discharge records of the Indus River are simply too short (less than 40 years) to capture the range of past conditions, so surrogate or proxy-climate indicators must be used to provide the long-term record. Tree rings are the only suitable proxy that has been proven to be sensitive to changes in moisture supply, able to provide broad spatial coverage, has clearly-resolved annual resolution, can be exactly dated, and provide long enough records.

Fortunately, the northern area of Pakistan has forests containing a range of species that can provide long annual tree-ring chronologies thanks to the pioneering research undertaken by the Pakistani principal investigator, Dr. Ahmed. In this project, he and his US partners worked to create a network of tree-ring chronologies from the catchments of the upper Indus River and reconstruct river-flow for at least the last 150 years. Similar work has been successfully done in the United States, and two key people involved in that research (Dr. Cook and collaborating researcher Dr. Connie Woodhouse of the University of Arizona) were included in this project. The reconstructions will provide key information for the management of the river as well as provide a baseline from which to evaluate scenarios of future climatic change. 

Major Results

  • Developed a network of long-term tree-ring records in the Upper Indus Basin to reconstruct past flow (discharge) levels of the Indus River
  • Discovered that the record of measured discharge levels only started back in 1962 (48 years) whereas the tree-ring based reconstruction extends back to 1470 (some 540 years)
  • Discovered that the 1990-2008 riverflow level has been anomalously high and a return to levels typical for a low-flow period would have catastrophic effects on agricultural and hydroelectric production and livelihoods
  • Provided training to three Pakistani PhD students under the supervision of local PI Prof. Moinuddin Ahmed, including extensive field and lab training during the US team’s visits and via the Internet
  • Presented a series of workshops and seminars led by Prof. Ahmed, as well as more than 15 project-related presentations by project team members at various conferences and workshops
  • Delivered extensive training to FUUAST laboratory staff on using software and interpreting results  

Quarterly Update

The final major activity on this project was a workshop on riverflow data reconstruction held in Karachi in November 2010, which featured the participation of Dr. Jonathan Palmer, a consultant on the project, as well as Dr. Connie Woodhouse. The project was completed as of March 31, 2011, and the final report is available through the link below. Click here to see an article on the project that appeared in the Pakistani English-language daily Dawn in June 2011.

Progress Report Summaries

Show all progress summaries | Hide progress summaries

2010 Show summary || Hide summary 

2009 Show summary || Hide summary 

2008 Show summary || Hide summary 

Back to Pakistan-US Science and Technology Program Phase 3 Grants List