Brahmaputra River Valley Authority: India and China Redefining their 'Global Commons’

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3905

Roomana Hukil on the significance of having a river-collaborative mechanism between the two countries

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

Juxtaposing India’s per capita water availability (1.170 cum/person/year) – i.e. lowering than the global water index vis-à-vis the Chinese geo-political assertiveness against India – to undertake gigantic water resource projects raises serious security alarms in the South Asian regime. With China recently turning down India's proposal to pursue a joint bilateral mechanism, it is necessary to assess China's unilateral self-interest in curbing its widening water deficit at the cost of accentuating the lower riparian stress.

The Brahmaputra water issue has the potential to turn into a major bone of contention between both nations at a time when China is also making geopolitical advances in the northern sphere of the country. This article explores the situation and seeks to provide a relevant assessment for redefining water as a global common in lieu of establishing a river valley authority. How should a politically sensitive Brahmaputra revisit its preservation policies and water sharing rights between both countries? More so, what are the prospects in a techno-political framework that call for the establishment of a Brahmaputra River Valley Authority (BRVA)?

Revisiting the 'Global Commons' 
Not a single river-collaborative or transparency mechanism exists between China and any of its riparian neighbours pertaining to the sharing and preservation of water resources. More so, there is no discharge of data on the proposed water-related developments and projects in the Tibetan region such that the reliability factor on China stressing on being ‘vigilant to its responsibility towards cooperation' remains highly bleak. India’s concerns on glacial lake outbursts in the upper regions of the rivers that flow into India from Tibet have not been adequately addressed. Given the evolving  political dynamics between both nations and President Xi Jinping’s recent self-assertion of the 39 Chinese dam construction projects merely being run-of-the-river (ROR), it is hard to imagine China playing the role of a responsible upper riparian by maintaining a regulated flow of the waters in the basin.

Now that China has demonstrated a strong will and competence to plan, undertake and complete gigantic water resource projects against internal or external oppositions, India has to counter each move by refilling roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders towards our 'commons'. As rhetoric-filled as it may sound, the Brahmaputra River is not met, merely, for the consumptive use of China or Tibet or India or Bangladesh. It is an interconnected, transnational resource that crosses all national and ethnic frontiers. Fully understanding the 'global commons' paradox would, primarily, conceive the "securitisation" of the watercourse vis-a-vis reengineering river flows and over-exploiting aquifers to maintain a steady strategic output that quenches the thirst of all.

According to Assamese experts, spearheading an awareness campaign against China's hydro-projects on the Brahmaputra is imperative to counter the proposed 85 percent water flow deficit from China during the summer months. Diplomatic skills to work in cooperation, consistent dialogue building mechanisms, stimulate cross-border, regional hydro-sensitivity, supported by competent multilateral instruments is the key to fulfill the 'global commons theme'. If China and India manage to foster effective diplomacy between them on sharing of trans-border river waters, a new era of mutual trust and confidence would begin in the region.

Contemplating a Brahmaputra River Valley Authority
Constituting a BRVA to consistently monitor the flow of the river on a regular basis should help ensure Chinese intrusive activities do not take place in future without foreseeable broadcasts. The concept of a BRVA continues to have a pessimistic outlook for China to accept as noticed during the current exchange of premier discourses over the water issue. But it is inevitable that a BRVA will not only put a tab on China's legal unfettered foundation of controlling the international watercourse, but it will also ensure India engages in innovative constructs and strategic technological mechanisms that it has, relatively, failed to administer. Due to India's limited storage capacity of retaining hydro-releases during the dry season, the Brahmaputra witnesses heavy havoc each year. For example - the Three-Gorges Dam project drastically altered the weather patterns in Northeast India. As a result, the lower riparian benefactors experienced huge ecological losses and stress. Now if China has its way, the Brahmaputra River will marginally be reduced to a sizable level causing vast water shortages in the sub-regional terrain. 

The Namcah Barhwa (situated at the Great U-bend of the river) is decreasing by 3/4th of an inch every year. More so, the Yarlung-Tsangpo Suture Zone (YTSZ), a junction point between the Indian subcontinent and the Euro Asian plates is contracting. Since, the thrust of the suture is stronger around the Everest region and anemic around the Sikkim-Arunachal region, the instability of basaltic salts, arsenic sedimentary deposits exacerbates. It has been verified that the eastern Himalayan mountain range, Sikkim and eastward, is made of loose soil and bear few rocks. Hence, no waterfalls are found in this region, making the entire region unsafe, unsuitable for dam construction and unreliable even for a run-of-the river (ROR) project. In this view, establishing a river valley authority that caters to the growing insecurities in the region deems vital.

Agreed, a BRVA will deter China from significantly progressing to capture a greater share of the watercourse but the implications for China outweigh any positive outcome. China's proposed 39 dam construction takes into account the need to meet its mounting water requisites. With, merely, 8 percent river-water availability vis-a-vis accounting 20 percent of the total world population, China settling scores through hydropolitics with its riparian neighbours remains a highly contentious issue.