India-China: A Water War over the Brahmaputra?

30 Apr, 2014    ·   4415

Roomana Hukil writes why India, China and Bangladesh urgently need to sign a tripartite water-sharing agreement

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer
Recently, Claude Arpi, renowned scholar on China wrote about how China’s aspirations to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra River were feeding into mounting disagreements between New Delhi and Beijing. China has consistently been moving ahead with its dam construction projects and India has been pressing for a negotiation with the government of China to look into the proposed reduction in the diversion of the water flow of the Brahmaputra.  Is a water conflict over the Brahmaputra River likely in the near future? What measures must the government in India, which will come to power following the conclusion of the ongoing election, adopt in order to resolve the water-sharing tensions between both states?

Water Conflict? No. Inevitable Tensions? Yes
Discourses over the waters of the Brahmaputra River have been doing the rounds ever since China’s announcement about the construction of three dams on the river last year. Despite diplomatic talks, China is keen to divert the waters from the Brahmaputra. In the past, China did not have a strong raison d'être to divert the flow of the river. China’s Vice Minister of Water Resources, Jiao Yong, stated in 2011 that the Chinese government was not planning to conduct any diversion projects along the Brahmaputra River given that there wasn’t a pressing need. 

However, at present, China’s per capita water reserve is approximately 2300 cubic metres – one-fourth of the world’s average. China is, therefore, considered as the 13th most ‘water-poor’ country in the world with 80 per cent of its cities severely water stressed. More so, China’s northern region possesses only 14.5 per cent of the entire country’s water resources. As water supplies tighten, the water quality is degrading, ecology is suffering, and lands are becoming barren. This threatens the country’s economic growth. Thus, the ever-increasing gap in the demand and supply chain in China’s northern region has now pushed the country to move forward with its many dam projects.  

China is keen to divert 150 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water and ‘push’ the waters to irrigate northern China. Of this, 50 BCM would be diverted from the Brahmaputra. In October 2013, India asserted the need for a water sharing treaty with China. This came about, following the paranoia generated after the announcement of the 510-MW Zangmu project along the course of the river.

However, although Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned with an agreement on sharing water-related information during the monsoon months, there was no mention of the planned diversion of the Brahmaputra. So far, India has been incapable in convincing China into building bilateral cooperation over the Brahmaputra River. The previous government in New Delhi did not want to antagonise bilateral relations with Beijing,  and it is possible that the new government will follow suit. 

India recognises that it is not in a position to wage a war with China. However, despite tensions and disagreements over common rivers, India has maintained relatively peaceful hydrological relations with its neighbours – with the Indus, Teesta, and Ganga Rivers being cases in point. On no occasion, did India seek to wage war as a means to resolve its water woes. In this light, India may not enter into a conflict with China over the Brahmaputra, but tensions seem probable.

Role of the New Government
The next government in New Delhi needs to assess the interventions made by Beijing. With the mounting demand for water and the absence of a comprehensive water-sharing policy between India, China and Bangladesh, it is certain that the vast water resources of Tibet and the Eastern Himalayas will be debated, continually.  Irrespective of whether a significant diversion in the flows takes place or not, a water sharing agreement between the upper and lower riparian states will ensure that any violation of international norms of water-sharing is avoided. 

At present, the northern regions of both China and Bangladesh face an acute water shortage. India, being a middle riparian state, too may have to bear the brunt in an event of diversion of the Brahmaputra waters; and it will directly impact the North-eastern region.  The Indian government lags far behind China in terms of tapping the Brahmaputra’s water. 

India’s hydro-power potential is 84,044 megawatts (MW). Approximately 31,857 MW can be accessed by the north-eastern part of the country. However, only three per cent of it is presently being utilised. The government recently sanctioned an 800 MW hydro-electric project on the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh, and there are more plans to generate 55,000 MW of hydro-power by constructing mega dams. 

With both India and China making large scale interventions along the Brahmaputra, they are ignoring the possible implications on the ecology. The next government in New Delhi needs to cater to these concerns and push for a comprehensive tripartite water sharing treaty with all three riparian states.