While the border dispute between India and China remains unresolved, and political differences widen on bilateral as well as regional issues, water has emerged as yet another issue where differences are widening with the potential of conflict in the future. India is worried about China’s dam projects on the Brahmaputra river and both countries are asserting to defend their national interests and claims in controlling the water as it flows from the Tibetan plateau to the riparian states downstream in India and Bangladesh before joining the Bay of Bengal.
No sooner than China successfully blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and equating India with Pakistan’s claim for the same, India announced plans to assert its rights within the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan. China retaliated within days of India’s announcement saying that it was building a dam on a tributary of the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlung Zangbo (Tsangpo) in Tibet). It soon transpired that China’s announcement on 1 October of the blockade of Xiabuqu river in Tibet is part of the construction of its “most expensive hydel project”. As a lower riparian state, India will be directly affected.
India sees red in China’s dam building overdrive. India is concerned because there are no bilateral or multilateral treaties on the water. Since Brahmaputra which originates from the Angsi glacier in western Tibet and flows through the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, building a dam on the river could help it assert claim over the state.
For quite some time, China had been claiming Tawang in the state of Arunachal Pradesh as its own and then started claiming the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. China raises objections when Indian political leaders and Dalai Lama visit the state, latest being the visit of the US ambassador to India. India fears that if China builds dam projects in the Tibetan plateau, it would threaten to reduce flow of river water into India. Water is a critical resource for any nation that fetches rich economic dividend and therefore a country can use water by constructing dams, canals and irrigation systems as political weapon, which can be used both in war and also during peace time. In Brahmaputra’s case, China’s act signal annoyance with riparian states. Also denial of hydrological data becomes critical when the flow in the river is very high.
India is also concerned that China is contemplating northward re-routing of the Brahmaputra, though this is an idea that China does not discuss in the public. If China diverts the river, it could have devastating consequences for India’s northeastern plains and also for Bangladesh, either with floods or reduced water flow.
In 2010 China built the first dam on the main upper reaches of the Brahmaputra at Zangmu. In February 2013, India complained to China about its hydro projects on the Brahmaputra in Tibet in addition to the one being built. This caused considerable disquiet in India as it was not informed before. A document listing projects to be completed in China’s 12th five-year-plan, a blueprint for the energy sector, approved by the Chinese cabinet made passing reference to the three hydropower bases on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu (small scale projects) without giving any details. Beijing has fixed an ambitious target of 120 million kilowatt of electricity generation to fuel its economic growth, some of which China plans to source from hydro power. China therefore eyes on the waters of Brahmaputra as the most attractive source.
India and China signed two pacts in 2008 and 2010 which facilitated India with data on water levels and rainfall twice a day from 1 June to 15 October at three hydrological stations in Tibet. In 2001, an artificial dam in Tibet collapsed and killed 26 people, besides damaging property worth Rs. 140 crore along the river Siang in Arunachal Pradesh. China claimed that the project had gone through scientific planning and study with consideration of the interests of lower and upper stream countries. Such defence however did not assuage the concerns of the lower riparian countries.
China has another project, the Lalho project, on the 195-km long Xiabuqu River in Xigaze, also known as Shigatse (close to Sikkim) with an investment of $740 million. In 2015, China inaugurated the Zam Hydropower station, the largest in Tibet, the highest dam built on Brahmaputra.
From 2011 onwards, the situation has drastically changed. Not only now China continues to build dams on the river with impunity, and already planned to implement its long-term goal to divert waters of the Brahmaputra to its parched northeast, it refuses to accede to any international rule of law. There is no bilateral water treaty between India and China. China is not ready to even discuss the issue with India.
As a lower riparian state with considerable established user rights to the waters or the river, India has conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities and urged China to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas.
An NGO in Assam, Jana Jagriti, alleges that China is building 35 hydropower dams, not just three, on the upper reaches of the river in Tibet. The NGO made public photograph in support of its claims that the projects are to divert the waters, which it calls “South to North Water Diversion Projects”. The NGO claims that once the Chinese complete the projects, Assam will receive 64 per cent less water during the monsoon and in the non-monsoon season, 85 per cent less water will come from China to India. Brahmaputra is the lifeline of Assam as well as the state’s cultural heritage, besides being connected with the state’s religious sentiments. The truism, however, is that apart from the economic benefits that China is going to derive from the projects, it would have strengthened its strategic reach. That would be more worrying for India. India needs to take a tough stance to protect and if need be defend its interests.
By dam building activities in Brahmaputra, China is exposing India’s vulnerability on the eastern sector being the lower riparian state and the dam projects could reduce the availability of water downstream. Tibet being a source of major rivers, including the Mekong, if China continues to control water flows of rivers originating in Tibet, most lower riparian states shall have reason to feel concerned. Besides arresting the flow of water, other related problems such as changes in the flow of silt could be worrying for the lower riparian states.
Though China has assuaged India’s concern, in the absence of any legal agreement to regulate flow of water, given the nature of the relationships between the two countries it is difficult for India to accept China’s promise. China would not hesitate to use the water issue as a strategic tool when it suits its interests. Diverting Brahmaputra waters from Tibet to northern parts of China to deny India and the low stream riparian states could be one possibility that China might resort to when it feels strategically appropriate to serve its interests.
Given the all-weather relationship with Pakistan, Beijing seems to be retaliating indirectly in its response to India’s surgical strikes into Pakistan to hurt India. It could also be a Chinese hint to India’s intent to revisit the Indus Water Treaty which ensures supply of Indus waters to Pakistan, reminding India that its northeastern part is at China’s mercy as the latter can control Brahmaputra waters as an upper riparian state.
Moreover, the strategic calculation behind China’s plan to develop the Medog hydro power plant is a cause of worry for India as its location close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh could give a critical strategic advantage to China. Not only such a project could potentially deny a great amount of water to Arunachal Pradesh, the impact on the environment and natural habitat could also be telling. Since this is an earthquake prone area, if an earthquake occurs, the consequences could be devastating with massive floods. Assam and Arunachal Pradesh would face heavy casualty of loss of life in such a case. This is another worry for India.
Allaying India’s Concern
China has sought to allay India’s apprehensions saying that it would not affect the river flow into India and that there shall be no adverse impact on downstream areas. It has also justified its move to blockade a tributary of the Brahmaputra to construct a dam. As regards its Lalho dam project on the Xiabuqu river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra with an investment of $740 million, China justifies that since the tributary is located completely within the Chinese side, China’s objective is to address food security in Tibet and therefore justifies it as an important livelihood project. China explains that the reservoir capacity of the project is less than 0.02 per cent of the average annual runoff of the Brahmaputra and therefore cannot have an adverse impact on the downstream. Chinese foreign ministry claims to be working in letter and spirit of the Expert Level Mechanism on trans-border rivers between the two countries and carrying out good cooperation on trans-border rivers for a long time and is willing to continue relevant cooperation within the existing framework.
At the same time, the ministry observed that Brahmaputra flows through economically less developed ethnic minority regions of China and therefore “legitimate use of the water and hydrological resources is an important component of the rights of the people of this region to live and develop”. It further observed: “The Chinese side has always held a responsible attitude towards exploitation of water resources of the Yarlung Zangbo, and carries out a policy of actual development and protection at the same time. Scientific planning, adequate justification, prudent decisions and orderly exploitation are in line with international practice”.
An article in the state-run Global Times observed that relations between India and China should not be affected by “imaginary water war” and that China would not use Brahmaputra water as a political weapon. The article talked about China’s willingness for multilateral cooperation between China, India and Bangladesh to share waters. In the absence of any water treaty, it remains unclear how such multilateral cooperation could be possible. The article also dismissed reports that China is taking advantage of the differences between India and Pakistan over the Indus Water Treaty water by silently supporting Pakistan.
The article pointed out that China is the source of several trans-boundary rivers including the Lancang-Mekong River, which runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and reminds India that any unilateral Chinese action to block water flow in Brahmaputra would send a negative message to the five Southeast Asian nations, which is why India need not be too worried.
In the larger interests of India and China as well as the region, the two big Asian nations need to engage in constant dialogue and seek means for mutual prosperity keeping aside their political differences on other issues. Removing trust deficit by sustained dialogue on rational use of the river water will create a win-win situation for all the stakeholders.