China’s Dam On The Brahmaputra: Cause For Concern?


By Pia Malhotra

Even as India and Pakistan tussle over shared River waters and even as water threatens to become the next ‘core’ issue between the two countries, another region in the vicinity is emerging as an area of contention; India-China. When it comes to water issues, what India is to Pakistan, China is to India- an upper riparian, who has the ‘potential’ power to disrupt water flows into the lower riparian, in the former case, Pakistan and in the latter case, India.

Analysts have gone as far as attributing China’s intransigence on Tibet to its need for securing water resources. The Tibetan Plateau is the headwaters for many of Asia’s rivers including the Yellow, Yangtze, the Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej. China’s water resources are dwindling and it is expected to fall short of its water demands by 25 per cent by 2030; quite similar to the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The six major rivers of the Indus basin have their head source in Kashmir.

Asia is a region that is home to two of the fastest growing economies of the world, India and China and as reserves of oil dwindle, pressure on alternative sources like hydro power is only expected to mount. A very important aspect that colours the water debate in the region is the political relationship between the countries in the region. Right from India and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, India and Nepal to India and China, relations between the countries are anything but smooth. Water only adds to the plethora of problems that these countries already face like border issues, issue of migrants, cross border infiltration and trafficking etc.

India and China are the leading economies in the region and hence also the ones that are likely to dispute over the water issue, especially over the Brahmaputra which originates in Tibet. India and China’s positions on Tibet are well established, but the water issue adds another potential area of confrontation between the two. China has two major plans on the Tsang-Po (Brahmaputra in India). One is the Zangmu project in Tibet, which is essentially a ‘run of the river’ hydel power generation project which is not of much concern to India. The real worry is China’s ambitious plans to divert water from the south to the arid north along three major routes. One of the routes is from the Brahmaputra and involves building a dam on the ‘great bend’ of the Brahmaputra and this would impact both India and Bangladesh and millions of people who depend on the waters of this river for their livelihood.  This would also impact India’s own National River Linking Project (NRLP), which entails diverting the waters of the North to the South. The Brahmaputra accounts for 29% of the total run-off all India’s rivers and its waters are central to the success of the NRLP.

China, nevertheless maintains that it has no plans to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra. In his visit to Beijing, earlier this year, External Affairs Minister, SM Krishna was given assurances by his Chinese counterpart that the dam it was building on the Tsang Po would not affect the flow of water of the Brahmaputra. However, considering China’s usual reluctance to share information and the absence of a water sharing treaty between the two, this becomes a major concern for India.  Beijing had even denied the Zangmu project for a long time, before finally accepting to it last year. India should continue to insist on regular data hydrological data sharing and satellite imaging to obviate any confrontation later.

India and China water issues also highlight another issue; the basic insecurity that any lower riparian feels at the strategic muscle of the upper riparian. The upper riparian, if it desires, can use its control of the water source as a potential weapon. This provides a context to Pakistan’s insecurity with India. Even though India has always adhered to the Indus Water Treaty, its control of the water sources creates immense panic in Pakistan. This panic can be reduced by creating joint structures for cooperation. Water is invariably going to emerge as a banner issues in Asia, with two of the fastest developing economies situated in the region. One way that this insecurity can be mitigated is by initiating joint projects in water management. India and China need to think of a sharing mechanism, if not a joint treaty. The countries could work on alternatives to big hydro-electric projects, which have negative ecological impact, and also focus on water conservation. Other areas include energy swaps and replacing wasteful irrigation methods by more efficient ones like drip irrigation.

It is important to bear in mind that any solution to the water issue will have to be regional and cutting across the different countries in Asia because unless all the affected countries have a stake in the decision, it will not be sustainable. Keeping this in mind, greater importance should be given to basin wide cooperation on water management. Protection of water sources, improving and maintaining water quality, issues of drainage, flood control, water harvesting and watershed management are some potential areas where cooperation can be envisaged.

Pia Malhotra is a Research Officer at IPCS and may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *