Water sharing: In China’s defence

Mutual trust and not the fear of an imaginary war is needed to improve the Sino-Indian relation over the sharing of Brahmaputra.
The Brahmaputra river (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Brahmaputra river (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When two powerful and populous countries share a river to quench the thirst of its people, some amount of friction between the countries is bound to happen. The water of Brahmaputra, that flows through India, China, Bangladesh and Bhutan, has been a bone of contention between China and India for long. It has now been highlighted as a potential reason for a water conflict to erupt in the Himalayan region.

This article, Sino-Indian water disputes: the coming water wars? published in the March/April 2016 issue of WIREs Water says that since the completion of the largest hydropower dam, Zangmu dam, on the Brahmaputra river in 2014 by China, many Indian and international security observers have been warning of the possibility of a water war between India and China in the near future.

The misplaced fear of a water war

The article, however, says that this narrative of a water war is premature and an in-depth analysis and empirical evidences are needed to confirm it. Many newspapers—both national and international--have written on the issue. They raise two concerns or fears:

  • Due to impending water shortage, China could plan to divert water from Brahmaputra to its dry north. If that happens, it would be a catastrophe for the downstream countries.
  • China has been unwilling to sign any binding agreement with downstream countries over transboundary rivers.

According to this article, China is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. The water scarcity is likely to worsen with increasing industrialisation and urbanisation as well as pollution. China also has a track record of relying on mega infrastructure projects such as Three Gorges Dam and South–North Water Diversion (SNWD) projects to deal with its water challenges.

China has no plan to divert Brahmaputra

India is worried that China could be planning to divert the Brahmaputra river as part of its western route of SNWD projects. However, the article informs that this project is different from the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan (GWWDP) to divert water from the upstream sections of six rivers, including Brahmaputra, in south-west China. The western route of China’s SNWD project, that is officially approved, is about linking the upstream of the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers. This has been suspended since 2006 due to strong objections raised by experts and public who have questioned the economic, environmental and ecological cost of this linking. 

Although some scholars and officials, particularly from the military, have expressed support for the GWWDP, the mainstream scientific community has been against this plan and the Chinese authority has never endorsed it. Even if China successfully diverts the water from the Brahmaputra river, its impact on the downstream countries like India will be very limited as China’s share in the total water discharge of Brahmaputra is smaller than its contribution to the river basin.

China is no water hegemon

Downstream countries think of China as an uncooperative water hegemon probably because of China’s passive role in the international water governance and its reluctance to cooperate with the downstream countries. Although China needs to be more engaging with the neighbouring countries on transboundary river issues, the article points out that the label of a water hegemon is incorrect.

It informs that China is party to about 50 treaties related to its shared water resources, although most of the treaties are not water-sharing agreements. In recent years, China has been showing more willingness to cooperate with downstream countries on transboundary river issues. In the northeast Asia, China and Russia have a long history of water cooperation and they are bound by numerous bilateral agreements and have many joint institutions. It has also had successful cooperation with Kazakhstan on the Irish river and southeast Asian countries on the Mekong river.

For the Brahmaputra river, however, there is neither an effective multilateral working mechanism to deal with transboundary river issues among China, India, and Bangladesh nor any bilateral water treaty signed between China and lower riparian states including India and Bangladesh. But China has signed several agreements on the Brahmaputra river with both India and Bangladesh over the past 10 years.

China does not have an independent transboundary river policy due to many reasons--from divergent interests between the central and the local governments and different ministries and departments to absence of a single, unified authority that deals with the management of transboundary rivers. It manages its transboundary rivers as a subset of its broader relations with other riparian states.

The article ends by saying that in this context, playing up the narratives of ‘water wars’ or the ‘China threat’ would not be helpful and could lead to overreactions from both sides. What is needed to improve the Sino-Indian relation is mutual trust that could go a long way in having a constructive dialogue on sharing the water of Brahmaputra.

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