When neighbours fight for water

As conflict over sharing of river Brahmaputra threatens to raise its ugly head again, cooperation, not competition between China, India and Bangladesh alone can solve the issue
The river Brahmaputra (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The river Brahmaputra (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With recent reports of China blocking a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Tibet to construct its most expensive hydro project, the Assam government has been worried. Experts in the field believe that it is time India initiated hydro diplomacy with its neighbour. 

Claiming their stakes

This report Water resource competition in the Brahmaputra river basin: China, India and Bangladesh published by CNA Analysis and Solutions says that the Brahmaputra river, which originates in China and runs through India as well as Bangladesh, is important for the water security of all the three countries, but with different implications for each of them. The river originates in Tibet, controlled by China (upper riparian), runs through India (middle riparian) and flows into Bangladesh (lower riparian).

China and India have already fought a war in 1962 over the contested territory through which the river flows while Bangladesh faces serious water security concerns as it is always at the receiving end of the upstream river practices of China and India. However, despite concerns related to regional security due to dam building and water-diversion activities, no bilateral or multilateral water management accord exists in the Brahmaputra river basin.

A number of studies have examined the water policies of the three countries and their implications on water management. This report presents the findings of a study that analyses:

  • The security implications of the competition over the water in the Brahmaputra river basin at the domestic, bilateral and river basin levels in the three countries.
  • The  policies and steps that can be undertaken to improve water security and encourage cooperation in the basin.

China’s stand on the issue

Called as Yarlung Psangpo in China, the Brahmaputra is important to China for its hydropower development plans, a plan that is expected to meet least resistance from Tibet due to its negligible population and vulnerable position. There have been rumours of Chinese plans to divert the Brahmaputra to deal with the domestic water shortages. Although these plans seem unlikely because of cost and feasibility concerns, it has been worrying India for some time.

On the other hand, China is concerned about India’s efforts to build hydroelectric dams in Arunachal Pradesh that would increase India’s control on the disputed region. The border dispute and lack of mutual trust between the two countries provide little option to come up with agreements or water treaties. The two countries, however, have started cooperating on hydrological information-sharing, disaster management and pollution control. It appears that China was reluctant to engage in basin-wide cooperation with India and Bangladesh, but maybe open to exploring multilateral avenues based on information sharing and technical challenges.

How India feels about it

The Brahmaputra flows through only three percent of the area in India. Though the area is neither populated, nor industrialised or agriculturally-developed, the water is important for the population that resides in the area. However, the river has great political significance for India as it flows through the northeast that is now gaining political importance in the country, and then flows to Bangladesh, the lower riparian, with which it has had difficult relations.

India’s policies as a middle riparian are different than those of China and Bangladesh. The policies also depend on China’s plan to dam and possibly divert the river, its desire to establish the right over the river and its need to generate electricity and control flooding and soil erosion in the northeastern states by constructing dams.

Although India and China have increased their dialogue on information sharing on the Brahmaputra, a deep sense of distrust still prevails among the two countries. With Bangladesh, India’s concerns related to the Brahmaputra are a part of its wider relations with other countries conducted through the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) and specific agreements on the Teesta and the Ganges river.

Bangladesh: Caught between powerful neighbours

Bangladesh faces the maximum potential threat to the Brahmaputra from the actions of its two upper riparian neighbours as its population highly depends on the river waters that originate from  outside its boundaries. Bangladesh looks at the many river-related activities of India, like the river interlinking project, the failed Teesta 2011 agreement, the current river-diversion plans, its consumption of the Ganges river resources that have led to lower dry season flows and salinity intrusion with more caution that it does with China’s dam-building plans or its lack of transparency.

However, both India and China share seasonal water flow and rainfall data with Bangladesh to help with flood forecasting. Recently, the relations between India and Bangladesh have improved and there is hope that this will lead to the signing of the agreement on the Teesta river, thus setting the stage for further positive interactions between the two countries. Among the three riparians, Bangladesh is the strongest advocate of cooperative multilateral management and development of the basin.

Need for the three countries to work together

The report argues for the need for the three countries to work together bilaterally and multilaterally and improve their domestic management of the Brahmaputra river. The report makes some recommendations at the domestic, bilateral and basin-wide levels for better partnership among the three countries.

Domestic level

  • China should provide access to information regarding its dam-construction plans on the Brahmaputra.
  • The government of India should continue efforts to help hydrological data-sharing between the centre and the northeastern states in India, improve dialogue with the northeastern government on its plan to construct major dams in the region and cooperate more on the ecosystem management and ecological protection initiatives.
  • Bangladesh needs to include more stakeholders in its national water management policies for the Brahmaputra basin and take help from the international community to conduct evidence-based assessment of human-security impacts in the basin.

Bilateral recommendations

  • China should consider hydropower as a potential area of cooperation with India and explore ways to share hydrological data and expand humanitarian and ecological cooperation over the Brahmaputra with India.
  • India should:
    • move ahead with China to share the hydrological data related to the Yarlung Psangpo and Lohit or Zayu Ku rivers according to the 2006 Joint Declaration between the two countries.
    • issue an update on the India-China relations over the Brahmaputra river.
    • clarify its plans regarding the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries, implement the Teesta river agreement with Bangladesh by working closely with the West Bengal government.
  • Bangladesh should:
    • seek rainfall and water flow data from China and India year round and request site visits to the dams and barrages in both the riparians.
    • seek greater cooperation over river navigation in the Brahmaputra and continue cooperation over the Teesta river agreement with India.
    • formalise its 2015 MOU with China for provision of water data and encourage Beijing to improve transparency with India so that other multilateral issues can be addressed.

Basin-wide recommendations

  • China should start a dialogue with India and Bangladesh to discuss shared water challenges.
  • India should:
    • include elements of ecosystem management and ecological protection in its discussion with China and Bangladesh.
    • consider how existing basin-wide mechanisms such as BCIM grouping (linkages between China, Bangladesh, India and Myanmar can help in research and action on preserving and monitoring the Himalayan glaciers as a part of the region’s common heritage.
  • Bangladesh should initiate dialogue and discussion with India and China to address specific aspects of pollution, erosion, sedimentation, flood prevention and forecasting and basin-wide management.

The international community, on the other hand should be alert about the long-term implications of the discord between the three countries and the need for potential cooperation.

As we write this, there are reports coming in about the cooperation between the three countries on water sharing, with the Chinese official media quoting the readiness of Beijing to start a multilateral cooperation mechanism with India and Bangladesh to share waters. A formal identification of 10 more transboundary rivers between India and Bangladesh by the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) with a plan to enable the two countries to work together to manage them is also on the cards.

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