India, China and the Brahmaputra tangle

The Brahmaputra (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Brahmaputra (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Recent news indicates that the Brahmaputra could be a bone of contention between two important countries in South Asia -- India and China. This is because there are unconfirmed but continuing and alarming reports in recent years on China's plans to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra northwards, potentially creating a water crisis in India since it is located downstream to China. 

The paper titled 'India-China-Brahmaputra: Suggestions for an approach' published in the Economic and Political Weekly, informs that although no hard evidence exists on China's exact plans regarding its interventions on the Brahmaputra, the possibility of China's actions cannot be ruled out taking into consideration its dire need for water in the north of the country. In the absence of hard information and evidence, it is important for India to be aware of the possibilities and work out possible scenarios on what stand could it take if such a situation arose before it actually happened. 

Proposed interventions planned by China on the Brahmaputra 

As reports say, one plan includes constructing the world’s largest hydroelectric power project at the point where the river takes a U-turn before entering India. The other is the idea to divert the Brahmaputra's waters. While the former plan could leave a negative mark on the surrounding ecology, the latter could reduce the flows of the river to downstream countries.

Negotiating with responsibility and consistency

The paper argues that both these interventions could spell disaster for India and all the neighbouring downstream countries. It stresses the importance of constantly questioning the Chinese on their plans and expressing apprehensions to ensure that they take into account India's concerns while planning, constructing and operating any intervention. A treaty on the Brahmaputra would be useful but it will have to be a multilateral one covering China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh, with a multilateral Brahmaputra Commission similar to the Mekong Commission. 

All these negotiations come with a responsibility. Although our actions are justified as a downstream neighbour to China, we should also be conscious of the fact that we too have downstream neighbours with whom we share our  water sources. This should also help us reconsider our own thinking about rivers, and be consistent between what we do internally and what we expect our neighbours to do, and also realise how our behaviour is towards our downstream neighbours in the context of the behaviour that we expect from upstream China.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded below.