Brahmaputra’s troubled waters

There are more than 20 dams at various stages of construction at the Tibetan plateau to generate hydroelectricity for China and it is feared that they will reduce the flow of water in Brahmaputra

Photo by International Centre for Water Cooperation
Photo by International Centre for Water Cooperation
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Alok Kumar

Trans-boundary water sharing of Brahmaputra River has been causing concern and is emerging as yet another flash point that can trigger conflict in South-Asia. On several occasions India has raised concerns over construction of dams on the upstream Brahmaputra River which is known as Yarlun Tsangpo in Tibet. It is feared that due to construction of these dams, the flow of water will decrease in the course of Brahmaputra River.

This permanent inadequacy of water flow will adversely affect the economy of north-eastern part of India and almost all parts of Bangladesh. The fresh row of tension over water of Brahmaputra River was started with a report, in which South China Morning Post claimed that China is exploring the feasibility of constructing a 1000 km long water tunnel to divert the water to the parched Takla Makan region of Xinjiang Province. The Chinese government is dreaming of converting Xinjiang into California with the use of Yarlung Tsangpo’s water. More than 100 scientists and engineers are working to develop an appropriate tunnel structure for successful implementation of this project. The water will drop down from the plateau of Tibet and pass through tunnels and waterfalls at several points to reach Xinjiang province.

The issue has raised concerns over secure supply of water to India and Bangladesh. The cause of tension between India and China is mainly because there is no proper mechanism of sharing of the trans-boundary water. There is no bilateral agreement over sharing of water of Brahmaputra River. In 2002, India and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for sharing hydrological information during the months of monsoon. This MoU was previously discontinued after the 1962 Sino-Indian border war.

Later in September 2014, during the first visit of Xi Jinping to India an agreement was signed with Modi government to share information on hydrological data but that too was only a kind of information sharing agreement. The dispute between India and China was exacerbated by the lack of authentic data of river flow rates and water utilisation, as well as the precise impact of diversion and construction of large infrastructures on this river. Brahmaputra originates from Tibet and flows through 2900 km, enters India at Arunachal Pradesh before draining into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh where it is called Yamuna River. It is highly resourceful for all the three countries through which it passes; for example, it provides hydroelectricity to the energy hungry China and it is the main source of livelihood for north-eastern states of India and a key lifeline for poverty ridden overpopulated Bangladesh.

There are more than 20 dams at various stages of construction at Tibetan plateau to generate hydroelectricity for China and it is feared that they will reduce the flow of water in Brahmaputra River. It will compound the already tenuous water situation in the downstream region directly affect the agricultural activities of Assam’s plain in India and most of the parts of Bangladesh.

Though, China has denied any diversion plan, the river Brahmaputra remains a reason for conflict between China and India and it is set to intensify. The Chinese decision to begin constructions in early 2013 raised concerns in India that China intended to divert water from the river. These concerns were voiced in Brahma Chellaney’s writings in “Coming Water Wars” in which he discussed the “dangerous idea” of rerouting Brahamputar’s water northwards to feed the parched regions of Xinjiang Province. Chellaney also mentioned that the idea of river water diversion was developed after a former PLA officer’s book titled Tibet’s Waters Can Save China (2005) that received much domestic and international attention. China has to go beyond the commissioning of projects at their independent disposition and look at the larger issues concerning the whole Brahmaputra River basin. The engagement process of New Delhi and Beijing needs to move towards engagement and dialogue on Brahmaputra as a precursor to any negotiation on this issue. Any bilateral dialogue needs to be inclusive, with involvement of all stakeholders and identify new approaches to address this common problem.

While we may not foresee a formal treaty in the immediate future, we need to explore options on how New Delhi and Beijing can be engaged in alternate processes to lay the ground for and move ahead from the existing fear and notions of ‘stealing the river’ and ‘upstream hegemony’. The process of dialogue must address the concerns of various stakeholders and sub-national units and the success of such dialogue will depend on New Delhi’s engagement with Beijing.

River basin management especially trans-boundary water is a simple and pragmatic way of water management. If

a multilateral body comes into being, it will ensure equitable distribution for riparian countries.

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