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Mutual Mistrust should Give Way to Water Cooperation between India and China

14 March, 2018
Dhanasree Jayaram, Manipal Academy of Higher Education

Majuli, Assam, India, Brahmaputra, river, water cooperation, conflict, geopolitics, China

Majuli, Assam, India, Brahmaputra, river, nature, water
Majuli Island in the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India. | © Zak261826/Pixabay

Tense relations between India and China and the lack of meaningful cooperation between them over the waters of the Brahmaputra could turn it into a geopolitical flashpoint. India should push for an all-encompassing dialogue on river water sharing that ensures transparency and cooperation at all times, on both sides of the Sino-Indian border and beyond.

Towards the end of 2017, the waters of River Brahmaputra – that originates in Tibet (where it is called “Yarlung Tsangpo”), flows through India’s Northeast and empties into the Bay of Bengal Sea via Bangladesh – were tested to be highly turbid, polluted and non-potable. This incident reignited several rumours about alleged Chinese dam-building and water diversion activities in Tibet. In 2017, China also declined to share water flowdata with India due to “technical reasons” (that “the data collection station in Tibet was being upgraded”) but reports revealed that during the same period, China shared data with Bangladesh. Due to unavailability of flood-season data, India was not well-positioned to gauge the probability of flood-like situation in the Northeast and prepare for it, thereby creating havoc in the state of Assam, killing and displacing hundreds.

China’s refusal to share data was seen by many experts as a reaction to the Doklam standoff between the Indian Armed Forces and China’s People’s Liberation Army in 2017. This is not the first time that India has been at the receiving end of China’s opaque policies that have hindered an amicable upstream/downstream relationship between the two countries, reflective of turbulent Sino-Indian political relations.

Is China Using Brahmaputra as Leverage?

This raises the important question of whether China has been using the Brahmaputra as political leverage against India. Back in 2000, when a dam breached in Tibet, it caused devastating floods in downstream territories, including Arunachal Pradesh (one of the Indian states, but also claimed by China as “South Tibet”), killing more than 30 people and destroying many villages, as India did not receive any warning from China. This occurred at a time when India’s apprehensions regarding China’s purported scheme to divert the waters of Brahmaputra to feed its northern and western arid/semi-arid parts were high.

This unfortunate incident was followed by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries on the sharing of hydrological information of the river (water level, discharge and rainfall) duringflood season in 2002. Interestingly, from 2008 onwards, India has been paying China 8,200,000 Indian Rupees (approximately 103,000Euro) annually for data, which the latter has reportedly been utilising to “maintain the observation stations and pay the allowances of its personnel.” Reports suggest that India had already paid China in advance in 2017 for the data, under the provisions of MoUs signed in 2013 and 2015. Ironically, China provides hydrological information to Bangladesh for free; and so does India to Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The Doklam standoff was seen by China as a clear infringement on its sovereignty, as Indian soldiers and equipment allegedly moved into Chinese territory in response to its “legal” (what India considered “illegal”) road construction in Doklam. Chinese experts have pointed out that, under such circumstances, it will not “agree to carry out normal cooperation on hydrological data with India.” Although this might not be the official position of the Chinese government, India needs to bear in mind that, in the event of a prolonged confrontation between the two countries, China is likely to forgo its obligations, leaving India vulnerable.

Water Quality as Big an Issue as Water Quantity

In any case, the MoU does not address issues related to water quality. In 2017, the sudden discolouration of the waters of River Siang, which is a tributary of River Brahmaputra, was blamed upon debris created by China’s construction activity on the river. Earlier, some reports have indeed emerged that China had been planning to build a 1.000-kilometre tunnel to divert water from Tibet to Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang. Later, it was brought to light that the discolouration could be due to earthquakes and landslides, causing “massive inflow of soil materials from mountains into the Yarlung Tsangpo”. China, on the other hand, has time and again maintained that its projects are in consonance with its “just and legitimate” right over water in Tibet and are “scientifically” planned not to affect water flow, flood control or the ecosystems of downstream countries.

It is rather clear that what India needs to be worried about is not just water quantity, but also water quality, as well as the threat posed by unstable natural lakes created by the earthquakes. Changes in the hydrological system in Tibet caused by seismic activities, whether natural or human-made (owing to Chinese dam construction), can severely affect the river ecosystems and livelihoods that depend on them. Even during the 2017 incident, fish and animals were found dead, which generated alarm among the people of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. More importantly, river pollution is a major source of concern in both China and India. There are several reports that disclose the pollution of rivers due to China’s indiscriminate mining in the Tibetan Plateau, which could affect downstream countries like India and Bangladesh.

Cooperation instead of Conflict

These pitfalls and challenges bring forth the importance of setting up an institutional mechanism that ensures transparency and accountability with respect to sharing of River Brahmaputra, as well as other rivers that originate in the Tibetan Plateau. If India and China do not reach a long-lasting agreement that goes beyond the current modus operandi, the eastern sector of the Sino-Indian boundary, which is already disputed, could metamorphose into a full-fledged conflict theatre. 

The current impasse has been resolved through confidence building measures, with the two countries agreeing to convene a meeting of the expert level mechanism on transboundary rivers in Beijing this year. The dialogue is expected to renew cooperation in sharing of hydrological data, as agreed under the existing MoUs, as the bonhomie between the two countries has been somewhat restored to pre-Doklam scenario.

It has been that despite the border dispute, they have signed MoUs to avoid a water flashpoint, but not necessarily to spur meaningful cooperation and eradicate mistrust, which is a necessity in the long term. The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework established by China in 2015, can be perceived as a result of increasing willingness of China to engage in multilateral arrangements, even though in this case it could be more of a strategy to eclipse initiatives of Japan and the US concerning the river. While the LMC cannot be replicated in the subcontinent in its entirety due to different geopolitical realities, the onus lies on India to shed its penchant for bilateral arrangements and rope in Bangladesh to put pressure on the Chinese side to be a part of a multilateral cooperation framework.

 

Dhanasree Jayaram is a Researcher at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India; and a Research Fellow at Earth System Governance Project.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
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Early Warning & Risk Analysis
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Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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