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#4613, 19 August 2014
China’s Meddling in the Brahmaputra: India’s Options
Abanti Bhattacharya
Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi

The Brahmaputra River is likely to emerge as a new contentious front embroiling India and China. This dispute will be more deleterious given its entanglement with the India-China border issue. Earlier this year, Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to China did not achieve much except getting 15 more days of hydrological data that too on payment to China and allowing Indian water experts to visit Tibet to monitor the river flow in its upper reaches.

China is steadfast on damming and diverting the Brahmaputra as it has no alternative but to harness the river waters to meet its acute water crisis. More than 70 per cent of its rivers are polluted. Reports suggest that three-fifth of all water supplies in China are of bad or worse quality. Topography also adds to its water woes with 90 per cent of the run-off flowing downstream to South Asia and Southeast Asia. Around 64 per cent of the land in the north receives only 19 per cent precipitation.

Added to water crisis is the increasing problem of desertification. Desertification has reportedly hit 18 provinces accounting for 27 per cent of the country and impacts more than 400 million people. China’s Ministry of Water Resources points out that some 55 per cent of the 50,000 rivers and streams that existed till the 1990s has disappeared. While as per the 2007-08 Annual Report of the Water Ministry, the demand for water has been on the rise with agriculture accounting for 62.5 per cent, industry 23.4 per cent, domestic 12.3 per cent and others 1.8 per cent.  

The ramifications of the twin problems of water crisis and desertification are huge and tantamount to a survival issue for China. Food security naturally acquires paramount focus. Further, insufficient water hindering economic development is the primary challenge as the survival of the Chinese Communist Party hinges on ensuring economic prosperity. Admittedly thus, water diversion and building dams are the only plausible solutions for China.

It may also be pointed out that water harnessing is nothing new in China. In the imperial times, the creation of a centralised bureaucratic empire was based on an effective water management system; the eminent sinologist Karl Wittfogel thus called China a ‘hydraulic empire’. Indeed, water woes are rooted in Chinese history and so are the solutions. The moot point is that the Chinese leadership is not going to stop building or diverting rivers and this indelibly has ominous implications for India and other lower riparian countries. In this scenario, what are India’s options?

Arguably, India’s solution does not lie in building dams on the Brahmaputra in disregard to the concerns of Bangladesh. Rather it would be wise for India to resolve the Teesta water dispute that would be an example to the Chinese of India’s benevolence. More importantly, India should form a coalition of all lower riparian countries that are afflicted with China’s hydropower and river diversion projects. In fact, the third phase of China’s North-South River diversion project has grave consequences not only for South Asia but Southeast Asia as well. 

The Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have disputes with China on the Mekong, a trans-border river emerging from the Tibetan Plateau. In 1995, the Mekong Water Commission was founded to address hydropower developments in the lower basin. However, China has refused to be a full member of the Commission. In fact, China has no water treaty with any country so far. The lower Mekong basin countries, constituting sixty million people depending on the Mekong for food and livelihood, have alleged that China has been unilaterally constructing dams without any concern for the lower riparian countries.

The lower riparian countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia should, therefore, come together to create a common front to address the water dispute with China. On river water-sharing, it should bind China in a common web of norms and regulations. But the creation of a common front would be rendered futile if it is bereft of any enforcement capacity. Therefore, it is necessary as well, to create stakes for China in upholding the interests of the lower riparian countries. This could be materialised if the concerns of the lower riparian countries are linked with China’s own economic projects like the ‘silk route economic belt’. For instance, instead of simply tagging along with China on the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Silk Route project, India should make its collaboration on the BCIM conditional on China’s cooperation on the Brahmaputra.

Apparently, the Chinese claim that the BCIM is not simply about economic cooperation but essentially about integrating the neighbouring regions. They also emphasise the BCIM’s ‘inclusiveness’ and building a ‘community of common destiny’. If the ultimate goal is indeed about creating a ‘community of common destiny’, China cannot remain aloof to the concerns of its neighbouring countries. In fact, the BCIM corridor would certainly collapse if China continues to pursue river diversion and dam-building projects at the cost of environmental degradation and economic dislocation of the lower riparian countries. 

In sum, India has leverages on the Brahmaputra which it should weigh-in diplomatically in its dealings with China.

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