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#4544, 3 July 2014

The Case for a South Asian Shared Rivers Commission

India, China and the MoU on Brahmaputra
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS, New Delhi

India and China signed three Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) during the Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari’s recent five-day visit to Beijing from 26 June– 1 July. One of them was on the ‘flood data’ of the Brahmaputra River – also called the Yarlung Tsangpo in China. In the past, we have heard of similar MoUs between the two neighbours on the Brahmaputra, and it is all about the sharing of the hydrological data of Brahmaputra River during monsoons. In the latest MoU on the subject that was signed on 30 June – in presence of Indian Vice President Ansari and his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao – Beijing agreed to provide 15 days’ additional hydrological data—from 15 May 15 to 15 October each year.

Bluntly put, the latest MoU on the Brahmaputra flood data means nothing as an additional 15 days worth of hydrological information will not enable India to deal with the problem any differently. What India needs is input from the Chinese side on dams and other projects Beijing is pursuing or intends to pursue based on the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo. The 510 MW Zangmu dam built at the Gyaca County in the Shannan Prefecture of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region is expected to be commissioned next year. What must be noted is that Beijing has given clearance for the construction of 27 other dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo River that flows 1625 kilometres across China, and 918 kilometres through India in its downstream course.

Moreover, China actually plans to divert water at the Great Bend, located just before where the river enters India, also known as the Shoumatan Point; and also intends to build hydroelectric power projects that could generate 40,000 MWs of power. The plan to divert the Brahmaputra is a reality because China wants to solve the water scarcity in its arid northern areas. The diversion of the water is part of a larger hydro-engineering project, the South-North water diversion scheme, which involves three man-made rivers carrying water to its northern parts. If the water is diverted, the water levels of the Brahmaputra will drop significantly, affecting India's Northeastern region, and Bangladesh. Estimates suggest that the total water flow will fall by roughly 60 per cent if China successfully diverts the Brahmaputra. Besides, it will severely impact agriculture and fishing as the salinity of water will increase, as will silting in the downstream area.

With an unprecedented mandate and a demonstrated policy to improve ties with its neighbours, the new Narendra Modi government in New Delhi can initiate setting up of something like a South Asia Shared Rivers Commission or Authority by bringing Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal on board. The Commission can begin by formulating a framework agreement among the states that share rivers for their use, development, protection, conservation and management of the water and related resources, and establish an institutional mechanism for cooperation among these states. Once such a commission emerges and a cooperative framework on the shared rivers is agreed upon by the concerned states, it can engage with China and try to bring Beijing on board. After all, eleven major rivers flow out of China to countries in its neighbourhood and there is enough commonality of interest.

Cooperation on the Brahmaputra with China is of utmost importance to India and Bangladesh. The principle of cooperation between China, India and Bangladesh—the Brahmaputra basin states—can be on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain optimal utilisation and adequate protection; conservation of the Brahmaputra River Basin; and to promote joint efforts to achieve social and economic development. These actually are the guiding principles of an effective and successful Nile River Valley Cooperative Framework (NRVCF) involving Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as Eritrea as an observer. The NRVCF has enough flexibility in the sense that two of the nations who are part of the Framework can have certain specific bilateral understanding or arrangements. What is significant is that every member nation must maintain total transparency on its plans about utilising the resources of the shared river and inform the states concerned of any project at hand.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has already demonstrated India’s big power ambitions by his proactive foreign policy push, will be well advised to come up with a comprehensive shared river water policy, keeping China’s plans and/or intents in mind. Delay may cost India dearly and we may have a case of non-utilisation of waters of shared rivers such as the Brahmaputra – one that has neither being tapped for hydro-power or navigation, 26 years after it was declared National Waterways Number Two.

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