India, China and the Brahmaputra: Understanding the Hydro-politics

09 May, 2013    ·   3925

Roomana Hukil analyses factors whetting China’s increasing interest in the River and consequences for India

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

The 'essentially run-of-the-river' assurances made by China to India over Asia's greatest transnational water resource - the Brahmaputra River; has created more hue than cry. China's geopolitical assertions leave India with limited options to deploy strategic interventions in resolving the geological discourse between both countries. The mega dam projects on the Tibetan Plateau cannot be, merely, regarded as China's internal matter alone, given the trans-boundary effects, the threat to the soundness of the river course, and the environmental degradation followed. The engineered construction activities, as projected, will reduce, if not cease entirely, with the altered cross-border flows deemed to affect the livelihood and ecosystem of the lower riparian states in ways more significant than imagined.

What factors are whetting China to increasingly tap the resources of the Brahmaputra? What are the subsequent undertones of such diversionary hydro-projects on India?

The Tragedy of the Commons
There are major stakes in China that make the Brahmaputra, by far, the most important river flowing through Chinese occupied territory to the other lower riparian countries. China's water woes are familiar to the international community. The domestic turmoil that ensued from industrial upsurge, led to China exploiting the trans-border Rivers as a new strategic mesh. China's $60-billion South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) aims at transmitting 40 Billion Cubic Metres (BCM) of water annually to the northern state. With the first phase of the SNWTP over, the middle route is expected to transfer water to the North by 2014. The final stage involves the Brahmaputra's diversion. Ergo, the stakes are significant for China. It is expected to convert millions of hectares of arid land into arable by the year 2020.

China is not known for consulting any of its neighbours before initiating new geopolitical progressions. More so, it fails to acknowledge the nuances of the downstream affects over the river bends on the lower riparian countries by maintaining its hydrological research and development (R&D) as 'adequate' to address the issue off hand. The buzz word here is "adequate". How can any country, who has no water sharing treaty between its co-riparian neighbours decide on what is adequate and what is not? This is bound to lead to ambiguity over the bases on which water should be shared - on the basis of consecutive dam proposal declarations, and/or political assertions of maintaining a 'run-of-the-river' getaway. China's denial to adopt any bilateral mechanism that permits the involvement of international diplomacy marks China's self-interests in the water course, disregarding the predicament of the lower riparian plight.

The tragedy of the commons only subsists when the depletion of the shared resource by trans-boundary states accentuates the understanding of utilising the resource in the community's long term interests. China is entitled to take up resource-filled projects, as long it does not impede on the existing flow of 79 BCM water into India. Presently, Arunachal Pradesh receives an average runoff of over 600 BCM from the Brahmaputra catchment area. Since the volume becomes 10 times higher during the monsoon, China's diversionary plans at a constant volume of water during that period could help mitigate floods in India and Bangladesh. However, the Chinese intervention to construct over 40,000 MW dams at the Great Bend could amplify the tragedy of the commons.

Capitalising on Lower Riparian Advantages
The implications of China's upstream diversionary projects and barrages on international rivers - sans information sharing coupled with heightened secrecy - evidently concurred in Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh during 2000-05 in the form of flash floods. Being a middle riparian state amid China and Bangladesh, India remains affix as a paragon of virtue, to stand out befitting the role of a model towards emphasising hydro-sensitivity among its riparian neighbours - Pakistan and Bangladesh. Failing to do so, exacerbating water-demands, the depletion and degradation of water resources, and the management of resources will consistently alter the balance of power between the two rising powers by increasing their dependency on the river basin.

While accusations pin China towards consistently seeking to use water as a political tool to attain the unrivalled water hegemony in the region, implications on India remain irrevocable. India's high-levelled edginess stems from China's opaque position. The roll-out of the External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid's visit to China on 9 May 2013 will be a critical marker in the River sharing discourse between both the countries. As India seeks to settle the issue through soft power, China capitalises well on India's strategic moves towards it. Both countries are undergoing water shortage, given mounting demands for food security and clean drinking water. China has begun to treat water as an essential strategic commodity by building gigantic hydro-projects in the Tibetan Plateau to secure it. But in India, the current discourse over hydro-security is not as strategically nuanced as it ought to be.