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Brahmaputra water: Why China and India need to give it a fresh look

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In today’s hydro-diplomatic realities, transboundary Rivers have obvious political significance either as a source of cooperation or as a cause of tension among riparian states. If any country attempts to act unilaterally in a common basin, hydrological interdependence causes discord.

The Yarlung Zangbo better known as Brahmaputra River Basin (BRB), which is shared by four countries: China (50.5%), India (33.6%), Bangladesh (8.1%), and Bhutan (7.8%), provides life-supporting services to over 80 million people, including more than 200 indigenous multi-ethnic tribes.

Due to complex hydro-political setup as well as adverse impact of climate change, Water diplomacy on the Brahmaputra river would become much more complicated in the future. In addition to that, As China, India and Bangladesh continue to grow demographically, economically as well as with increased industrial consumption it is apparent that countries will face water scarcity than ever before which will further deteriorate the already worse situation.

Of the basin stakeholders Bangladesh is critically reliant (about 91%) on external sources for water and at least 60% of Its population relies on the Brahmaputra’s catchment basin. The river delivers over 65% of the country’s river water each year.

India’s concern is that Chinese hydro-project activities near politically contentious Arunachal Pradesh could firm up China’s claim over the region what China regards as ‘southern Tibet’. Moreover, India is currently in a water-stressed situation with per capita water availability of 1,545 cubic meters in a year (population census -2011) and is going to face a severe water-scarce challenge in near future.

China, which has about 20% of the world’s population, has only 7% of the world’s fresh water resources, with 80 percent of the water being in southern China. Water scarcity is a national threat as a result of this uneven distribution.

In such a confrontational scenario, it’s highly unlikely that the countries will make any compromises on their water demands in the Brahmaputra river, rather they will take a very conservative stance in any water negotiation. so, this is not surprising that, the riparian states’ competition for control over water flows will escalate and eventually a conflictual situation will emerge in this front.

On July 1 the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary celebration with the achievement of building a 16,000 MW Baihetan Dam (World’s 2nd biggest) posed a grave concern for India because The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s Top legislative body has adopted a new Five-Year Plan (2021-25) that gives green signal to the construction of a 60-gigawatt Mega-hydropower plant at Medog, close to Arunachal.

Though China continues to assure India and Bangladesh that It’s planned hydro- project is based on run-of- river (RoR), which do not involve storage or diversion, India, its Asian rival remained concerned that such large-scale Chinese projects will ‘choke off’ the flow of the Brahmaputra and trigger flash floods or create water scarcity in northeast India in times of Sino-India conflict.

Bangladesh worries about this but it’s more complex and proximate concern is India’s projected 10-GW hydropower dam with a large water storage capacity which would likely divert water from the river. There is a speculation that Indian dam will have a direct significant effect on Bangladesh as lion’s share of the Brahmaputra sourced within Indian borders and only 30 to 40% comes from Tibet.

Besides, regarding water security, Bangladesh’s threat perceptions emanate from Delhi’s Brahmaputra tributary diversions through the River-Linking Project (RLP), Specifically Manas-Sankosh-Tista-Ganga (MSTG) Link and controversial use of River resources through Farakka and Gazaldoba Barrage on Ganga and Teesta respectively.

However, water experts and environmentalists indicate that The combined hydro-projects of China and India might have a wide range of socio-economic and environmental repercussions on Bangladesh. Because these projects have the potential to hold back massive amount of silt, deteriorate water quality, diminish ground water level, restrict navigation, Increase river salinity ultimately threaten economic livelihood. More importantly, in case of heavy rain in upstream, Floods and other water-related hazards will wreak havoc on Bangladesh, which is prone to flooding across 80% of its land area.

In a nutshell, if China builds a dam upstream, India will be alarmed. Similarly, if both India and China proceed with such dam projects, Bangladesh will definitely be concerned.

Considering all the hydro-political aspects, riparian Countries should explore the scope of benefit-sharing cooperation approach that might produce a positive-sum outcome by optimizing available benefits and equitably sharing them in order to achieve a win-win solution. The shared vision of achieving food security, sustainable economic growth and access to cost-efficient electricity can bring four riparian countries under the same umbrella to Cooperate with each other.

India can jointly work with Bangladesh to connect its National Waterway-2 with its National Waterway-1 which will give India the much-needed access to its north-eastern provinces cost-effectively and safely. Bhutan, the land-locked country of the basin can find immense opportunity to increase its international commerce and trade through the network of rivers. Multipurpose storage dams in China or India would have multiple benefits since they have immense potential to generate hydroelectricity, that can be distributed regionally via regional grid connectivity.

Apart from economic benefits, Joint investment, collective management and co-ownership of resources can create long awaited regional economic integration easing political tensions like the Senegal and the Columbia River basin countries.

So, in addition to state-level diplomacy, countries need to promote track-II and track-III diplomacy to establish a River Basin Commission under which they will seek to identify basket of benefits in the areas of water supply, Hydro-power plants and multi-purpose storage dam, energy production, water navigation, flood control, fisheries, tourism and so on. Platform like BCIM or SAARC can be a viable option for fostering negotiation.

In South Asia, The Permanent Indus Commission is a glaring example of river cooperation, which has managed to survive even after three wars, a number of military stand-offs and several other episodes of political friction since 1960 between the two nuclear rivals: India and Pakistan.

So, it is expected that India and China, the two biggest geopolitical forces in the region would not stick to zero-sum dilemma by engaging a hydro-power race in the Brahmaputra, rather they would consider adaptive hydro-diplomacy to form a “Brahmaputra Basin Commission.” along the lines of the Danube, Mekong, Indus, Senegal or Columbia basin Mechanism.

Sufian Siddique
Graduate In International relations
Development worker & Independent researcher of South Asian Security analysis.

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