China and India's Slow-Moving Path to 'Water Wars'

The Brahmaputra from Ganden Monastery, Tibet. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Antoine Taveneaux

There’s a smarter way to handle the Brahmaputra conflict.

China’s September 30 announcement that it would temporarily divert the Xiabuqu—a domestic river that feeds into the mighty Brahmaputra running from Tibet through Northeast India and Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal—to allow for the construction of two hydroelectric dams exacerbates anxieties in both downstream Delhi and Dhaka. However, the latest round of recriminations and uncertainties also offer an opportunity to move beyond existing piecemeal and bilateral arrangements, and on to multilateral and confidence-assuring commitments to share information and ultimately even water. In a recent CNA report, Water Resource Competition in the Brahmaputra River Basin: China, India and Bangladesh,” we argued for just such steps.

Upper Riparian China: Driven by the Domestic

China’s plans for dams on Tibetan rivers are key to national economic and energy-development priorities. Chinese media focused almost exclusively on the domestic benefits of the Xiabuqu project. The state-run Communist Youth Daily, for instance, boasted that the project would improve irrigation and thus allow for an increase in grain production in an area known as Tibet’s “breadbasket,” improve flood control and raise electricity production, all of which would help raise the standard of living in Tibet—one of China’s most impoverished regions. These arguments are consistent both with Beijing’s long-running “Develop the West” strategy of promoting greater economic development of and migration into China’s western areas, and with its more recent emphasis on developing clean sources of energy. Some independent analysts, however, contend that the project will have an adverse effect on Tibet’s indigenous population by accelerating desertification and increasing water shortages.

China’s press placed less emphasis on the international ramifications of the diversion. The popular but non-authoritative Global Times rebutted Indian speculation that the announcement could be a way to pressure India in its own ongoing dispute with Pakistan, a close strategic partner of China. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently discussed scrapping the Indus Waters Treaty, a decades-old water-sharing accord with Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Global Times noted that the Xiabuqu project began in 2014, before the latest India-Pakistan row. Indeed, Chinese media noted back in December 2015 that the tributary would be diverted this year as part of the dam project, suggesting that the announcement was not intended as a diplomatic bargaining chip. More broadly, as has been the case in the past, Chinese press accused Indian media of “hyping” the issue and misgauging China’s intentions.

Initially silent on the announcement, the Chinese government went into reassurance mode more than a week after the announcement. In written comments to an Indian wire service, China’s foreign ministry asserted that the diversion would cause only an insignificant (0.02 percent) impact on the flow of the Brahmaputra into India. Consistent with its previous comments on Brahmaputra issues, the foreign ministry also noted that Beijing and New Delhi had expanded cooperation in recent years, symbolized by an agreement in which China shares hydrological data with India during the flood season. The foreign ministry also reaffirmed that the quality of the water flowing into India was good and “basically” in its natural state.

India’s Middle Riparian Anxieties and Bangladesh’s Burdens

China’s plans for the Xiabuqu have raised alarms among Indian commentators, though the government response has been measured. India’s worries to date have focused on flooding in its territory from China’s water-management and dam-building practices, and to some extent the prospect of China diverting the Brahmaputra. A decade of Sino-Indian negotiations have led to agreements for China to provide hydrological data, and India officially has accepted that China’s dams do not pose a danger to downstream water flows. India’s response to the latest Chinese announcement created a nexus between hydrological and geopolitical worries, however. China’s announcement came in the wake of India’s own suggestions about rethinking its commitments to the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan, in response to cross-border militant raids from Pakistan, intensifying India’s anxieties about Sino-Pakistani collusion. And the fact that the Brahmaputra runs through a region of India that is the site of recurring alleged cross-border incursions and sovereignty violations, and that it traverses the main venue of a sharp, short, but losing war with China that took place fifty-four years ago this month, further inflames Indian interpretations of Chinese intent. India is also sensitive to its control and development of the restive northeast region through which the Brahmaputra runs.

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