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.

A leading Indian specialist has warned that “China intends to do a lot more to re-engineer flows in the Brahmaputra system by riding roughshod over the interests of the lower riparians, India and Bangladesh.” Others have called for India to make common cause with South and Southeast Asian governments to dissuade China from completing dam projects in Tibet. India’s government has so far been measured, emphasizing that China provides data during the flood season the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers, and that this “arrangement has been useful in preventing damage during the flood season especially during landslides which create temporary dams” and promised to “take up this issue in the next [scheduled] meeting.” In fact, India’s political concerns about China’s temporary blockade on the Xiabuqu may outweigh its specific hydrological concerns.

Bangladesh so far has been near silent on recent developments, but its stakes are huge, because the Brahmaputra is Bangladesh’s largest water system. As the downstream riparian, Bangladesh will feel the cumulative effects of both China and India’s water management practices especially dams and diversion—e.g., through India’s proposed river-linking project. In general, Dhaka walks a tightrope with regard to managing its relations with New Delhi and Beijing. Most recently, Bangladesh seeks to conclude a water-sharing agreement with India over the highly politicized issue of their transboundary Teesta River, while Xi Jinping just made a historic visit to Bangladesh and inked deals for development projects estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

A Case of Crisis Creating Opportunity?

The tensions surrounding China’s diversion of the Xiabuqu underscores the more fundamental problem—that China, India, and Bangladesh lack a multilateral vehicle for managing differences and promoting cooperation on river issues. This contrasts with many of the world’s other major river systems, such as the Mekong and the Nile, which have instituted cooperation at a basin-wide level. The concern is that in the absence of such a mechanism for the Brahmaputra, water security challenges such as drought and pollution could amplify political tensions between the three states and eventually perhaps even result in armed conflict, or what some have called “water wars.” This concern will only increase as these countries’ populations grow and factors such as climate change and development put added stress on scarce water resources.

However, addressing the latest dispute, China’s foreign ministry reiterated that cooperation should remain at the bilateral level, in particular through the China-India Expert-Level Mechanism set up in 2006. India echoed China’s focus on the bilateral approach. But it is deficient because it discusses only hydrological data sharing and emergency management, and excludes Bangladesh. During a recent trip to Bangladesh, Xi Jinping himself observed that Chinese and Bangladeshis “drink water from the same river.” And Prime Minister Modi, during his June 2015 visit to Dhaka, said, “Our rivers should nurture our relationship, not become a source of discord.”

Some space in both China and India may be emerging to pursue multilateral cooperation more actively. A recent article in the journal of the India’s semiofficial Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses suggests creating a formal framework for a water-sharing mechanism with China. And a recent editorial in the Global Times—usually known for its more nationalistic bent—pointed to multilateral cooperation in the Mekong basin as an example of cooperation that could be emulated in the Brahmaputra basin. The author concluded that “this will be the most effective solution to the water dispute between China and India.” From China’s perspective, added benefits of such an initiative would include bolstering Beijing’s credentials as a responsible rising power and reducing tensions on its western periphery, at a time when it is facing increasing challenges on its eastern periphery, such as over Taiwan and in the South China Sea.