The Damming Effect – Indo-China Water Dispute

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The 20th century has been termed as a century of oil wars and it is a common notion that 21st century will be a century of water wars. The struggle to control the depleting resources, especially water, is a crucial aspect of the contemporary world politics.

Two of the fastest growing nations of the world, India and China, are no strangers to the struggle for water. Many major rivers that flow across India originate in the Tibetan plateau, which is under China’s control that leads to Indo-China water dispute. Matter of fact, over 48 percent of the surface water that leaves China, enters India. The Chinese have ambitious plans to construct dams and other projects on the rivers, most of which enter India, off Tibetan region. The most disturbing and critical of these projects is the Brahmaputra diversion project. If these projects are a reality, water security in India will be in grave danger and it is not quantum physics to contemplate the effects of water scarcity on the growing Indian economy.

Indo-China Water Dispute

Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) west of Lhasa (flickr/lacitadelle)

The vast expanses of Chinese territory means that it is the source of rivers flowing into country from Russia to the Vietnam. The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) alone is the source of majority of rivers that flow through South Asia and South-East Asia. India and China already have estranged relations over border disputes and as Tibet is under Chinese control, the hydrological issues also arise. China, since its occupation of Tibet, has undertaken various infrastructural projects in Tibet like the numerous highway project and airfields in TAR . As the Chinese growth juggernaut continues to roll, the depletion of natural resources, including water, is inevitable. To cater to the ever growing need of water in Chinese mainland, China has its eyes on the vast reserves of water in the Tibetan plateau. The need and thirst of water in China is evident by the number of projects it has initiated in Tibet like damming and diversion of Brahmaputra (Tsangpo) and also by the number of dam projects on the tributaries of the Mekong River. The Brahmaputra or the Yarlung- Tsangpo diversion project is touted as the South-North water diversion project. India, being a lower riparian country, is bound to be adversely affected by any hydrological projects. The alleged Brahmaputra diversion project is a venture which can have serious consequences for India. Brahmaputra is one of the largest and most important rivers in India as it is the life line of the entire north-eastern and eastern part of the country. China can possibly choke India’s water supply which is highly dependent on the waters of Tibetan plateau, and apply brakes on India’s growth.

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When confronted by India, China has always denied that it has embarked on any diversion project on the river Brahmaputra. However, if one is reminded of the history of India-China relation (1962 War, annexation of Tibet, Aksai-Chin, to name a few), it is not difficult to fathom the fact that to trust China can prove be disastrous for India. The Indian Government has voiced its concerns over the different projects that China has initiated, but always had to face denial, although China might be surreptitiously continuing on it diversion plans behind the infamous Chinese iron curtain of secrecy. Also, Brahmaputra diversion project is not the only disputatious hydrological project China has undertaken. The Red-Dragon has similar disputed projects on the Salween River (Myanmar-Thailand) and Mekong River (Cambodia and Vietnam). India, therefore, cannot afford to merely sit back and blindly believe in the diplomatic level talks with China. Without a clear information sharing mechanism, the situation can worsen the already troubled relations between two of the world’s most populous nations.

With all these aspects in mind, the need of the hour is a more transparent approach towards coordination among the two nations. An information sharing mechanism has to be established to share data and information about critical projects. Another important aspect of the hydrological situation is the lack of any water sharing treaty between India and China. India has water sharing treaties with its neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of which are lower riparians. On the other hand, China has no water-sharing treaties with any 12 of its lower riparian neighbours. A treaty based on international water sharing laws and a transparency mechanism, will make sure that both the nations get an equal share of the common water resources. A water sharing treaty will also make sure that if any country plans for a damming or hydro-electric project, information regarding it can be shared with the other country.

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A looming water crisis can become a cause of a grave impediment to peaceful co-existence of the countries in the region, especially India and China. A complete overhaul of the current approach is needed so that the issue can be resolved or at least a more transparent and flexible methodology can be adopted.

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A social-infrastructure development professional, working in the vocational education and skill development sector. Born and raised in Srinagar (J&K), currently living in Delhi. Completed Bachelor of Engineering from Kashmir University. An avid reader of fiction and espionage novels. Biggest passions include writing poems, lyrics, articles, football, and grunge & progressive rock.
  • Hitender Kumar

    Bloody China.. always trying to undermine India..