Millennium Post

World’s most ‘dammed’ country

In the background of Chinese construction of dams on the upper reaches of the Brahamaputra in Tibet (called Yarlung Tsangpo), it is quite natural for India, as a lower riparian, to express concerns over the intended schemes even though it is, as China assures, run-of-the-river projects. With no binding legal framework except some accepted norms and principles, riparian dynamics, which are inherently contentious, are left to the political equation between the riparian concerned. Given the emerging water stresses in the region, hydrodiplomacy will be a critical component of India’s neighbourhood policy which from a hydrological point of view cannot exclude China. Therefore it is vital to understand China’s hydrobehaviour and put water into a broader context.

China’s dams and water diversions are important components of its growth. Its increasingly water-centric policies are intended to secure its massive water requirements for its economic hubs in the northern plains. The promotion of large-scale capital-intensive water projects with slogans like ‘big diversions, big irrigation’ is part of the popular political consciousness. Probably as an accompaniment, if not intended, the control over rivers gives Beijing enormous strategic latitude with its neighbours. Simultaneously, water resource can become an effective bargaining tool when dealing with countries like India with whom it has testy political relations. On the other hand, hydrodiplomacy through partnership on dam construction and infrastructure development helps it to widen and deepen its influence on other downstream countries as can be seen with Chinese involvement in dam construction in Myanmar, Laos and Pakistan. Chinese companies and Chinese banks are now the biggest builders and financiers of global dam building, constructing some 312 dams in 72 different countries. China’s water approach driven by its need and economic rationality fits into what many Chinese scholars call ‘non-combative aggressiveness’.

International laws on allocating water within river-basin are difficult to implement and often contradictory. The UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses approved in 1997 by a vote of 104-3 (but not yet ratified) requires watercourse nations (Article 5) to participate in the use, development, and protection of an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. This raises fundamental questions on whether formal arrangements on long lasting peaceful sharing of river waters can be achieved particularly in regions where the political climate is hostile to cooperative endeavours. There are, however, accepted legal norms of ‘equitable utilisation’, ‘no-harm rule’ and ‘restricted sovereignty’ that riparian states work through, and frame negotiations and treaties accordingly to overcome such differing positions. Given that there is no legally binding international treaty on water sharing, riparian relations will largely be influenced by the prevailing political dynamics and strategic considerations.

China is a critical player in the hydro-politics of the region. Its hydrological position is one of complete upper riparian supremacy. But this is not to say that China is not water insecure, but its insecurity relates to the uneven distribution of waters within its territory. In contrast, India is simultaneously an upper, middle and lower riparian. India’s middle riparian position increases its dependency (and thus water insecurity) on the headwaters of the rivers such as Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra which originate in the Tibetan plateau. On the other hand, India’s longstanding commitment to bilateral river treaties, has to assiduously balance the anxiety and concerns of its lower riparians (Pakistan and Bangladesh) without compromising its own water requirements.

There are two things that India should take note of while framing its riparian approach on China. First, China as the upper riparian player would like the water debate in Pakistan and Bangladesh to be directed and contested with India, without emphasising its own hydroelectricity plans either on the Indus or the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). India should effectively counter this by sensitising down riparian countries like Bangladesh about China’s water projects and the consequences. Second, it is important for India to take a bold stride forward to create global awareness about the water resources in Tibet and build regional pressure. Tibet’s water is for humanity, not exclusively for China. Almost two billion people in South and Southeast Asia dependent on the water resources of Tibet. India has a diplomatic opportunity here and, given its downriver position, needs to take the initiative. But Tibet’s unresolved political status will affect any proposals on how to sustainably manage its water resources and ensure its rivers’ natural flow are not disturbed by Chinese dams. Downriver states need to work through legal norms of equitable utilisation, ‘no-harm’ policies and restricted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. This pressure and international attention to defining such vital resources as common would go a long way toward preserving and sharing the waters of Tibet. While such redefinition is politically sensitive, as it clashes with national jurisdiction, it merits attention now given the current and future water requirements of South and Southeast Asia.

Collective political and diplomatic pressure over a sustained period will be needed to draw in China to regional arrangements on ‘reasonable share of water’ and frame treaties accordingly.

The writer is a fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
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