Need for ‘water detente’

The recent reports of China building three new dams at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu by 2015, in addition to a flurry of dams along the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra)  has the potential to escalate into a more serious dispute than the boundary disagreement. Experts have articulated of water as a future trigger for ‘water wars’ or as an instrument of diplomatic coercion. The dimension of a ‘water war’ is of great concern.

Tibet is the prime watershed, to the Asian countries stretching in an arc from Afghanistan to Vietnam. Ten important rivers originate and impact the lives of about four-fifths of Asia’s population. Mao’s vision, to occupy Tibet served the dual purpose of dominating the Himalayas and in turn the major watersheds.

Today, China is exploiting the water resources of Tibet for its arid northern regions to feed its 1.3 billion population. In 2010 China became the world’s largest energy consumer and has shifted focus to hydropower from fossil fuels. In a decade, China aims to have a 340 GW hydropower capacity from 198.3 GW in 2010. To achieve this China has planned on extensive development of dams and river diversion projects.

In the last 25 years, China has become the world’s leading dam builder. It has lucrative contracts with many Asian countries. The creation of upstream dams on international rivers such as the Brahmaputra shows China’s insatiable thirst for power and water thus inculcating fear amongst the lower riparian countries. China has plans to make more than 28 dams on the Brahmaputra. The 22,500 MW Three Gorges Dam (TGD) has caused serious environmental damage and a forced resettlement of over one million people. In pipeline is the Great Bend dam at the eastern most point where the Brahmaputra enters India. The venture comprises building of two dams, 38,000 MW at Motuo and 43,800 MW at Daduqia and the $65 billion South-North Water Diversion Project along the Great Western Route. Water diversion specifically has adverse strategic implications. Strategically the northeast apart from being water rich is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world and a heavily militarised zone. The improved infrastructure in the Tibetan region comprising railroads, highways and airports coupled with the Great Bend project has led China to harden its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. Some experts view the re-routing of the Brahmaputra as akin to a declaration of war on India and Bangladesh.

The northeast region accounts for approximately 63,000 MW or 43 per cent of the total identified hydro potential of the country contingent on the Brahmaputra basin. However only two per cent has been developed as against 46 per cent in rest of the country. China being the main impediment. Firstly, because of their territorial claims, China opposed the $2.9 billion Asian Development Bank loan to India in March 2009 as it included funding of $60 million flood management in Arunachal Pradesh. Secondly, is the mushrooming of hydropower dams which threatens reduction/diversion of the Brahmaputra waters. The forthcoming 510 MW Zangmu Dam has already reduced the water flow by 30 per cent as per one NGO.  It is feared that once China completes dam projects, there will be 64 per cent less water during monsoon season in Brahmaputra river and 85 per cent less during non-monsoon at entry point in India. This will have adverse consequences on environment and ecology. Desertification of grasslands has spread in the upper stream of the Yarlung Tsangpo. India and Bangladesh would be at the mercy of China for release of water during dry season and for protection from floods during the monsoons or the reverse of it, if China chooses to do so. The resulting siltation would deprive high volume of water and nutrients to the Sundarbans Delta. The TGD has already drastically altered the local ecosystem and lowered productivity in the East China Sea.

The biggest concern is the geological threats and impact on biodiversity from the dams in the earthquake prone region. In the case of an earthquake, dams will burst and cause floods. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake left over 70,000 dead and is attributed to the Zipingpu dam located five kilometres from the earthquake’s epicentre.

In light of the foregoing, India and China must endeavour for a ‘water detente’ on the lines of the ‘mutually assured doctrine’. There is no clear accepted international law on shared waters. The riparian neighbours in South and Southeast Asia have mutual water pacts but China is not constrained by any legally binding water sharing treaties. Both need to develop deeper institutional linkages. Reactive as always, India has now proposed to China, either a water commission or a inter – governmental dialogue or treaty. India should strive for a water resource sharing treaty of the Brahmaputra, either on the lines of the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Courses or the 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan. The lower riparian states must be protected and Bangladesh, the third stakeholder too has to be involved.

The three should move forward to formalise regional cooperation and design a comprehensive river basin plan. Also the initiative of the Strategic Foresight Group to set up the Himalayan River Commission, comprising India, China, Bangladesh and Nepal, to address conflicts should be duly exploited.  The water management between nations sharing transboundary water resources is a huge challenge. China’s water policy is neither driven by geopolitics nor by ideology, but by economic rationalism. Cooperation is better than confrontation and treaties once signed must be honoured.

The author is a retired major general
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