India and China in a Water War

With more than 32 million people hit by floods in four Indian states so far this year, New Delhi is growing increasingly frustrated over China’s refusal to share current river data despite bilateral agreements requiring Beijing to pass on the information for downstream flood control.

The data from upper riparian China to lower riparian India is essential to allow anticipation of the flow of the water from the mighty Brahmaputra and the Sutlej, two major trans-border rivers that enter India directly from China.

How India and China manage their shared water resources has profound implications for the entire region, not to mention for the economic and environmental stability of the world’s two most populous nations, which constitute a whopping 37 percent of global population. In a world characterized by rapidly shrinking natural resources, where water is a finite resource for growing numbers of people, it is a game the world will be watching.

Sharing is caring

Under an existing agreement – the India-China Expert-Level Mechanism signed in 2006 – India and China are required to share hydrological data during the flood season for the two rivers. Memorandums of understanding signed in 2013 and 2015 say the data is to be shared between May 15 and October 15 every year during the flooding season. Apart from flood control, the data share also represents a major confidence-building measure between the two Asian giants.

But more than three months into the flooding season that began on May 15, there's not a word from China, nor has it offered any plausible reason for the lapse. The havoc that lack of such transparency can unleash is distressingly apparent in the latest figures released by UN State Disaster Management Authority. Some 600 people have lost their lives in India, with neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh losing 143 and 113 people respectively to the floods. More than nine million have been affected in the two countries.

Analysts say relations between China and India – never great but especially troubled of late – have probably led to the Chinese intransigence. The sparring neighbors have been locked in a series of flashpoints. New Delhi is piqued about China shielding Pakistan-based terrorists from UN sanctions, obstructing its passage into the Nuclear Suppliers' Group and infringing on its sovereignty by building a trade corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Beijing, on its part resents Delhi’s assertive Act East Policy which has diminished its own sphere of influence in the region. It is therefore possible, analysts say, that Beijing is using water, either through the denial of hydrological data or by its dam construction activities upstream on rivers that flow into India, as a weapon.

Warnings of wars

Since the completion of the Zangmu dam by China in late 2014, the largest hydropower dam on the Brahmaputra River, security observers have been warning of the onset of water wars between India and China.

“Upstream dams, barrages, canals, and irrigation systems can help fashion water into a political weapon that can be wielded overtly in a war, or subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction with a co-riparian state,” said strategic affairs analyst Brahma Chellaney. “Even denial of hydrological data in a critically important season can amount to the use of water as a political tool.”.

Sripadh Menon, a water expert and former Secretary with the Ministry of Water Resources, forecasts that the tug-of-war between the neighbors over transboundary rivers, particularly the Brahmaputra River, is likely to intensify.

"With exponential economic growth and expanding population, China is staring at crippling water shortages,” he said. “It is already one of the most world's water-stressed countries and relies on mega-infrastructure projects such as Three Gorge Dams and South–North Water Diversion projects to deal with its water challenges. It is also diverting waters from the Brahmaputra to its dry north. All these have ramifications for India."

Menon added that though Indian and China have mechanisms over water sharing, there's no bilateral water treaty without which water conflicts can potentially become a serious challenge to Sino-Indian relations. "It wouldn't be far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which control over the river becomes enmeshed with a larger border conflict," he said.

China moves ahead on construction

China scholar Claude Arpi said Chinese aspirations to divert the Brahmaputra waters are feeding into mounting disagreements between New Delhi and Beijing. China has consistently been moving ahead with its dam construction projects and India has been pressing for negotiations to no avail.

China and India are competing for valuable hydropower and water resources all along the Brahmaputra. China sent waves of concern through New Delhi when it announced last September that it would temporarily divert the Xiabuqu, which feeds into the Brahmaputra running from Tibet through Northeast India and Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal to allow for the construction of two hydroelectric dams downstream. The dams are viewed as a major river diversion project that would dry up the Brahmaputra

In 2015, China opened the largest dam in Tibet, located on the Yarlung Zangbo River. All six units of the Zam hydropower station on the middle reaches of the river were switched on in October to India’s deep apprehension.

In the absence of a binding water treaty, analysts say, China is turning a blind eye to the harm its actions may cause to India or other riparian states. It has announced the construction of its ‘most expensive’ hydroelectric project on another tributary of the Brahmaputra in Tibet. A major diversion of the Brahmaputra, which also China intends, could have serious implications for India’s north-eastern plains — and even neighboring Bangladesh.

China says ‘no problem’ to nervous India

Beijing has argued consistently that its activities will not adversely impact India. But facts prove otherwise. In 2002, the collapse of an artificial dam in Tibet being built by the Chinese damaged property worth US$26 million in India's north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters would not only impact water flow and livelihoods downstream but also agriculture and ecology, say environmentalists.

But despite China's tendency to exploit shared water resources, the options for India – or any other neighboring countries for that matter – are limited. Even so, policy pundits advise that while China can't be forced to sign a bilateral water-sharing pact, New Delhi can certainly continue to put pressure on it to part with hydrological data which Beijing is duty-bound to share as part of the bilateral accords. How that pressure plays out is anybody’s guess at this point.

Neeta Lal, a New Delhi-based editor and journalist and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel, tweets from Neeta_com