There is growing concern in India over the country's water security
given China's geographic chokehold on almost every important river
system in South Asia. Now, as a massive project to divert as much as a
third of the Brahmaputra's water into China looks more and more like
becoming a reality, concern is turning to alarm.
has entered into water sharing treaties with all of its neighbors with
whom it shares important trans-boundary river systems, it doesn't have
one with China, which is an upper riparian on the Indus, Brahmaputra,
Mahakali, Gandaki, and Kosi Rivers, all of which originate in Tibet.
Public statements indicate that China believes in a policy of absolute
sovereignty over these rivers.
Population pressures and
increased economic activity mean demand for water is growing inexorably
while the supply is finite. Although India has 160.5 million hectares
of arable land, compared with China's 137.1 million, all of India's
important rivers originate in Chinese controlled Tibet.
options are limited. With China appearing determined to continue with
the dam projects, wrote Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy
Research in New Delhi in a Times of India story in June: “New Delhi's self-injurious acceptance of Tibet as part of China is becoming more apparent.
as India has retreated to an increasingly defensive position
territorially, with the spotlight on China's Tibet-linked claim to
Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet's status itself, New Delhi's policy
straitjacket precludes an Indian diplomatic campaign against Beijing's
dam-building projects. Accepting Tibet and the developments there as
China's 'internal' affairs has proven a huge misstep that will continue
to exact increasing costs.”
As long ago as 2008, Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh reportedly raised the issue of China's
diversion plans on a visit to Beijing. It appears to have had little
effect. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in return said that water
insecurity is a threat to China's survival of China. Between the two,
India and China have planned more than 200 dams on Himalayan rivers
including the Brahmaputra and the Ganges to meet water demands.
and control of water flows from Tibet to India, however, favor China's
strategy. China can fulfill its own water demands by diverting
resources from Tibet, also giving China the means to theoretically put
a brake on India's economic growth. Thus through its water policies it
could easily inflict great damage to India.
The Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group, in a June 2010 report titled The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia 2010,
noted that the Himalayan River Basin in Bangladesh, China, India and
Nepal is home to about 1.3 billion people – nearly 20 percent of the
world's population and almost half of the total population in all of
these countries. The SFG report indicates that over the next two
decades, annual per capita water availability in the basin will decline
by 13-35 percent, causing severe water scarcity.
There is the
added danger of climate change, which is contributing to the thinning
and in some cases disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers from which
both China and the entire subcontinent draw their water. Some 10
percent to 20 percent of the Himalayan rivers are fed by the glaciers
and lakes. A range of studies say that climate change is likely to melt
70 percent of the glaciers over the next century. Tens of thousands of
lakes are expected to disappear.
In her book, The River Runs Dry,
Elizabeth Economy noted that China's spectacular economic growth over
the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country's natural
resources and produced skyrocketing rates of pollution. She also points
out that almost all of China's important have been badly polluted.
According to the World Watch Institute, in 1999 alone, the water table
under Beijing fell by 2.5 meters. Since 1965, it has fallen by about 59
meters or nearly 200 feet.
To combat the falling water tables
and the draining of the Yellow River, China has been involved for more
than two decades in a huge plan to divert water from the rivers
originating from Tibet. Damming and diversion of the Brahmaputra is the
first step. Already, the Chinese government has been involved in
extensive damming of tributaries of the Mekong as well as the main
In 1999, Jiang Zemin, then China's paramount leader, announced xibu da kaifa,
or the Great Western Extraction, which would transfer huge volumes of
water from Tibet into the Yellow River. The politburo and 118 Chinese
generals leant their support to the project, which included the Shuo-tian
(reverse flow) canal as the solution to chronic water shortages by
carrying water hundreds of kilometers to China's dry north and
northwest. Some reports indicated that the Chinese planned to use
nuclear explosion to blast a tunnel through the Himalayas to facilitate
The Brahmaputra, known as the Tsangpo in China, is
a transboundary river flowing into China, India and Bangladesh. It
originates in the Jima Yangzong glacier near Mount Kailash in Tibet
where it is called the Tsangpo Yarlung, enters into Arunachal Pradesh,
where it is called the Dihang, then flows to Assam, a very small part
of west Bengal and finally enters Bangladesh, where it is called the
At least two potential projects which Chinese are in
process of building on the Tsangpo have deep consequences for
northeastern India's water supply. One is a 540 megawatt
run-of-the-river dam on the great bend of the Tsangpo in eastern Tibet
near Mt. Namcha Barwa, where it turns south to enter India. It is
expected to be the world's biggest hydroelectric dam, generating 38,000
megawatts of energy – twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. The
second is to the east of Lhasa at a place called Shoumatan.
of these dams as projected would be multipurpose ones capable of
regulating Brahmaputra river flows according to China's needs. Besides
producing electricity the dam would also divert water to China's
southwest, which requires water for drinking and agricultural
activities. They are part of China's US$62 billion 'South-to-North
water diversion project.
India has never made a serious attempt
to engage China on water issues, only maintaining a hydrological data
sharing treaty with Beijing. India must realize the fact that once the
water problem became serious it will be very difficult to engage China
because at that point of time China will not get ready to make any
compromise with its own water security for India.
is a doctoral student in South Asian Studies, the School of
International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi