Water wars: Brahmaputra and Indo-China relations


By Nawaz Yasin Islam


On 1 April, 1950, India became the first non-socialist bloc country to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Prime Minister Nehru visited China in October 1954. While, the India-China border conflict in 1962 was a serious setback to ties; Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit in1988 began a phase of improvement in bilateral relations. In 1993, the signing of an Agreement on theMaintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the India-China BorderAreas during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit reflected the growing stability and substance in bilateralties.

India-China relations, though occasionally showing signs of peace and cooperation, have often been afflictedby tension and mistrust. With the potential to make big contributions to regional peace and development,these two Asian powers have, by design or accident, themselves been the sources of regional tension andinsecurity to some extent. Besides their internal dynamics, the interplay of interests and moves of their neighbours, and several external powers would have significant bearing on the equation and relationsbetween them.

The search for water resources in China and India has persistently been a source of tension between the two countries. Chinese efforts to divert the water resources of the Brahmaputra River away from India will worsen a situation that has remained tense since the 1962 Indo-China war. The melting glaciers in the Himalayas as a result of accelerating global climate change will have a dramatic effect on this river’s water supply.

China is historically involved in river water sharing disputes with almost all its neighbours including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Brahmaputra river water sharing is the major flashpoint between India and China. China has been building dams after dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra which is called Tsangpo in Tibet. India has objected to it but there has been no formal treaty over sharing of the Brahmaputra water.

Further, China has not been forthcoming in sharing the details about water level in the Brahmaputra, which puts a large tract in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam to the risk of sudden and huge flood.India is now planning to build nearly two dozen dams on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to deal with the flood problem.

The river’s three names, the Brahmaputra (India), YarlungZangbo (Tibet), and Jamuna (Bangladesh), reflect the complicated fabric of ethnic groups and International Communities living along its banks. The Brahmaputra flows through some of the most heavily disputed and unstable areas in South Asia. China and India currently dispute 83,000 km within the basin. Much of the boundary between the two countries is based on administrative units that do not shift with the rivers as they change course or level over time.

The border disputes have further fuelled misgivings between the two neighbours, especially India’s threat perceptions regarding China’s leverage as the upper riparian, a position it feels can potentially be utilised as an instrument of aggression both politically and strategically against India being a lower riparian country. Added to this are dynamics such as Climate Change, melting glaciers – one of the fastest in the world, depleting aquifers, fluctuating precipitation patterns, heat waves and excessive flooding which have aggravated existing hydro-political fault-lines. Expanding economies, water-intensive irrigation practices and a burgeoning middle-class with increased domestic demand have also accelerated the region’s progression towards one of the most water-stressed hence water-antagonist regions in the world.


China’s dam building and diversion ambitions on the Brahmaputra River have also piqued India. A dam burst in May 2000 in Tibet triggered a flash flood downstream in Arunachal Pradesh causing widespread loss of life and key infrastructure. India was infuriated. A lack of hydrological data meant India was unaware of the approaching floods. The event further raised the spectre of frequent flash floods and additional silting in the river downstream, while also providing credence to Indian fears regarding China’s capacity to create droughts at will, by storing water upstream in dams, during key harvesting season downstream in India.

The commencement of the Zangmo hydro-electric dam by China in the middle reaches of the YarlungTsangpo (Brahmaputra’s name in China) in 2008 further generated apprehensions within India. India perceived it to be a step towards the eventual diversion and drying up of the Brahmaputra River. China’s withholding of hydrological data, which it deemed its internal matter, only intensified speculation of the coming water conflict between the two states. The recent blocking of a tributary of the Brahmaputra amidst India’s revisit of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) with Pakistan, seemed to have confirmed Indian misgivings. Within the milieu of China’s envisaged China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) which links its North-West Province of Xinjiang with Pakistan’s strategic southern deep-sea port of Gwadar, any tinkering with the IWT could result in serious consequences for CPEC with many of its constituent schemes dependent on the rivers covered by the treaty. This new dynamic has realigned the strategic calculus of the region in general and its hydro-politics in particular, enabling china a steady encroach upon significant stakeholder positioning within the region.

In the wake of Indian reservations, China continues to defend its position by contending that it only plans to build run-of-the-river dams for electricity generating purposes with little impact on India’s water security downstream. While not a direct threat to Indian security, run-of-the-river dams can however cause grave ecological disturbances in the long term and compound the impact of floods such as the one in Uttarakhand in 2013 which was triggered by a cloudburst.

The ‘Grand Western Water Diversion Plan’ by China aimed at diverting water at the Great Bend towards China’s arid northern region is yet another cause of concern for India. The Brahmaputra River makes up 30 per cent of India’s water supply. If China proceeds with the project, it could significantly decrease both the quantity and quality of water flowing into India.


Post April 29, 1954, a lot has changed with regards to the points discussed as the principles of peaceful coexistence. Respect for each other should be revived along the lines of this codification signed at Peking. What cannot be ignored here is that besides the massive ecological and environmental issues, the dams in Tibet, constructed by China can be disastrous for India at a whole new level. As highlighted by prominent glaciologists, the dams can unleash their fury during earthquake or in the worstcase scenario, an intentional destruction can easily be used against India.

Rather than covertly acting to divert water resources from one country to another, the protection of the shared resource of water supply might be a focal point of cooperation rather than conflict. China and India could work together to protect surrounding communities from increased flood hazard due to climate change by strengthening flood management policies and adaptation measures.

The current scenario can only see a logical end provided an institutionalised mechanism of dispute management is adopted between both the Asian giants. The immediate short term solution to the growing dissent could be by means of improving diplomatic communication, more transparency by way of all-year hydrological sharing of data and exchange of information regarding infrastructural development in the area. In the long run, however, both the countries along with Bangladesh need to develop effective and innovative frameworks of resource management.


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