Post Mortem

Brahmaputra Dilemma: A Geopolitical Aspect of Water on Sino-Indian Relations

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 11/24/2021 1:52:45 PM IST

 (From previous issue)

The reading of this broadcast gives a clear idea of what could happen on a much larger scale, if this project is been carried out. Apparently, it is clear that a breach of the dam in Tibet or a sudden release of water during spells of heavy rain in China/Tibet can lead to floods in India’s northeastern region. An emergency discharge would be disastrous if it coincides with the monsoon season in India.

Further, the plan a massive diversion of the river to China’s northwest would have even more devastating consequences. Northeast India and Bangladesh would starve of their lifeline. Nutrient-rich sediments that enrich the soils of these regions would be held back in the reservoir. With no more reaching the river’s delta, millions of people will be affected. A water war would ensue. Diversion of water will destabilize the biodiversity of the area in a big way. Reduction in the flow of the Brahmaputra will seriously affect the ecological needs. With the passage of time, this will result in deterioration of a healthy ecological balance, including loss of a plethora of plankton flora and fauna of the region. More than anything else, the diversion project along the Brahmaputra is likely to lead to a reduction in the nutrient-rich sediments in the basin. Experts believe that the flooding in the basin could become worse due to relentless silting. Both India and Bangladesh are likely to be seriously affected by the diversion project, as their agriculture and inland water transportation are heavily dependent on the river Brahmaputra.

Finally, the construction activities as part of the Brahmaputra water diversion project will also pollute the water and thereby lead to many environmental, social and geological risks in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, India and Bangladesh. This would threaten livelihoods, deplete fish species and destroy farmland, which is likely to lead to natural disasters and further degrade the fragile ecology of the region. All this might also cause conflict in the region – no matter whether the nature of such conflict is of high, medium or low intensity.

Implications on Sino-Indian Relations

The water diversion project endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of people residing in the area and those living downstream would be at the mercy of the Chinese as they would be able to flood or withhold the water supply downstream. The relations between India and China is driven, of course, by much more than water; and even water cannot be confidently said to be driving things relentlessly and unalterably in the direction of violent conflict between them. Still, China’s dire water circumstances, combined with its impressive economic strength, military power, and uniquely advantageous upper riparian position, give us little reason for optimism when it comes to the offer of generous river sharing agreements with lower riparian countries. India has expressed its serious concerns over China’s projects on the Brahmaputra. Tarun Gogoi, the former Chief Minister of Assam, recently stated that China’s attempt to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra would bring about an environmental disaster and that it would have a negative impact on the economy of the state. Voices have also been raised in Arunachal Pradesh against the damming of the Brahmaputra, since it is likely to have a disastrous effect on the environment and economy of the Northeast. The fact is that if the project is accomplished it will have menacing consequences for millions of people downstream. Their basic need for water and their survival would be endangered. A former Senior Vice President of World Bank Ismail Serageldin once said: “The next World War will be over water”. In this regard, Serageldin’s word appears to be true as far as Sino-Indian relations are concern. As diversion of water of the Brahmaputra away from India will worsen a situation that has remained tense since the 1962 Indo-China War (Arpi, 2003:150). Thus if Beijing is to go ahead with the Brahmaputra diversion project, it would practically mean a declaration of war against India. 

The Way Forward

The only solution seems to lie in bringing the matter to the negotiating table. If a river-water Treaty could be signed between India and Pakistan in the early sixties, why can’t a similar agreement be made between China, India and Bangladesh, in order to assure a decent life for all in the region? However, diversion of the Brahmaputra’s water to the parched Yellow river is an idea that China does not discuss in public, because the project implies environmental devastation of India’s northeastern plains and eastern Bangladesh, and would thus be akin to a declaration of water war on India and Bangladesh. Nevertheless, in October 2013, China and India signed a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen cooperation on trans-border Rivers, but it is more of an agreement on China’s specific commitment to providing hydrological information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra in monsoon season than a comprehensive bilateral mechanism (See Huang, 2014:323). This, Memorandum of Understanding seems to be insufficient for the solution of the current water crisis between the two Asian giants. Currently, the most important international water law instrument is the 1997 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational uses of International Watercourses. Although the Convention has finally entered into force, neither China nor India is a party to the Convention. Part of the Convention, however, is considered customary international law (See Huang, 2014:323). It is desirable that India being the downward repatriate state should initiate the steps for negotiation, bring China and Bangladesh to the discussion table, and chalk out the matter through International Water Law. China is, however, giving assurances that it would do nothing to affect the flow of the water from the rivers in Tibet to South Asia. The water crisis has added another realm of Sino-Indian rivalry in the 21st century. Thus, the Himalayan water problem is one of the ambiguities and therefore need to be taken seriously before it is too late and use it as one and the foremost trust building process between the two old foes.


Dr. Mhonthung Yanthan

Asst. Professor & Head

Department of Political Science

St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Jakhama.


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