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Bend in the river


While inking a defence agreement with China, India cannot lose sight of the water sharing problems with its vast neighbour.
MAYANK SINGH | New Delhi, November 5, 2013 14:54
Tags : Bend in the river |

Within hours of landing in Beijing, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had inked the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) with China aimed at preventing face-offs between troops of the two sides on the 4,000 km Indo-China border which has reportedly seen several incursions.

Despite the sixteenth round of talks between Special Representatives (SRs) of the two countries held in May this year since they first began in 2003, a border agreement between the two countries is largely seen as a thing of the future and was admitted as much by Singh on his arrival there.

Among the many issues on the table include a rising trade deficit graph in China’s favour and issuance of stapled visas for residents of Arunachal Pradesh. But perhaps the longest term of them all is the prickly issue of sharing waters.
India believes China is planning to dam and divert water from rivers originating in Tibet. There is concern over China’s control over the source of major Indian rivers, its construction of mega-dams, ambitious water management plans and rejection of institutionalized water-sharing cooperation. China either denies the Indian concern or, more often than not, claims New Delhi is blowing the issue out of proportion.

India has water sharing treaties with all its neighbours with whom it borders important trans-boundary river systems, except China, which has the upper riparian status on the Indus, Brahmaputra, Mahakali, Gandak, and Kosi, all rivers that originate in Tibet.

Increasing Indian concerns are public statements made in China which believe in a policy of absolute sovereignty over these rivers and it’s somewhat opaque policy on sharing its hydro-engineering plans sowing a constant seed of suspicion. Even in the water sharing agreement, the dispute on Brahmaputra is likely to top the agenda. It flows 2,900 km from its source in the Kailash range of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It flows through China, India, and Bangladesh, but its watershed includes Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma as well.

In 2000, India said China was not sharing hydrological data on the flow of the Brahmaputra through Chinese territory resulting in widespread devastation and floods and 40 casualties. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in 2002 to coordinate data sharing pertaining to water level, discharge and rainfall.
Experts say the data provided by China has helped in flood-forecasting and given the Indian water ministry a better understanding of the river system. Any plan to divert Brahmaputra will have to be made known to Indian authorities beforehand in accordance with the MoU.

A similar lack of communication was evident when China began the construction of the Zangmu Dam in 2009 without informing India but news of the construction reached New Delhi which lodged a protest.
China’s own freshwater resources have become strained because of population growth and pollution. For Beijing, therefore, the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra offers a tempting solution to its ills.
According to the ministry of water resources, ‘‘In 2002, India had entered into a MoU for provision of hydrological information on Brahmaputra. In accordance with provisions in the MoU, China  provided hydrological information in respect of three stations, Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia located on the river between June 1 and October 15 every year, which was utilized in the formulation of flood forecasts by the Central Water Commission. After 2008, this MoU has been further extended till June 5, 2018, during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India between May 19-22, this year.’’

During a visit of the then Chinese President in November, 2006, it is was agreed to set up an expert-level mechanism (ELM) to discuss interaction and cooperation on provision of flood season hydrological data, emergency management and other issues regarding trans-border rivers. After six meetings of the ELM, the seventh held on May 14 to 18 this year in Beijing saw finalization of the draft MoU and Implementation Plan on Brahmaputra.
Uttam Kumar Sinha of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) says sharing information can help and should be a natural practice between two neighbours but cautions: “Hiding information which save life and minimise destruction is not the way to live in an interconnected world. As far as the MoU or any short term contractual arrangement is concerned, they can be scrapped. In the case of India and China, the arrangement should come down to a treaty.”

Sinha believes India needs to enhance its diplomatic efforts to draw international attention for a ‘collective response’ from the lower riparian countries.

Addressing India’s concerns over the construction of three new dams on the Brahmaputra, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters ahead of Manmohan’s visit that Beijing was sharing hydrological data and both countries would ‘accommodate each others’ concerns.

But some see inherent pitfalls. Security analyst Major General (retd) AK Chaturvedi, believes there is a danger lurking ahead. “It can turn into a threat if China decides to control the flow of water. Other neighbours of China have raised similar concerns. They too are lower riparian and are aware about their depleting flow of water from China.’’ Theoretically, China can meet its vast water demands by diverting resources from Tibet, also giving it a handle to put a brake on India's growth story.

The region is irrigated by four of the world’s greatest river systems - Yangtze, Indus, Ganges and the Brahmaputra. All of them originate in the Tibetan plateau and will be affected by melting glaciers. Shortage of water will effect agricultural production, power generation, food availability and livelihood negatively. In India, agriculture takes up the majority of the country’s water resources. A drop in water availability would therefore reduce annual harvests and feed for livestock.

In sharp contrast to its eastern border, India has water treaties with Bangladesh and Pakistan (both downstream) and with Bhutan and Nepal (both upstream). There is no reason why India and China cannot work out a gain-all water sharing agreement. Experts say that when international laws on the issue are weak and there is no strong water-sharing mechanism, India should be vocal and clear about the kind and quantum of problems. That seems to be its best bet.

The Road Ahead

Will the defence accord help to tranquilise the borders?

Apart from the BDCA, nine agreements, including the one on strengthening cooperation on trans-border rivers were signed after delegation-level talks that lasted over two hours as Singh and Premier Li Keqiang met for the second time this year.
As expected, there was no agreement on liberalising the visa regime, which Beijing was very keen but India reluctant in the wake of the controversy over the stapled visas issued by the China to residents from Arunachal Pradesh.
The four-page BDCA, signed by Union defence secretary R K Mathur and PLA deputy chief of general staff Lt Gen Sun Jianguo, seeks to maintain peace, tranquility and stability along the 4,000 km long the LAC reiterates that neither side shall use its military capability against the other side and that their respective military strengths shall not be used to attack the other side.
Manmohan Singh told reporters that the two countries agreed that peace and tranquility on the borders must remain the foundation for growth in the India-China relationship, “even as we move forward the negotiations towards a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the India-China Boundary Question. This will be our strategic benchmark.”

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017