India-China Water Dispute


Research Assistant, Centre for Development & Peace Studies

Chinese opinion makers have finally admitted that a water dispute does exist between India and China and that it has the potential to intensify, although a military confrontation, they say, is unlikely. The National Institute of International Strategy, one of the influential think-tanks at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that is directly under the State Council, has accused India of putting pressure on China by exaggerating ground realities and attempting to draw sympathy from the international community with the intention of putting a stop to China’s plans of developing Tibetan water resources.

Li Zhifei, a scholar at the Institute, wrote a commentary on October 7 th in the Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, titled “Indian threat-mongering over water resource disputes dangerous fantasy”, where he links the border disputes with the contention over water resources. “It attempts to gain control of disputed territories by acquiring more international support and actual control on the ground through the development of the water resources in related areas… Furthermore, India has already set up dozens of hydropower stations in the so-called Arunachal Pradesh, attempting to reinforce its actual control and occupation of the disputed area”, Li wrote.

If the Chinese government approaches the water issue by linking it to the already complex historical border dispute, then the much needed bilateral water-sharing treaty is unlikely to materialize. The Chinese think-tank has taken to territorial claims by mentioning how India is trying to reinforce its “occupation” of the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh. Adding more layers to the already intricate border dispute will only make matters worse for the two countries. The issue over water resources need not be nagging like the India-China border dispute if both the conflicts are tackled independent of each other.

Li writes, “ China stresses peaceful rise, and tries to build up a win-win situation… [China should] actively seek to address disputes through following the principles of peaceful negotiation and cooperation”, but so far attempts at solving the water dispute have reached a stalemate since China had rejected India’s proposal for a joint mechanism in May this year. In the absence of a river water-sharing treaty between the two countries, a joint mechanism will allow India to seek specific information about the upstream projects in China, their construction schedule, the likely impact on people, environment and downstream river flows. When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited New Delhi on May 19 th, 2013 for talks with the Indian Prime Minister, India could only get the Chinese Premier to announce the ‘renewal’ of an already existing pact between the two countries on sharing hydrological information during the monsoon season. At a joint press conference, the Chinese Premier said he was ready to share more information on hydrology and rivers but there was no official word on setting up a joint mechanism to address India’s concerns on dams coming up on the Brahmaputra on the Chinese side.

The Chinese scholar contrasts China’s stress for peaceful development to what he calls India’s paranoid reaction while summing up all the threats that China could potentially pose for India but only to quickly dismiss it as India’s imaginary enemies. Li writes, “If China stores water at the upper stream, there will be less water flowing through India, causing negative effects on the water use for its industrial and agricultural sectors which are mainly located in the basin of the Ganges River. Therefore, China's control of the allocation of water means, from the Indian perspective, China will exert substantial economic influence upon the rising South Asian power. India imagines that if China draws off water in the reservoirs on the Yarlung Zangbo River, it will become swampland. The country also contends that China will probably carry out interceptions during dry seasons and discharges during rainy days as means to impose pressure on the Indian government, and that once a conflict takes place, Beijing is likely to raise water levels to cut off communications or drown enemy troops”. It is almost disconcerting how well the Chinese think-tank has outlined all the possible actions China, being an upper riparian state and therefore at an advantage, could take against India in case of military confrontation. But the think-tank was quick to add that nothing of the sort will happen, that China will be a responsible upper riparian state.

Li’s anti-India rhetoric further went on to accuse New Delhi of hypocrisy as India has been critical of China’s hydro projects but disregards its own actions against Bangladesh which is a lower riparian state. However, if India is at fault right now then China will be too after it diverts the Brahmaputra. The threat to Bangladesh is even greater as Bangladesh is the lowest riparian state of the Brahmaputra and the river is more vital to it than even India. Bangladesh is very much concerned over water diversion of the Brahmaputra by China as well as on the building of dams by China and India on the Brahmaputra. It fears the quantity of water reaching Bangladesh would reduce drastically leading to lowering in agricultural production and aggravate environmental problems.

This renewed push for developing Tibetan water resources and the allegations against Indian intentions comes at a time when border intrusions have become frequent resulting in a stand-off between the two countries and just ahead of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China later in October 2013.

Li advised the Chinese government to go ahead with its hydrological plans for the Yarlung Tsangpo despite criticisms or actions taken by India or the international community. His line of thinking echoes the actions of the Chinese leadership which had given the green signal for the construction of three new dams, besides the Zangmu Dam, on the Brahmaputra. The new projects were reportedly approved by China at the State Council or Cabinet meeting on January 23, 2013.

Now that China had made its intentions clear of going full swing with developing hydro projects over the Brahmaputra, India needs to come up with solutions to continue to keep a hold over the river which is the lifeline for India’s Northeastern region.

The Brahmaputra River has not been properly utilized in India. Out of the total of 84,044 MW hydropower potential of the country, the Northeast carries a potential of 31,857 MW (37 per cent of the country), of which only 3 per cent has so far been tapped (Brahmaputra Board, 2005). Enough projects are needed on the Brahmaputra if India wants to have a stake on the river.

Retired Colonel P.K. Gautam, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, adds that "if China builds a dam on the Brahmaputra now, and we complain about lesser water flows later, it could say that India doesn't have any projects in the northeast."

Now that a government-controlled Chinese think-tank has sounded out Beijing’s viewpoint on the water issue, India should continue to press China for a formal water sharing treaty and at the same time leverage support from its neighbours like Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to prevent China from implementing large-scale river diversion projects that could affect water security in the whole South Asian region. New Delhi needs to take the water dimension to Sino-Indian ties rather seriously from now on.

(courtesy: The Assam Tribune, published on 20 August 2013,

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