Friday, 3 November 2017

Brahmaputra River: An Eternal Conflict between India and China

*By Dechen Palmo

The problem of water scarcity in the region
China having more than 20% of the world’s population has less than 7% of global freshwater resource at its disposal. Moreover, the available water is unequally distributed, with Tibet having more water than northern China. To relieve the enormous pressure on water resource in China’s north, the leadership in 2003 launched a gigantic South-to-North Water Transfer Project.[i] To satisfy its insatiable demand for electricity and as a part of its shift away from coal, China went on a dam building spree. However, the Chinese projects on the Tibet's transboundary river have negative impact on the downstream countries.

The frozen Yarlung Tsangpo River just before it enters India from Tibet (Image by Yang Yong) caption
One such issue is about the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra River which is also known as the Yarlung Tsangpo and has its source in Chemayungdung glacier in Tibet.  The river flows into three densely populated nations of the world--China, India and Bangladesh.  India, which is the middle riparian of the Brahmaputra River, has sour relations with China which control the source of this river in Tibet. 

For India, the Brahmaputra River is of great importance for two reasons: first, The River, accounts for 29% of the total run-off of India's rivers, is key to India's river linking project; second, The Brahmaputra basin possess about 44% of India's total hydropower potential.[ii]

But with Chinese construction of dams and water diversion projects, it threatens the downstream countries. In the meantime, there is need for Beijing to maintain relatively stable relations with neighbouring countries in order to provide conditions for China's peaceful rise.[iii]

Desecuritizing the water issue
To meet its surging energy demand, China itself seeks to utilize its huge hydropower potential of the Brahmaputra but on other hand, China has to maintain a stable relation with India and Bangladesh. Therefore, China follows the desecuritization policy to deal with the water sharing conflicts.

Desecuritization refers to the process of "moving issues off the security agenda and back into the realm of political discourse and normal political dispute and accommodation. Desecuritization is therefore about ‘turning threats into challenges and security into politics’.[iv]
Source: Environment and Development Desk, Tibet Policy Institute
China's desecuritization moves have primarily been of a reactive and short-term nature.[v] Whenever there is concerns raised about the Chinese activities on the upstream of the river, Beijing resorts to a volley of rhetorical comments. The main tool used by the Chinese is the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding sharing hydrological data with India and Bangladesh, not leaving any space for downstream to point finger to China for being uncooperative upper riparian country.

But, whenever the circumstances arise, China uses Tibet's river to achieve its foreign policy goal. During the Doklam conflict, the issue of Brahmaputra also came into play, this is because of the lack of cooperation or agreement between the two countries. Since there is no water sharing agreement or any dispute settling mechanism between the two countries, the issue of water is often mixed with border conflicts.

Existing apparatus between the countries on water is mostly a series of MoU on hydrological data sharing and a body of experts-level mechanism. However, these MoUs are non-binding and there is no overseeing organizational body that can ensure a fair implementation of the agreement.

With the recent Chinese policy of not sharing hydrological data with India, China has actually violated the bilateral MoUs. According to the MoUs, China is obliged to share a hydrological data from three upstream monitoring stations of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet during the monsoon season from May 15 to October 15 and India on other side has to pay for the hydrological data.  While China sells hydrological data to downstream countries, India provides such data without charging fee to both of its downstream neighbors- Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Mr. Raveesh Kumar, Indian foreign ministry spokesperson during a regular briefing said that "for this year, we have not received the hydrological data from the Chinese side".[vi]

Will the existing MoUs and the expert level mechanism between the two countries ensure future cooperation? Will there be any war between the two countries as predicted in case of any physical change in the flow of the river?

Until now, the existing MoU and the expert level mechanism worked for both countries. Beijing assured continuous flow of river despite damming of the river and the Indian government on the other hand also maintain a cordial relation with China over water issues, while simultaneously raising Brahmaputra River as an issue of concern with Chinese leaders.

Water Conflict

Due to rising demand, extensive use and climate change have all aggravated water security problems in the region.  According to a Mckinsey report (2009) it suggests that by 2030, water demand in India will grow by almost 1.5 trillion m3, against this demand, India’s current water supply is approximately 740 billion m3.  As a result, most of India’s river basin could face severe deficit by 2030, unless concerted action is taken. [vii] 

For whatever reason, either because of Doklam conflict or because of some technical reasons as China claimed, Beijing didn't provide the hydrological data to India for this year. This hydrological data is of great importance to the Indian side to predict or prepare for flood and to mitigate flood damage.
With the usual China desecuritization moves over water conflicts, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told media in Beijing that "for a long time we have cooperated on the river data with the Indian side. But to upgrade and renovate the relevant station on the Chinese side, we do not have the conditions now to collect the relevant statistics of the river." But the question of upgrading and reconstruction comes to light when Bangladesh, downstream to India received same hydrological data from China about the same river. Bangladesh's water resources minister, Anisul Islam Mohammad confirmed to the BBC that his country was receiving hydrological data from China.[viii]
Although, Beijing claimed the alleged paucity in data sharing is because of renovation, but Chinese observers have pointed to the escalating tensions in Doklam.

Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said that "Although China is a responsible country, we can't fulfill our obligations to India when it shows no respect to our sovereignty". He further added that China will not agree to carry out normal cooperation on hydrological data with India, unless it agrees to withdraw troops from Doklam.[ix]

So, from this it clearly indicates that Beijing is using the Brahmaputra as a leverage against India to achieve its political goal. Since the problem of border conflict is unlikely to be solved in the near future, so does the problem of Brahmaputra River.

If China continues with the lack of transparency over its project, and not adhere to the MoUs, the mistrust between the countries will continue to increase and it could lead to conflicts in the future.
Therefore, it is necessary for both countries to set up a joint institutional mechanism to encourage further cooperation on disaster management, climate change and environmental protection. If the current situation remains the same, then this is likely lead to a war over water as predicted by some of the experts.

*The author is an environment Research Fellow at the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute

[i] For more information, see South-to-North Water Diversion Project, China, Accessed on 30 October, 2017,Retrieved from:
[ii] Muhammad Mizanur Rahaman and Olli Varis, ‘Integrated water management of the Brahmaputra Basin: perspectives and hope for regional development’, National Resources Forum 33(1), (2009), pp. 60 – 61.
[iii] For more information on peaceful rise, see Peaceful rise, Accessed on 29 October, 2017. Available at
[iv]  Williams, ‘Words, images, enemies’, p. 523.
[v] Ole Waever, ‘Securitization and desecuritization’, in Ronnie Lipschutz, ed., On Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 60.
[vi] Hindustan times, accessed on 29 September, 2017, available at
[vii] As quoted in ('the Mckinsey Report') by IDSA, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 'Water Security for India: The External Dynamics,' IDSA Task Force Report, September, 2010, ISBN# 81-86019-83-9
[viii] Navin Sigh Khadka, 'China and India water 'dispute' after border standoff, 18 September 2017, retrieved from BBC,
[ix] Zhao Yusha, Global times (2017). China has to halt river data sharing as India infringes on sovereignty: expert