The latest dispute between India and China is as murky as the water it's over. In October, the South China Morning Post reported that China had revived plans to build a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) tunnel to divert water to Xinjiang province from the Yarlung Tsangpo River in southern Tibet and was testing the technique on a separate tunnel project. China denied that any such plans were underway. But when the Sang River then appeared muddier than normal in recent weeks and displayed elevated levels of iron, it struck a nerve in India. A local leader running for office in Arunachal Pradesh speculated that Chinese construction was responsible for the pollution, but he failed to provide evidence to back up his assertion and both Indian and Chinese leaders denied that China was responsible for the muddy waters. On Dec. 4, Indian Union Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal said an earthquake that took place in mid-November could be responsible for changes to the river. Regardless of whether China is planning a diversion project or not and whether it is behind the most recent murky waters, the events have shown just how volatile transboundary rivers can be for the regional giants.
The Himalayan Mountains are the starting point for three of India's major rivers: the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. All three begin in China, but it is the Brahmaputra — or the Yarlung Tsangpo, as it is known in China — that plays the largest role in the relationship between India and China. Roughly half of the Brahmaputra Basin falls within China (much more than the other rivers' basins), and the river crosses into China from India in the contested region of Arunachal Pradesh. India administers Arunachal Pradesh as the northernmost of the seven states in far northeastern India known as the Seven Sisters, but China claims most of its territory. Decades of border skirmishes along the more than 4,000-kilometer Line of Actual Control and 14 years of dialogue have yet to resolve the dispute.
When China gained control Tibet in 1950, it gained control of the headwaters and the main spine of the northern portion of what it calls the Yarlung Tsangpo River. As the river takes a sharp turn south, it crosses into the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh and its name changes to Brahmaputra. One of Beijing's primary security imperatives is to keep its control of Tibet (and eventually Arunachal Pradesh as well), and to do that it must maintain a strong presence in the west, especially in Xinjiang province. For that it needs water, which is why has floated several ideas for getting water to the province in the past.
The idea that China could divert the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo to sustain the arid lands of Xinjiang and facilitate China's westward expansion is not a new one. As early as 1990, Chinese academic and water expert Guo Kai proposed diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo to the Yellow River, irrigating the desert lands in between in the process. The idea resurfaced in 2011, when academic Wang Guangqian proposed another diversion scheme, but the technical feasibility of the projects and their hefty price (estimates range from $150 billion to $250 billion) have stood in the way.
Treaties governing transboundary waters are nearly always difficult to reach. And where they exist, treaties are often long outdated, use insufficient data and are hard to enforce. The treaties governing the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, and Indus rivers, for example, have all been called into question since their signing. Projects that involve the management or control of water, such as dams, are particularly volatile issues, since giving upstream countries control over water flow tends to make downstream states nervous. The Indus Waters Treaty between Pakistan and India is notable for its durability through numerous military skirmishes, but even it — and the dispute process it lays out — hasn't stopped complaints over Pakistani dam projects. The Brahmaputra has no such treaty or outlined dispute process.
In fact, China has been hesitant to enter into any agreement on water, especially when it involves Tibet, and there is no official treaty or institution governing the Brahmaputra. There is only a memorandum of understanding on data sharing during the monsoon season (May 15-Oct. 15) that was initially signed in 2002 and an Expert Level Mechanism that has convened to discuss the hydrological data annually since 2007. But China has been accused of failing to meet even these very minimal conditions by withholding data, most recently during the dispute over the Doklam Plateau.
China, despite its hesitance to enter into transboundary water agreements, is a leader in water infrastructure projects. It has made it a core mission to harness, utilize and better distribute the country's limited water resources, undertaking projects such as the South-North Water Diversion Project and the Three Gorges Dam. China has altered the Yarlung Tsangpo and its tributaries less than other rivers, though it did recently commission the Zangmu Dam and a handful of others on the Yarlung Tsangpo. But these dams are not particularly threatening to India (or Bangladesh) compared to the possibility that China would divert massive amounts of water from the river. (Though the option to create reservoirs as a part of the dam projects could become controversial in the future.)
Weak as Water
Faced with China's aggressive foreign policy initiatives, India is compelled to become more assertive in regional issues and the Brahmaputra is in an undeniably weak spot. Because there is no treaty governing the river, India has no say over how China chooses to use the water within its territory. But likewise, India isn't beholden to any treaties governing the river and has planned its own dam projects.
India has ambitions to build hydropower dams in Arunachal Pradesh and is already building one in Bhutan, the scene of the Doklam dispute with China. The projects are concerning for Bangladesh, the country furthest downstream and the most vulnerable nation in the watershed. But they have found favor with Japan, which would benefit from countering China in the region and which has been investing in Arunachal Pradesh. If the projects come to fruition, they would have important implications for power generation and would also allow for increased Indian settlement in the disputed region, giving India a stronger claim.
2018 is poised to be an interesting year when it comes to the relationship between India and China. As China more aggressively pursues its geopolitical imperatives, such as creating its modern Silk Road, India will be pushed into being more active in its own backyard. This will pit the two regional powers against each other more. Water disputes will be a factor, acting as levers in broader regional dynamics. In the long run, it is possible that large infrastructure projects will impact agricultural access to waters for irrigation. But in the near term, the "water war," one of words only, will be more a reflection of broader geopolitical dynamics than a battle for resources.