contributor perspectives

May 22, 2018 | 18:02 GMT

5 mins read

China and India's Disputes Spill Over Into Their Water Supply

Board of Contributors
Ambika Vishwanath
Board of Contributors
Fishermen get ready to cast their net on the Brahmaputra River, part of a massive river system that India shares with China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
(BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • Despite the size and importance of the massive interconnected river system China and India share (along with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh), no integrated structure exists for its management, and the bilateral agreements that govern it are far from sufficient.
  • Political disputes, such as the 2017 standoff over the Doklam Plateau, could harm the waterways China and India share.
  • Unless the countries agree to institute a basinwide mechanism for water management, the river systems they both depend on will be at risk.

Nearly a year after their standoff on the Doklam Plateau began, India and China are trying to get their relationship back on track. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Chinese President Xi Jinping late last month in Wuhan with just that goal in mind, and though their summit was more spectacle than substance, it was nonetheless a necessary step toward resolution. The informal meeting gave the two leaders a prime opportunity to lay aside, however briefly, their countries' long-standing differences and focus on topics of mutual concern, such as climate change, food security and natural disasters. Yet one related issue was missing from the agenda: water. If Beijing and New Delhi fail to address the matter, the repercussions will likely be devastating for the region, its inhabitants and its environment. 

From Yarlung Tsangpo to Brahmaputra

Along with thousands of kilometers of disputed border, a few important waterways run between China and India. The headwaters of the Indus River, for example, originate in China. In addition, the mighty Brahmaputra River, known in China as the Yarlung Tsangpo, flows through both countries on its way to the Bay of Bengal. That waterway links up with the Meghna and Ganges rivers in Bangladesh, forming a system that carries around 138 million liters (364.6 million gallons) during the flood season — a volume more than one and a half times that of the Amazon River. But as a 2016 report by the United Nations Environment Program and its partners found, The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin is also the world's most vulnerable delta, based on more than a dozen key indicators.  

Despite the size and importance of the massive interconnected river system, no basinwide integrated structure exists for its management, and the bilateral agreements that govern it are far from sufficient. Part of the problem is that China, which borders 14 countries and shares over 42 major water bodies, has refused to be a part of an institutionalized water management system. On its fast track toward development, the country has had to tackle the challenges of geography and water head on. China today has built more dams than the rest of the world combined as part of a resource management strategy designed to alleviate water scarcity in 11 of its provinces. For India, many of these constructions have downstream effects on its own water supply — especially China's South-North Water Diversion Project, which draws water from the Yarlung Tsangpo on the western line.

New Delhi, however, will have to take a balanced and strategic approach to negotiating with Beijing over the waterways they share. India, after all, has its own water management and development plans in the works, including the recently launched "National River Linking Project." Like China, it has strained relations with other neighbors over shared waters and has thrown its weight around in bilateral negotiations. As a result, India has caught flak from neighboring countries such as Bangladesh for its "hypocritical" demands of China. The Indian government probably will find working with Beijing on the water issue more useful for the region and for the future of shared waters than accusing China of infringing on its rights.

Water management depends on mutual trust and understanding.

Water Management

Beyond politics, a lack of concrete data across the river basins also muddies the waters between China and India. The two countries keep what information they do have a closely guarded secret, and in the absence of a transnational water management system, they have little legal recourse to question the other country. China in particular has struggled to balance the interests and demands of its downstream neighbors with its own national interests. It has, however, proposed diplomatic initiatives from time to time to ease tensions over shared water resources, including the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism. It also has reached an agreement with India and Bangladesh to share hydrological data about the Yarlung Tsangpo during monsoon season to alert the downstream states about possible flooding, one of the main problems in the river basin.

But water management depends in large part on mutual trust and understanding. The standoff between China and India last year on the Doklam Plateau strained their volatile relationship and, in turn, jeopardized their water security. In May 2017, China did not provide India the hydrological data as required, and though it cited technical issues, its omission nevertheless aroused suspicion in New Delhi of a political motive. A string of meetings between the two countries at various levels of government have since calmed the waters; the 11th meeting of the India-China Expert Level Mechanism on Transborder Rivers in March, moreover, ensured that Beijing would give New Delhi the necessary water data this year as usual.

Still, unless the countries agree to institute a basinwide mechanism for water management, the river systems they both depend on will be at risk. The lingering points of contention between India and China, including border disputes and Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, will continue to spill over into their water-sharing arrangement. Historical trends indicate that water forms a small subset of the political dialogue, and it isn't likely to command much more attention anytime soon. Together with the challenges of climate change and population growth, these issues will increase the strain on the countries' water supply, public health and food security. Even so, as other countries around the world have demonstrated, cooperation is possible.

Ambika Vishwanath is an independent consultant and political scientist specializing in Middle East politics and water and energy security. She has consulted with several governments and international organizations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe and helped shape their policies toward conflict resolution, water diplomacy and security. Previously she worked with the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group.

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