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Mutual Mistrust should Give Way to Water Cooperation between India and China

Majuli Island in the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India.

Towards the end of 2017, the waters of River Brahmaputra – that originates in Tibet (where it is called “Yarlung Tsangpo”), flows through India’s Northeast and empties into the Bay of Bengal Sea via Bangladesh – were tested to be highly turbid, polluted and non-potable. This incident reignited several rumours about alleged Chinese dam-building and water diversion activities in Tibet. In 2017, China also declined to share water flowdata with India due to “technical reasons” (that “the data collection station in Tibet was being upgraded”) but reports revealed that during the same period, China shared data with Bangladesh. Due to unavailability of flood-season data, India was not well-positioned to gauge the probability of flood-like situation in the Northeast and prepare for it, thereby creating havoc in the state of Assam, killing and displacing hundreds.

China’s refusal to share data was seen by many experts as a reaction to the Doklam standoff between the Indian Armed Forces and China’s People’s Liberation Army in 2017. This is not the first time that India has been at the receiving end of China’s opaque policies that have hindered an amicable upstream/downstream relationship between the two countries, reflective of turbulent Sino-Indian political relations.

Is China Using Brahmaputra as Leverage?

This raises the important question of whether China has been using the Brahmaputra as political leverage against India. Back in 2000, when a dam breached in Tibet, it caused devastating floods in downstream territories, including Arunachal Pradesh (one of the Indian states, but also claimed by China as “South Tibet”), killing more than 30 people and destroying many villages, as India did not receive any warning from China. This occurred at a time when India’s apprehensions regarding China’s purported scheme to divert the waters of Brahmaputra to feed its northern and western arid/semi-arid parts were high.

This unfortunate incident was followed by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries on the sharing of hydrological information of the river (water level, discharge and rainfall) duringflood season in 2002. Interestingly, from 2008 onwards, India has been paying China 8,200,000 Indian Rupees (approximately 103,000Euro) annually for data, which the latter has reportedly been utilising to “maintain the observation stations and pay the allowances of its personnel.” Reports suggest that India had already paid China in advance in 2017 for the data, under the provisions of MoUs signed in 2013 and 2015. Ironically, China provides hydrological information to Bangladesh for free; and so does India to Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The Doklam standoff was seen by China as a clear infringement on its sovereignty, as Indian soldiers and equipment allegedly moved into Chinese territory in response to its “legal” (what India considered “illegal”) road construction in Doklam. Chinese experts have pointed out that, under such circumstances, it will not “agree to carry out normal cooperation on hydrological data with India.” Although this might not be the official position of the Chinese government, India needs to bear in mind that, in the event of a prolonged confrontation between the two countries, China is likely to forgo its obligations, leaving India vulnerable.

Water Quality as Big an Issue as Water Quantity

In any case, the MoU does not address issues related to water quality. In 2017, the sudden discolouration of the waters of River Siang, which is a tributary of River Brahmaputra, was blamed upon debris created by China’s construction activity on the river. Earlier, some reports have indeed emerged that China had been planning to build a 1.000-kilometre tunnel to divert water from Tibet to Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang. Later, it was brought to light that the discolouration could be due to earthquakes and landslides, causing “massive inflow of soil materials from mountains into the Yarlung Tsangpo”. China, on the other hand, has time and again maintained that its projects are in consonance with its “just and legitimate” right over water in Tibet and are “scientifically” planned not to affect water flow, flood control or the ecosystems of downstream countries.

It is rather clear that what India needs to be worried about is not just water quantity, but also water quality, as well as the threat posed by unstable natural lakes created by the earthquakes. Changes in the hydrological system in Tibet caused by seismic activities, whether natural or human-made (owing to Chinese dam construction), can severely affect the river ecosystems and livelihoods that depend on them. Even during the 2017 incident, fish and animals were found dead, which generated alarm among the people of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. More importantly, river pollution is a major source of concern in both China and India. There are several reports that disclose the pollution of rivers due to China’s indiscriminate mining in the Tibetan Plateau, which could affect downstream countries like India and Bangladesh.

Cooperation instead of Conflict

These pitfalls and challenges bring forth the importance of setting up an institutional mechanism that ensures transparency and accountability with respect to sharing of River Brahmaputra, as well as other rivers that originate in the Tibetan Plateau. If India and China do not reach a long-lasting agreement that goes beyond the current modus operandi, the eastern sector of the Sino-Indian boundary, which is already disputed, could metamorphose into a full-fledged conflict theatre. 

The current impasse has been resolved through confidence building measures, with the two countries agreeing to convene a meeting of the expert level mechanism on transboundary rivers in Beijing this year. The dialogue is expected to renew cooperation in sharing of hydrological data, as agreed under the existing MoUs, as the bonhomie between the two countries has been somewhat restored to pre-Doklam scenario.

It has been that despite the border dispute, they have signed MoUs to avoid a water flashpoint, but not necessarily to spur meaningful cooperation and eradicate mistrust, which is a necessity in the long term. The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework established by China in 2015, can be perceived as a result of increasing willingness of China to engage in multilateral arrangements, even though in this case it could be more of a strategy to eclipse initiatives of Japan and the US concerning the river. While the LMC cannot be replicated in the subcontinent in its entirety due to different geopolitical realities, the onus lies on India to shed its penchant for bilateral arrangements and rope in Bangladesh to put pressure on the Chinese side to be a part of a multilateral cooperation framework.


Dhanasree Jayaram is a Researcher at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India; and a Research Fellow at Earth System Governance Project.