The difficult relationship between India and China over the Brahmaputra River
India is concerned about Chinese plans to divert the river’s waters. So far, Beijing has avoided discussing the issue with New Delhi. An expert talks about the thorny issue, which could lead to open conflict or renewed cooperation between the two nations.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Many in India are very concerned about China’s plans to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet, where it is called Tsangpo. In the Indian State of Assam, the authorities have called on the Planning Commission to improve the management of the Brahmaputra. An expert speaks to AsiaNews about what is behind the conflict and what possible solutions exist.

Assam’s chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, wants the Planning Commission to optimise the great river’s waters, which have caused “floods and erosion” over the years, but could lead to a boom if better managed.

For him, Chinese plans are not a major concern. “Experts have told me,” the chief minister said, “that China's diversion plans will not affect the Brahmaputra. When the river enters Assam from China, it discharges 78 million m3 of water into the state. But when it leaves the state and joins the Ganga, it discharges 600 million m3 of water. Aided by its tributaries, it generates more water in Assam than in China.”

Currently, the Indian government “is holding talks with China to have a water-sharing treaty. I, for my part, am trying to claim the user's right over the river, and that is why we should have hydel projects.”

At the same time, the Committee of Secretaries has asked Arunachal Pradesh to plan a major water storage project near the international border to establish its right over the river and counter China's diversion project.

AsiaNews spoke to Rev Nishant Irudayadason about the issue. The clergyman teaches at the Faculty of Philosophy, Jnanaa-Deepa Vidyapeeth Institute in Pune.

“China and India are facing growing needs for water,” Rev Nishant said. “Both these nations have limited water resources. However, the increasing use of water in agriculture and industry has lead to a tussle for water. The two neighbouring countries are entering a phase when water is scarce and if the water deficit grows at the same frantic pace, the economic growth of both countries may suffer.”

“China and India, the exporters of food, would become largely importers of food – an unfortunate turn that would add to the global food crisis. India has more agricultural land than China (160.5 million hectares against 137.1 million hectares), but most of the large Indian rivers have their source in Tibet. All major rivers of Asia originate from the Tibetan plateau, except the Ganges.”

“China now wants to implement projects to redirect water from rivers that flow from the Tibetan plateau. This would affect the flow of trans-boundary rivers into India and in other neighbouring countries. Dams, canals and irrigation systems can make water a political weapon. Even the refusal to share hydrological data at this juncture of crucial importance is equivalent to using water as a political weapon. China’s unilateral plans on trans-boundary rivers against the interests of other neighbouring countries, especially those of India, might force these countries to develop their military capabilities to counterbalance their disadvantage”.

For Dr Nishant, who has written extensively on the complex geo-political issues, “China has built dams on most of the trans-boundary rivers that originate in Tibet, while their fragile ecosystem is already threatened by global warming. The Indus located in India and Pakistan and the Salween located in Burma and Thailand are the only rivers that are not affected by hydro-engineering projects of China. Local authorities in the Chinese province of Yunnan already are considering building a dam to prevent the flow of Salween in a region prone to earthquakes. India has asked China to be transparent in sharing their hydro-geological data and its commitment not to prevent the flow of trans-boundary rivers. Created in 2007 at the expert level, a common mechanism with a simple goal of interaction and cooperation in the field of hydro-geological data has proven largely ineffective.”

“China’s most dangerous idea is to divert the flow of the Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo by Tibetans and renamed Yaluzangbu in China. China does not engage in an open discussion of its proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra that would cause environmental harm to plains of the northeastern Indian states and to the Eastern Bangladesh. This may trigger a war for water between China and India.”

“A book, published in 2005 with the official approval of the Chinese government titled Tibet’s Waters Will Save China, openly defended the diversion of the Brahmaputra before it flows into the Indian territory. The question is not whether China will divert the Brahmaputra, but when it will realise it. Once the authorities have completed their feasibility study and begin the work of diversion, China will present the project as a fait accompli. It has already identified the site for diversion; the place where the Brahmaputra forms the longest and deepest canyon in the world, just before entering India”.

“Two factors lie behind China’s ambition to divert water Tibetan. The first is the realization of the Three Gorges Dam, which China claims to be the greatest achievement next to the Great Wall. The second is the manifestation of the power of the President Hu Jintao, whose past was strongly influenced by two key elements: water and Tibet. A hydraulic engineer by training, he owes his rapid ascent in the hierarchy of the Communist Party of China to the implementation of martial law and the repression of Tibet in 1989.”

“The Chinese dam projects and diversion of rivers show once again that Tibet is significantly strategic for both China and India. It created a political uneasiness between China and India when China annexed it almost 60 years ago. With concerns for water on both sides, Tibet is again significant. It may become a bridge between China and India only if the question of water breeds cooperation instead of conflict”.