China’s Hydra-Headed Hydropolitics

Sino-Indian Divide Over Water


A globally syndicated column. CopyrightProject Syndicate

As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing
ever more international attention at the time of an ongoing global shift of
power to 
Asia. Their underlying strategic
dissonance and rivalry, however, usually attracts less notice.

As its power grows, China seems
determined to choke off Asian competitors, a tendency reflected in its
hardening stance toward 
This includes aggressive patrolling of the disputed Himalayan frontier by the
People’s Liberation Army, many violations of the line of control separating the
two giants, new assertiveness concerning India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh
state — which China claims as its own — and vituperative attacks on India in
the state-controlled Chinese media.

The issues that divide India and China, however,
extend beyond territorial disputes. Water is becoming a key security issue in
Sino-Indian relations and a potential source of enduring discord.

China and India already are
water-stressed economies. The spread of irrigated farming and water-intensive
industries, together with the demands of a rising middle class, have led to a
severe struggle for more water. Indeed, both countries have entered an era of
perennial water scarcity, which before long is likely to equal, in terms of per
capita availability, the water shortages found in the 

Rapid economic growth could slow in the face of acute
scarcity if demand for water continues to grow at its current frantic pace,
turning China and India — both food-exporting countries — into major importers,
a development that would accentuate the global food crisis.

Even though India has
more arable land than 
China —
160.5 million hectares compared to 137.1 million hectares — 
Tibet is
the source of most major Indian rivers. The Tibetan plateau’s vast glaciers,
huge underground springs and high altitude make 
Tibet the world’s largest
freshwater repository after the polar icecaps. Indeed, all of Asia’s major
rivers, except the 
Ganges, originate in
the Tibetan plateau. Even the Ganges’ two main tributaries flow in from 

But China is
now pursuing major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects on the
Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish international-river flows into
India and
other co-riparian states. Before such hydro-engineering projects sow the seeds
of water conflict, 
China ought
to build institutionalized, cooperative river-basin arrangements with
downstream states.

Upstream dams, barrages, canals, and irrigation systems
can help fashion water into a political weapon that can be wielded overtly in a
war, or subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction with a co-riparian state.
Even denial of hydrological data in a critically important season can amount to
the use of water as a political tool. Flash floods in recent years in two
Indian frontier states — Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh — served as an
ugly reminder of 
lack of information-sharing on its upstream projects. Such leverage could in
turn prompt a downstream state to build up its military capacity to help
counterbalance this disadvantage.

In fact, China has
been damming most international rivers flowing out of 
Tibet, whose
fragile ecosystem is already threatened by global warming. The only rivers on
which no hydro-engineering works have been undertaken so far are the Indus,
whose basin falls mostly in 
India and Pakistan, and the Salween, which flows into Burma and Thailand. Local authorities
Yunnan province, however, are
considering damming the 
Salween in
the quake-prone upstream region.

India’s government has been pressing China for
transparency, greater hydrological data-sharing, and a commitment not to
redirect the natural flow of any river or diminish cross-border water flows.
But even a joint expert-level mechanism — set up in 2007 merely for "interaction
and cooperation" on hydrological data — has proven of little value.

The most-dangerous idea China is
contemplating is the northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra river, known as
Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans, but which 
China has renamed Yaluzangbu.
It is the world’s highest river, and also one of the fastest-flowing. Diversion
of the Brahmaputra’s water to the parched Yellow river is an idea that 
China does not discuss in public, because
the project implies environmental devastation of 
India‘s northeastern plains and eastern Bangladesh, and would thus be akin to a
declaration of water war on 
India and Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, an officially blessed book published in
Tibet’s Waters
Will Save China, openly championed the northward rerouting of the 
Brahmaputra. Moreover, the Chinese desire to divert the
Brahmaputra by employing "peaceful nuclear explosions" to build an
underground tunnel through the Himalayas found expression in the international
negotiations in 
Geneva in
the mid-1990s on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). 
China sought
unsuccessfully to exempt PNEs from the CTBT, a pact still not in force.

The issue now is not whether China will reroute the Brahmaputra, but when. Once authorities complete their
feasibility studies and the diversion scheme begins, the project will be
presented as a 
fait accompli
China already
has identified the bend where the Brahmaputra forms the world’s longest and
deepest canyon — just before entering 
India — as the diversion

China’s ambitions to channel Tibetan waters northward
have been whetted by two factors: the completion of the Three Gorges Dam,
which, despite the project’s glaring environmental pitfalls, China trumpets as
the greatest engineering feat since the construction of the Great Wall; and the
power of President Hu Jintao, whose background fuses two key elements — water
and Tibet. Hu, a hydrologist by training, owes his swift rise in the Communist
Party hierarchy to the brutal martial-law crackdown he carried out in 
Tibet in

China’s hydro-engineering projects and plans are a reminder
Tibet is
at the heart of the India-China divide. 
Tibet ceased
to be a political buffer when 
China annexed it nearly six decades
ago. But 
Tibet can
still become a political bridge between 
China and India. For that
to happen, water has to become a source of cooperation, not conflict.

Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research
New Delhi.

Copyright: Project
Syndicate, 2009.

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