Singh’s Sham Water Accord

A new agreement between China and India doesn’t require Beijing to institutionalize rules-based cooperation on shared resources.

  • By Brahma Chellaney
  • Zuma

    The Brahmaputra River in Tibet, site of the Zangmu hydroelectric project. Zuma Press

    For the past decade, China has pursued a series of ambitious dam-building projects in Tibet, making water a source of significant discord in Sino-Indian relations. Yet last week Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned from a much-publicized visit to Beijing with an accord on water cooperation that offers only jingles and slogans.

    The memorandum of understanding signed during Mr. Singh’s visit merely records that both parties “recognized that transborder rivers and related natural resources and the environment are assets of immense value,” and that they “agreed that cooperation on transborder rivers will further enhance mutual strategic trust and communication.” India even “expressed appreciation to China for providing flood-season hydrological data.”

    With the help of the planeload of journalists he took with him at taxpayer expense, Mr. Singh has presented this trivial accord as a diplomatic success. In truth, the deal hands China a propaganda lever without addressing India’s concerns.

    In an increasingly water-stressed Asia, China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting place of Asia’s major rivers—the Tibetan plateau—and working to reengineer cross-border flows through dams, barrages and other structures. More transboundary rivers flow from China than from any other hydro-hegemon.

    Having already built more large dams than the rest of the world combined, Beijing has in the past decade shifted focus from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers. This year alone it has approved the construction of 54 new dam projects mainly concentrated in southeastern Tibet, including on rivers flowing to South and Southeast Asia.

    India is particularly vulnerable because it directly receives more than 48% of the 718 billion cubic meters of surface water that flows out of Chinese territory every year. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers empty into India’s Ganges basin. India has more arable land than China, but the source of most major Indian rivers is Chinese-controlled Tibet.

    If Beijing continues on its present unilateralist path, its upstream projects could complicate India’s water-sharing with Bangladesh and Pakistan. In the 1996 Ganges Treaty, India guaranteed Bangladesh an equal share of the downriver flows during the difficult dry season. But China is now planning to build a cascade of dams on the Ganges tributaries that contribute significantly to such downstream flows.

    The 1960 Indus Treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, under which India agreed to set aside 80.52% of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan indefinitely, hoping it could trade water for peace. Two of these six rivers are now targeted by China’s dam builders.

    New Delhi has been pressing Beijing for transparency on its dam projects and a commitment not to redirect the natural flow of any river or to diminish cross-border flows. But even a joint expert-level mechanism between China and India—set up in 2007 for “interaction and cooperation” on hydrological data—has proven of little value. China has limited its cooperation to the sale of flood-season hydrological data. India provides such data free to Pakistan year-round.

    Averting water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water-sharing and dispute-settlement mechanisms. Yet China rejects the very concept of water-sharing and doesn’t have a single water-sharing treaty with any of its neighbors. India has such treaties with both of its downstream neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh, including mechanisms to help resolve disputes that flare intermittently.

    Prime Minister Singh pleaded for a bilateral water treaty in separate meetings this year with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, asking at least for a joint commission to ensure transparency in upstream dam-building on the Brahmaputra River (which runs from Tibet to eastern India and Bangladesh) and other southerly-flowing rivers. India currently has to rely on aerial reconnaissance and other intelligence inputs to know of Chinese dam-building activities. Messrs. Xi and Li rebuffed Mr. Singh’s plea.

    Now, with his job-approval rating plummeting to an all-time low and corruption scandals swirling, Mr. Singh didn’t wish to return empty-handed from Beijing. So he accepted what China was willing to offer—a token accord bereft of substance. Beijing will henceforth flaunt this accord to rebut criticism that it is unwilling to cooperate on shared water resources.

    This accord cannot obscure the importance of persuading Beijing to institutionalize rules-based cooperation on shared resources. The failure to build such cooperation between China and its neighbors will have long-term consequences, including making China the master of Asia’s water taps.

    China’s geographic advantage and rising military and economic might limit India’s bargaining power. To influence Beijing, then, India must leverage China’s growing Indian-market access. Yet India’s trade deficit with China in the past decade has climbed at about four times the pace of aggregate bilateral commerce. Perpetuating such a lopsided economic relationship while China disturbs the territorial and river-flow status quo is a double whammy for India.

    China’s dam-building spree is a reminder that Tibet remains at the heart of the India-China divide. This sprawling region ceased to be a political buffer when China annexed it more than six decades ago. For Tibet to turn into a political bridge between China and India, water has to become a source of cooperation, not conflict.

    Mr. Chellaney is the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”

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