Why India must push for a water-sharing agreement with China

Urging Beijing to ensure interests of downstream riparian states is not enough.

 |  5-minute read |   31-10-2017
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China has expressly claimed ownership over Tibet's waters in the past, but the news that it could build a 1,000km tunnel to divert Brahmaputra waters to its Xinjiang area raised hackles in India. "The proposed tunnel, which would drop down from the world's highest plateau in multiple sections connected by waterfalls, would "turn Xinjiang into California," a geotechnical engineer said, according a South China Morning Post report

Though China has rejected the report as "false and untrue", given the manner in which the ambitious neighbour has carried out infrastructure development in Tibet, it may eventually succeed in making the 1,000km tunnel a reality, may be a decade later.

India and China share several rivers, the most important being the Indus and the Brahmaputra — or Yarlung Zangbo and Yarlung Tsangpo as the Tibetans and the Chinese call it — but there is not a single water sharing treaty.

The roof of the world, Tibet is called the "Third Pole" as with its average altitude of 15,000-plus feet, it is the largest repository of snow outside the two polar regions. 

brahmaputra-660_1031_103117073908.jpgThe Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan. Photo: Reuters

Economically, too, it can garner larger resources. But what about Tibet's future? As China eyes this valuable resource, the water security for entire South Asia is at stake as a large part of its population is sustained by rivers that originate in Tibet.

India's consistent and cautious stand

There have been numerous occasions that Parliamentarians have asked questions vis-à-vis water sharing arrangements with China. Perhaps as a policy - or, do I suspect the inability to move forward - the government has been consistently and continuously giving the same reply time and again. But be it the Congress-led UPA in May 2013 or the current dispensation of BJP-led NDA in March 2017, the following para has been a constant in all replies: "As a lower riparian state with considerable established user rights to the waters of the River, India has conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities. India has called on China to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas."

The government has not made public what it is doing to bring on board Bangladesh (as the second riparian state) to raise the issue with Chinese authorities. What India has with China today is an arrangement to share hydrological data/information as part of the "Memorandum of Understanding" on trans-border rivers for Sutlej and Brahmaputra.

Climate change and Brahmaputra in Tibet

As and when it happens, government-to-government talks and efforts at water sharing will need substantial backing from the scientific communities for an equitable water sharing arrangement. While India is trying bits and pieces to stitch its own scaled models for studying the impacts of climate change on its geography and demography, when it comes to China, especially Tibet, there is very less data in the public domain.

In their 2015 published paper titled "Using the SPEI to Assess Recent Climate Change in the Yarlung Zangbo River Basin, South Tibet", scientists from key laboratories in China Yu Zhongbo, Ju Qin, Li Binquan and Liang Zhongmin, along with Kumud Acharya from US, analysed the effects of climate change on the Yarlung Zangbo River (YZR) basin for the period 1961-2014 based on 0.5-degrees precipitation and air temperature dataset with a high precision.

"During the period of 1961-2014, precipitation experienced a statistically insignificant increasing trend while air temperature became warmer remarkably in the YZR basin. Analysis of meteorological drought index showed that the YZR Basin had no obvious statistical trend in the occurrence number of dry/wet episodes, but severity of dry episode aggravated in terms of duration and magnitude," they concluded.

tsangpo_103117074150.jpgBut what about Tibet's future? Photo: Reuters

In layperson's terms, there was a noticeable decrease in rainfall in certain pockets of that basin. China is grappling with a huge water crisis across its large, almost sub-continental geographical spread and huge population. Tibet is one of its largest provinces. China has taken the liberty of robbing Tibet of its most valuable resource - water - through dams, mining, building infrastructure projects and in general, destroying the pristine landscape.

What can India do?

Clearly, it needs to do more than merely "urging China to ensure interests of downstream riparian states".

Both India and China are part of United Nations' "Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes". India has treaties with Nepal and Bangladesh under this, but not with China - and the need of the hour is to make efforts to bring China on board for such a pact.

Will China listen to India? Or to the UN?

Also read: US speaks out against Xi Jinping's OBOR, but is India ready to face China?

Writer

Nivedita Khandekar Nivedita Khandekar @nivedita_him

The author is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental, developmental and social issues.

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