By Poojil Tiwari
Earlier this month, a report published in South China Morning Post claimed that the Chinese government is planning to build a 1000 km long tunnel to divert the water of river Brahmaputra. The Chinese foreign ministry, however, denied any such claims, stating that they would “continue to attach great importance to cross-border river cooperation.” The report created tremendous uproar due to the political and environmental ramifications of such a move. It also highlighted the tumultuous state of affairs with regards to water and its growing importance in South Asian geopolitics.
The South Asian water dispute: Explained
South Asia is the world’s most densely populated region. Almost all the south Asian countries are riparian states. As a result, most of them are water stressed and face water scarcity. Rising agrarian needs and irresponsible water management are other factors. The unstable political climate in the region has only contributed towards worsening the issue. Countries including India, have rapidly been building dams, canals and tunnels that disregard the water needs of other nations.
This has necessitated the immediate brokering of treaties that lack political and economic foresight. Historically, the disputes have largely been a result of upper riparian countries strong-arming the rivers located in their region. B.G. Verghese, author and analyst at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research says, “South Asia is symbolic of what we are seeing in terms of water stress and tensions across the world.”
Placing India in this conflict
For a large part, India can be said to be central to the water conflict in South Asia. Its position as an upper riparian country with respect to Bangladesh and Pakistan and a lower riparian country with respect to China makes it unique to the water conflicts of South Asia. At present, the country is waging two primary diplomatic wars with Pakistan and China in terms of water. Both the countries are estimated to become water scarce by 2050 with Pakistan already being classified as ‘water-stressed’.
Currently, the countries are fighting over the Kishanganga Hydroelectric plant being built on the river by the same name. Pakistan has moved the World Bank on this issue, stating that the dam violates the pre-existing Indus Valley Treaty between the two countries. The country is concerned that the project will hamper the flow of the river into River Jhelum, which lies in the Pakistani territory. The Kishanganga Dam is also considered by many to be a strategic move that stops water flow to Pakistan’s Neelum-Jhelum Hydroelectric plant which is being constructed downstream of Kishanganga.
The Bramhaputra conflict
The Brahmaputra river has emerged as a major bone of contention in the South Asian region between India, China and Bangladesh. China, located most upstream out of the three countries prioritises the generation of hydro-energy with regard to the river. It has built the Zangmou hydroelectric dam over the river and has plans to build three more. This directly conflicts with India’s approach to the Brahmaputra river, as the country prioritises its water supply and storage capacity.
Political tensions and mistrust between the two countries have led to India being concerned about China using its dams to cut off the water supply to the Indian region during dry seasons and/or in the case of an Indo-Sino conflict. India is also fighting an ongoing battle with Bangladesh over the latter’s share in the Teesta river, which is a tributary of Brahmaputra. While Bangladesh wants a larger share of the river, India has raised objections to such a demand due to West Bengal claiming that there is not enough water to share.
China increasing the stakes
China can definitely be considered to be the strongest stakeholder when it comes to water disputes in the region. China’s approach to diplomatic discussions has always been bilateral in nature. However, given the all-pervading significance of water, such disputes cannot be solved with bilateral ties that exclude other countries from the narrative. While China has continuously claimed that it has no intentions of monopolising water in the region, precedence goes to show that the country has had little respect for territorial integrity.
Furthermore, China’s rapid militarisation of the South China Sea has also raised red flags about its increasing activity in the Indian Ocean. India’s conflict with China over Doklam saw China deploying submarines, warships and research vessels in the ocean to exert pressure over India to withdraw its army from Doklam. Militarisation of water, while not an imminent threat, if happens, is sure to add another dimension to the water conflict in the region.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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