China and India recently failed to sign a bilateral agreement on how to share the water of the Brahmaputra River despite meeting to discuss the issue in May. Prime Ministers from both countries met in New Delhi to discuss several bilateral issues, however an agreement that sets out how both countries may develop the river and utilise its water was not signed.
For China, as the upper riparian state on the Brahmaputra, this is of little concern. However India cannot allow the issue to continue on as it has, as it puts at risk the country’s future water security by not getting an agreement signed.
Originating in China, the Brahmaputra River flows down onto the Indian subcontinent from the Himalayas, crossing the border between China and India. The water from this river has been able to supply both nations for centuries, but the rapid economic and demographic expansion of China and India has put the water supply into jeopardy. By 2030 the demand for water in both India and China is expected to rise by 60%, which would put both countries into a ‘water stressed’ state according to international standards.
As ‘water stressed’ states, both nations would struggle to provide sufficient drinking water for their people, however, this classification has meanings that go beyond the availability of drinking water. The majority of water used in both countries goes into other processes that are equally vital to people’s livelihoods.
In India, it is agriculture that takes up the majority of the country’s water resources. A drop in the amount of water available would therefore reduce annual harvests and feed for livestock. Likewise, industrial processes such as energy, production and sewage management are all systems that utilise vast quantities of water.
In recent years, the issue of water supply has brought both nations to the negotiating table. In 2002 China and India agreed to share data on the flow of the river in order to better manage its resources and mitigate against floods, and this agreement was recently renewed in May 2013 when both countries met.
Further to the agreement, two memoranda were also signed, which touted that China and India would both share their knowledge and expertise in water management in order to better manage the Brahmaputra. Such agreements give the impression that both nations are working together to sustainably develop the river, however hydropolitical cooperation to date has been weak in reality.
The greatest problem lies with the fact that none of the agreements signed go any way toward dealing with the issue of water sharing. The agreements that both signed do not stipulate how the river may be developed by either party, or how much water they may extract from the river. With no agreement clearly stating how both countries may use the river, there is scope for inappropriate development. As the upper riparian state on the river, the greatest danger lies with China. If they were to autonomously develop the Brahmaputra without consulting India, then it would only be India who would suffer the consequences.
Such instances of poor communication between both states have occurred along the river in the past and caused tensions to rise. China began the construction of the Zangmu Dam in 2009 without informing India, but news of the dam’s construction soon reached New Delhi. India protested the construction but China played down their fears by saying that it was a small run-off-the-river project that would not adversely affect the flow of water to India.
Construction of the dam is still not complete, so it is too early to determine who may be right, but this experience serves as a worrying example of how hydropolitics may develop in the future. Further, China is looking to build a North-South water diversion system which would involve the construction of multiple dams; including the construction of a dam three times the size of the Three Gorges Dam. On an individual level, these dams may be too small to affect the flow of water to India, but collectively they could have an impact.
There are international mechanisms in place that aim to protect against such unsustainable and inequitable developments on interboundary water resources. International customary law upholds the principle of ‘do no harm’, a measure that forbids one riparian state from damaging a water resource used by other countries. Likewise, in 2010 the UN declared access to water a basic human right, elevating the importance attached to how water is shared between nations.
However, China and India do not appear to be proactive on the issue of water sharing. The 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which aims to promote the equitable use of water resources internationally, was rejected by China and abstained from by India.
Similarly, in 1960 India signed a water sharing agreement, the Indus Water Treaty, with Pakistan. The treaty was a significant achievement at the time, but it is in dire need of an update in order to meet current demands and no further agreements on water have been made between the two countries. Likewise, on the Mekong River, China is a part of the Mekong River Commission but only holds a dialogue partner status which does not truly integrate China with the efforts of the commission to sustainably manage the river.
The trend is worrying and the nationalist Indian NGO, Jana Jagriti, raised an important point when they recently argued that India needs to take hydro-political issues with China more seriously. India needs to work harder to ensure that a proper water sharing agreement is signed with China over the Brahmaputra River. India is the downstream state and it is therefore in the country’s greatest interests—more so than China’s—to sign an agreement on the Brahmaputra. The future security of India’s water supply would be better protected, and China and India could focus on sustainable development projects without having to worry about tensions over water arising.