Assessing the Sino-Indian water dispute.

Author:Holslag, Jonathan
Position::Sino-Indian Relations - Report

This paper investigates the threat of a water war between China and India. It argues that Indian suspicion of China has been premature. Beijing has not jet given its approval for major water diversion projects in Tibet, it has taken some limited steps toward easing the concerns of the Indian government and a growing number of Chinese experts have taken an interest in developing institutional frameworks for managing transboundary rivers. However, a definitive settlement or cooperation will be difficult because both countries perceive themselves as the victim of a greedy neighbor. While India complains about China's ravenous exploitation of the Himalayan rivers, it is common in China to accuse India of exaggerating the Chinese threat and being unreasonable in its demands.


Two thirsty regional powers, each on one side of a mountain range covered by steadily shrinking glaciers; a more quintessential example of a zero-sum game would be hard to imagine. While relations between China and India have historically been tense, the precious water reserves of the Himalaya might well form the prelude to a new era of hostility. Indian news media and think tank experts have warned that China will erect several dams on the headwaters of mighty rivers like the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Indus. "The project," warns Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, "implies environmental devastation of India's northeastern plains and eastern Bangladesh and would thus be akin to a declaration of water war ..." (1) Pundits like Chellaney have even maintained that China is determined to exploit its riparian dominance and fashion water as a political weapon against India.

This is not the first time that China and India have locked horns over water resources originating in the Himalayas. In 1962, tensions over the disputed boundary and Chinese infrastructure projects in Aksai Chin escalated into a brief border war. Many Indian strategists have approached the Tibetan plateau as if they were looking up against the walls of a fortress, uncertain about the aspirations of its rulers in Beijing. "The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north," wrote Sardar Patel, the iron fist of the first Indian cabinet, in a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950. "In our calculations we shall now have to reckon with communist China in the north and in the northeast, a communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed towards us." (2)

India was well aware of the fact that whoever controlled that geographic bastion also controlled India's lifelines. Nehru pointed at the great strategic value of the water resources of the Himalayas. "For my part, I attach probably most importance to the development of our big schemes--river valley schemes--than to anything else. I think it is out of those that new wealth is going to flow into this country," he stated in front of the Indian parliament; "When I see a map of India and I look at the Himalayan range, I think of the vast power concentrated there, which is not being used, and which could be used, and which really could transform the whole of India with exceeding rapidity if it were properly utilized." (3) Sixty years later, it seems that relations have come full circle, with China mulling over water diversion plans that India considers a threat and leaders on both sides being pressured not to make compromises on the national interest.

The Sino-Indian water dispute is an important case on which to judge whether Asia's two juggernauts will be able to manage conflicting interests and avoid sliding into a downward spiral of rivalry that could destabilize the entire region. It allows us to test whether global challenges like climate change prompt states to work together to protect common goods, or whether environmental threats compel states to stand firm and grab the largest possible share of shrinking natural resources. (4) It also permits us to clarify the awkward balance between nationalism and interdependence; in this case, two countries relying on the same water reserves. (5) This paper seeks to contribute to the debate about self-restraint in the behavior of Asia's rising powers--self-restraint that will be vital if Asia's emerging protagonists are to steer clear of the traditional tragic dynamics of power transition. (6) I start this paper with a concise overview of the water dispute between China and India and then discuss the status of Chinese projects to divert water from the Himalayan rivers. I argue that most of India's alarmist claims have been overblown. There is no evidence yet that Chinese projects constitute an imminent threat to India's water security. However, as I will show in this paper, continued restraint by China cannot be taken for granted. Articles and interviews with Chinese experts make clear that while there are a growing number of arguments in favour of a cautious approach, hardliners are emboldened by India's own water nationalism.


China and India's long-term development will increasingly depend on the availability of water. From 1999 to 2008, the volume of internal renewable water resources decreased from 2,220 to 2,092 cubic meters per capita in China and from 1,762 to 1,631 cubic meters per capita in India, positioning them among the countries with the lowest per capita reserve base. (7) In the last decade, China and India have been plagued by drought and shortages of drinkable water. Not surprisingly then, new options are being considered to tap the Himalayan rivers to ease water needs. At the same time, many studies have forecasted that those rivers could run dry as a consequence of melting glaciers. Lester Brown, a renowned environmentalist, insists that water shortages in the two countries present the largest threat to food security humanity has ever faced. (8) Both Chinese and Indian political leaders seem to recognize this. In 1998, then Chinese vice prime minister Wen Jiabao was reported as saying that the "survival of the Chinese nation" was threatened by the country's shortage of water. (9) In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remarked, "Dry land agriculture, changing climate and water scarcity are the new challenges we are facing ... given the threat of climate change and global warming, we face the real prospect of reduced supply of water. This threat is of particular concern to us in India as we have, since times immemorial, depended on glaciers for our water supply in this part of our sub-continent." (10)

India depends on rivers that originate in China for one third of its renewable water supplies. (11) Yet, what initially sparked fear in India about China's management of the Himalayan rivers was not water shortage, but deadly flash floods. In 2000, heavy monsoon rains caused the Brahmaputra River to burst its banks, inundating large swaths of land in the Indian northeast and leaving millions homeless. While ineffective water management and deforestation were identified as important causes, India's then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party claimed that India should demand compensation from China, arguing that a landslide on the Chinese side of the Brahmaputra River lay at the origin of the floods. (12) Earlier that year, the agriculture minister had posited that flash floods in the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh were the consequence of problems with Chinese dams. (13) In 2002, after a series of talks, India and China inked a memorandum for provision of hydrological information on the Brahmaputra River during the flood season, with new memoranda following in 2005 and 2008.

While rumors about Chinese plans to divert the water of the Brahmaputra have circulated since 1996, it took almost a decade for them to become a major issue in the Indian public and political debate. In 2003, Rediff journalist Claude Arpi wrote a long article about the potential megaprojects on the upper stream of the Brahmaputra. "The massive diversion of the river to China's northwest would have even more devastating consequences," he concluded. "North India and Bangladesh would be starved of their lifeline. Nutrient-rich sediments that enrich the soil of these regions would be held back in the reservoir instead of reaching the river's delta. Millions would be affected and a water war could ensue." (15) In 2004, a popular Indian magazine, Outlook India, published a story about the consequences of the 1962 war. "The Chinese deliberately created floods on the Brahmaputra in Arunachal not too long ago," the author asserted. "There is every reason to believe China will proceed with diverting water, ignoring India's objections." (16) The 2006 Chinese National Defense White Paper added to this suspicion by noting that the People's Armed Police had contributed to twenty-one key national construction projects, including the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the South-North Water Diversion Project. (17)

By 2006, members of the Indian parliament started questioning the cabinet about Chinese diversion projects on the Sutlej and the Yarlung Zangbo, the upper stream of the Brahmaputra. In the meantime, local governments had also become more active in raising their concerns to the national level. The government of Arunachal Pradesh pressured Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to persuade Beijing to halt its plans to drain water away from the Brahmaputra. The Assam government formed an expert committee to study Chinese dams in...

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