Water Management on the Brahmaputra and the Applicability of the UNECE Water Convention.

AuthorBiggs, Stephanie
PositionUN Economic Commission for Europe

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION 556 II. BACKGROUND 559 A. The Brahmaputra 559 B. Transboundary 562 Water Law III. CURRENT WATER RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE RIPARIAN STATES 566 A. China--India Relationship 567 B. India--Bangladesh Relationship 569 C. China--Bangladesh Relationship 575 IV. EXPANDING THE UNECE WATER 577 CONVENTION A. Benefits of Transboundary Water Cooperation 577 B. Lessons from the 579 Brahmaputra Basin C. Applying the UNECE Water Convention to the 580 Brahmaputra D. Addressing Riparian 587 State Concerns V. CONCLUSION 589 I. INTRODUCTION

The Brahmaputra River (1) is a major waterway in Central and South Asia. Its basin covers an expanse of 223,939 square miles, about the size of Arizona and Nevada combined, and its waters provide resources for China, India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. (2) The river originates in the Chemayundung Glacier, traverses 1,800 miles of Tibet, India, and Bangladesh, and coalesces into the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, which discharges into the Bay of Bengal. (3)

The Brahmaputra is the fifth largest river in the world, by flow, and at 1.84 billion tons per year, the Ganges-Brahmaputra system has the largest combined suspended sediment load in the world. (4) The river system experiences massive flooding in the north due to summertime glacial discharges, while summer monsoons also prompt heavy flooding in the lowlands. (5) River embankments, which are meant to provide flood protection, are often inadequate and can exacerbate flood damage. (6) Every year, these floods destroy life, property, and valuable farmland. (7) Deforestation has also led to increased landslides and erosion, which adds to the river's sediment load and increases the ferocity of its floods. (8) An estimated 64,000 people in Bangladesh alone are displaced yearly as a result of riverbank erosion. (9) Despite these environmental challenges, millions of people, most notably in Bangladesh, rely on the water's resources for fishing, farming, and commercial transportation. Yet unlike the other major waterways of the world, there is no comprehensive water agreement managing the basin. (10)

The last century of diplomatic maneuvering over the Brahmaputra has primarily occurred through bilateral diplomacy, a mechanism ill-suited to handle a river that flows through multiple states. Although Bangladesh, the country most dependent on the river's physical upkeep, has repeatedly tried to negotiate agreements with the upper riparian states, neither China nor India has made a sustained effort to work towards a long-term apportionment of the river's resources, or a framework for coordinating its well-being. Climate change is likely to add significant stressors to these riparian states generally, but also to the regions around the Brahmaputra specifically: the river is forecasted to experience more frequent and longer-lasting floods, a problem exacerbated by inadequate river infrastructure and a growing population that is increasingly settling in flood-prone land. (11)

This Note argues that a robust multilateral agreement should be implemented to protect each riparian state's interests in the river and to protect the physical well-being of the Brahmaputra's waters while the window for cooperation still exists. Part II provides background on the Brahmaputra in both physical and political terms, and discusses international water law applicable to the river system. Part III describes and analyzes the relationships between each riparian state to provide the context necessary to understand how a multilateral agreement might be reached. Part IV introduces the UNECE Water Convention's incremental approach to cooperation and its principles of transparency, reciprocity, and prevention of significant harm, and suggests this language provides a suitable framework on which to build a Brahmaputra River system agreement. Finally, Part V concludes that the UNECE Water Convention will adequately address each riparian state's current concerns while simultaneously preparing the region to adapt with a changing water landscape.


    1. The Brahmaputra

      Each Brahmaputra state values the river for different reasons, stemming from their unique water policy concerns and goals. China and India, the upper riparian states, primarily view the river as a political tool, while the lower state, Bangladesh, focuses almost exclusively on the river's continued physical viability. (12) The lack of any political management system to monitor and balance the oftentimes competing state interests leaves the region ill-equipped to deal with future challenges and leaves little assurance that any eventual crises can be averted effectively.

      Between China and India, the river is one political chess piece within a larger diplomatic game. (13) First, China and India dispute ownership of the land through which the Brahmaputra runs: while China identifies the Indian-administered Arunachal Pradesh region as "Southern Tibet," India views it as one of India's own constituent states. (14) Second, China has attempted to use its position as the upper riparian state, with initial control over the river and its tributaries, to exert political pressure not only in response to conflicts between the two states, but also to signal broader Chinese displeasure at Indian foreign policy. For example, China blocked a tributary to the Brahmaputra River following antagonistic border actions India took in 2016 towards its neighbor Pakistan. (15) Border conflicts between India, China, and Pakistan show no sign of abating, despite eighteen recent rounds of border talks held between China and India; therefore, the river could be used offensively again in the future. (16) In this volatile region, the river is but one factor within a larger battle for territorial control.

      The tensions between China and India over land ownership also stretch into river use, namely through the construction of hydroelectric dams. Domestically, China views the Brahmaputra as an opportune source of hydroelectric power: to date, China has built one dam on the river and has plans for the development of several more. (17)

      India's regional concerns center around the physical and political power that China wields as the upper riparian state. Politically, India is concerned that China's dam building and potential water diversion projects could damage the river water flow that India relies upon. India seeks to establish user rights to the river, including through the construction of its own dams, to mitigate these concerns and to deter the perceived Chinese encroachment on the Arunachal Pradesh. (18) Domestically, India seeks to harness the Brahmaputra for hydroelectricity, as well as to manage flood control, with plans to build more than 168 dams on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. (19)

      The gamesmanship between India and China particularly troubles Bangladesh, the final state through which the Brahmaputra runs before discharging into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh relies most heavily on the river and its resulting delta for the livelihood of its citizens. Bangladesh, therefore, is most concerned with the river's physical well-being, in terms of both the quality and quantity of the water that reaches its borders. (20) In particular, Bangladesh fears any potential water diversions and poor river management from its upper riparian neighbors. In other words, Bangladesh's perspective is less political than practical: its citizens rely on the physical presence and cleanliness of the river, and its leaders cannot afford to have other powers using the river as a bargaining chip or as a way to ease their broader water concerns.

      The problems between Bangladesh and India follow traditional trends of conflict between upper and lower riparian states, namely that India will use the river for its own devices, both politically and economically, with little regard for Bangladesh's priorities. (21) Bangladesh fears that India will divert water for irrigation and water supply interests, negatively affecting the river's flow, which is heavily relied upon by Bangladesh in its downstream agricultural uses. (22) The Brahmaputra accounts for 65 percent of Bangladesh's river water, and the delta it forms with the Ganges and Meghna rivers constitutes the base of the Bangladeshi agricultural sector, accounting for almost half of employment in the area. (23)

      Beyond the somewhat strained Bangladeshi-Indian relationship over the physical upkeep of the river system, the political tensions at the river's headwaters between China and India leave Bangladesh even more concerned about the well-being of the river and the livelihoods of its citizens who depend on the water. Bangladesh remains particularly vulnerable to any actions China or India might take to alter the water's flow. The state faces problems within its own borders related to riverbank erosion, salinization, floods, diminished water flow, and dwindling groundwater resources. (24) The combination of a changing environment, mismanagement of the water, and upstream pollution could severely affect the agricultural lifestyle depended upon by so many living within the water basin.

      The physical upkeep of the Brahmaputra water system faces several threats in the upcoming decades due to political mismanagement and a changing natural environment. First, the Brahmaputra faces severe environmental threats due to mismanagement of its waters. A 2012 U.S. Department of State Global Water Security report analyzed the river basin management capacity of several large river basins worldwide projected through the year 2040. (25) The Brahmaputra was ranked as the most inadequately managed river basin of the seven chosen for the study. (26) The report listed uncoordinated land use and development plans, reduced water flows, and saltwater intrusion into the delta as major issues facing the basin. (27)

      Second, experts predict that climate change will severely impact the Brahmaputra's flow. A 2014...

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