Make water a core issue | HT Editorial
A draft of China’s new Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) has cleared the building of dams on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, before it flows into India, according to a news report in The Hindu. The draft is set to be formally approved on March 11. The issue of building dams on the Yarlung Zangbo, which China views as necessary for generating clean electricity and meeting its climate goals, has, for long, evoked two kinds of responses in India. According to one set of experts, dams on the Brahmaputra will affect the flow of water into India. But some other experts say that this is an unwarranted concern because the Brahmaputra’s volume is determined not so much by the water flowing into India from Tibet as it is by monsoon-fed tributaries of the river that originate in Arunachal Pradesh.
To devise a plan to engage China on the issue of the Brahmaputra dams, it is important to understand two fundamental issues. One, China’s geographical position (an upper riparian State) cannot be altered. Two, the Indian and Chinese approach towards water-related issues with the neighbours have followed different trajectories. While India, as an upper riparian neighbour, has always opted for a treaty-based approach with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, China’s approach with 11 of its neighbours with whom it shares rivers, has been more unilateral. Beijing uses water and dams as instruments of hard politics. Unlike India, Beijing has little respect for legal conventions — the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention is an example. India does not have a water treaty with China.
In this backdrop, India needs to refine its approach. While pushing China for seamless data-sharing on Brahmaputra-related aspects such as rainfall and water flow (irrespective of the politics of the day), New Delhi must strive to make water a core issue for bilateral dialogue along with the boundary matter. At the same time, India must focus on building water storage capacities in the Northeast so that its needs are not compromised in case of a natural or man-made crisis; draw benefits from its own rivers; and focus on building a lower riparian coalition of Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to lobby international support for recognising Tibet’s water as a common resource.