How not to discuss water with China

Rohan D'Souza | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on January 01, 2012

India should focus on social and livelihood requirements

It is meaningless trying to debate the quantum of flows on the Brahmaputra.

China has never been daunted by big engineering. The Great Wall, the Grand Canal and recently the Three Gorges Dam all testify to an almost habitual pursuit of projects involving enormous scale.

Small wonder that many in India see it but inevitable that China will divert the Yarlung Tsang-po for its thirst-ridden cities in the north. An idea made even more spectacular, given that this siphoning will literally involve taking the waters in a hop-jump-skip equivalent over the head reaches of three other mighty rivers: the Salween, Mekong and the temperamental Yangtze.

And even when this unforgiving route is overcome, the non-evaporated flows of the Tsang-po will then still have to be pumped, dropped and shuffled across a whole set of connecting channels, tunnels and sprawling pipelines before finally gushing from turned taps in Beijing.

To many, understandably, this kind of engineering is between implausible and impossible.

But can one confidently conclude that a desperately thirsty China is beyond great, grand and gigantic imaginations about water?

Officially, the Chinese government intends to move 38-48 billion cubic meters of water annually from its southern rivers for populations in the north, through the unambiguously titled scheme, the South North Water Diversion Project (SNWD).

Should these ambitious water diversions, however, unequivocally hold for trans-boundary rivers as well?


One of China's southernmost rivers is the Yarlung Tsang-Po, which, after entering Arunachal Pradesh as the Siang, opens up majestically within the Assam valley to become India's ‘moving ocean', the masculine Brahmaputra. Later on, these flows briefly meander as the Jamuna in Bangladesh before entirely folding into the Padma River (Pôdda), near Goalundo Ghat.

But one river stringing three nations is inescapably a natural geo-political muddle. Anyone, for example, pinching flows can send political ripples and cross-border anxieties. Added to which, this complicated fluvial regime comprising innumerable tributaries, bifurcations and branches remains little understood as a hydraulic process.

As yet, the vast mosaic of ecological niches and fluvial habitats borne by the Yarlung-Brahmaputra-Jamuna (YBJ) system is yet to be credibly studied in terms of its environmental webs and linkages. Ironically enough, the absence of such knowledge on the river's flora, fauna and intricate ecological relationships has hardly humbled those shaping a vibrant discourse over water security for the region. If anything, ignorance seems bliss in this case, with the entire effort focused on ascertaining and intensely debating quantifiable flows.

Put differently, the YBJ has been conveniently denied recognition as a river regime bearing environmental qualities. Instead, it has become a river of volumes, compiled as numbers, as averages and as simple statistics.


And herein lies the Chinese water conundrum for Indian diplomacy and its non-traditional security strategists.

If negotiations are reduced to ascertaining who is entitled to how much of the volume, the game might, in fact, be lost in a single move.

Thus far, the Indian side seems to be fashioning a two-point emphasis: constructing a dialogue for ‘sharing benefits' from probable hydro-electric projects on the Yarlung-Brahmaputra stretch and developing a mutually agreeable format for exchanging hydraulic data.

The strategy, however, rests too much on hope and expectations about reciprocal goodwill. Moreover, China's imperatives or ability to realise kilowatts and cusecs do not, in any sense, provide a compelling urgency for regional cooperation.

Flow data, similarly, even when transparent and accessible, can only be read against the grain of several other imponderables.

And most critically, can such water arrangements, even if concluded as a treaty, be contained as a specific deal between India and China? That is, can India's understandings with China be prevented from an interpretative spillover into existing water treaties, or significantly trouble other delicately poised discussions over trans-boundary rivers in the region? Secondly, India held the upper riparian position on previous major treaty negotiations: the Indus Water Treaty (1960) and the Ganges Water Treaty (1996).

Upper riparians possess an unstated advantage in the creation of hydraulic facts and can carry their topographical strength into concluding any arrangement.

Clearly, not so in the case of the Yarlung Tsang-po, and bargains with China over a likely water treaty will put Indian negotiators in a technical context that for the latter, at least, entirely lacks historical precedence.

Put differently, a new language game will need to be evolved by the Indian side which, above all else, provides a novel architecture for discussions that are based on an entirely different set of hydraulic concepts and categories.

Interestingly enough, cutting such a fresh path will be a lot easier than pursuing an intense, dogged and grinding exchange over contested river flow data. Since the 1990s, a dramatic scholarly turn has occurred in several social science disciplines with the theme of water as a central narrative. A range of publications in anthropology, sociology and history, have decisively altered our understandings on river management and hydraulic control.


A recent issue of the journal Nature (vol. 4, September 30, 2010), highlighted the urgency for an “integrative water approach”.

In effect, hydraulic and riverine habitat diversity have to be sustained, if human consumption requirements were to be met in the long term.

It is imperative that Indian water negotiators harness this fresh research turn. Lazy argumentations that continue to evoke nineteenth century quantitative hydrology and twentieth century large-dam monumentalism are most likely to fail.

Indian negotiators can make a more meaningful case by discussing thick interconnections between hydraulic diversity on the one hand and livelihood complexity and intricate social dependencies on the other — rather than foregrounding statistical simplifications about river flows.

(The author is with the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

Published on January 01, 2012
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