Why it matters how the river flows: The future of China-India’s hydropolitics over the Brahmaputra River

By Jeremy Ho


The nature of hydropolitics in South Asia


Slide1What can otherwise be considered as a source of natural beauty, rivers have become a bane for South Asian states, at least politically. South Asian states – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh share major trans-boundary rivers such as the Indus, Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Because of the trans-border river flows of these tributaries, these countries have to deal with equitable joint-management of these rivers while ensuring self-sufficiency in terms of water access and electricity generation from hydropower. Additionally, these states need to safeguard their respective interests in the political economy of each river basin, keeping in check the impact of the actions and impacts of both up and down stream river riparians. Despite having both formal and informal mechanisms in place to institutionalize some form of governance framework and code of conduct, the need to preserve state sovereignty (coupled with and an overriding sense of nationalism) seems to stymie efforts at brokering a permanent and amicable solution on a multilateral level. However, the main challenge for South Asia’s hydropolitics is the intransigent role of China.

Because of its position as an upstream riparian, China is able to unilaterally pursue its interests with little to no consideration of the cascade effects on downstream riparians. Additionally, its position as an economic powerhouse allows it to dictate the terms of engagement pertaining to matters of river diplomacy and negotiations (if any at all). China has indicated that it is open and willing to negotiate a water-sharing agreement, but only if negotiations are done on a bilateral level to avoid being pressured into compliance in a multilateral setting. Additionally, there exist four overarching constraints that prevent an equitable solution and breakthrough from materializing. These constraints, as illustrated in the four coloured boxes, have been identified based on existing approaches (and failures) towards working out a breakthrough in the current impasse in the hydropolitics dilemma.


map 1

This map shows the entire flow of water through China, India and Bangladesh, as illustrated by the continuous red line. Through this map, the impact of any dam projects along the Yarlung Zangbu (in terms of water flows) is evident, i.e. India and Bangladesh will have lesser volumes of water flowing through the Brahmaputra and Teesta respectively. With the trump card clearly in China’s hands as an upper stream riparian, it is hoped that this map shows the reasons for interstate tensions between India, Bangladesh and China.

China & India’s tussle over the Brahmaputra

China’s 2013 announcement of its intention to construct three massive hydropower dams along the stretch of the Brahmaputra River has sparked an all-out escalation in diplomatic tensions with neighbouring India. Despite being the largest country in the world, China’s per capita water reserves stands at a dismal 2300 cubic meters. Additionally, its push towards becoming the global economic powerhouse has resulted in over 80% of its cities having to deal with severe water and electricity stresses 1. This is due to the fact that potable water resources are often diverted to facilitate industrialization projects and for agricultural purposes. Additionally, with China’s Northeastern region suffering from severe water shortages – possessing only 14.5% of China’s entire water resources, it is no surprise that China looks determined to divert 50 billion cubic meters of water from the Brahmaputra (via Tibet) to compensate the chronic water shortage in its Northeastern region. However, as a downstream riparian, India is vehemently opposed to such plans as that it would not only deprive India of crucial water flows but also have negative ecological and migration repercussions for riverside Indian communities and ecosystems. Furthermore, the high-handed approach adopted by China in terms of its diplomatic negotiation efforts has resulted in many Indians, especially environmentalist and human rights groups, citing the numerous repercussions that they would suffer should China fully operationalize all of its proposed dams along the Brahmaputra.

map 2

This map illustrates the state of China and India’s hydropolitics. China’s 4 dam projects along the Yarlung Zangbo River are indicated by the 4 coloured rectangles. Additionally, the yellow line indicates the water flow that runs from Tibet, along China and crosses into India’s sovereign territory. Given the one-way river flow, it is evident why India would protest China’s damming of the Yarlung Zangbo as it would clearly reduce water flows to the Brahmaputra.

Despite China’s repeated assurances that all dams would be constructed and operated as run of river hydro-stations, the future prospect for mass displacement of coastal tribes, loss of ecosystems and native species, coupled with the threat of dam failure, i.e. massive flooding, has sent the whole of India on a diplomatic nightmare. Unable to engage China to commit to any form of normative or binding treaty to govern the bilateral sharing of the Yarlung Zangbu-Brahmaputra river system, India is caught in-between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, China’s status as an upper rive riparian gives it a significant amount of leeway to adopt a hardline approach and intransigent attitude towards dealing with India. This Chinese position of strength limits India’s diplomatic maneuvering given that China will always have the upper hand. On the other hand, India faces immense domestic pressure to safeguard the sovereignty of its access and right to usage of the water flows along with the externalities that form part of the Brahmaputra river system. Additionally, given the highly contentious nature surrounding China and India’s hydro-politics, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party faces the inertia of overcoming the precedent of Manmohan Singh’s attitude of avoidance and soft line approach in dealing with this issue. Modi has to deal with China head-on, in a constructive manner to address the Brahmaputra not from a damming perspective, but one that focuses on the need to sustain as well as  preserve ecosystems and more importantly, the subsistence livelihoods of millions of Indian nationals.

India’s precarious position as a middle stream riparian

India faces the added dilemma of dealing with the knock-over effects of hydropolitics of the Brahmaputra on India-Bangladesh diplomatic relations. With water flows already restricted and altered due to China’s damming projects along the Yarlung River, India has to ensure that it meets its electrical and water needs based on whatever water flows are left available. However, because of existing drops in water levels, India’s proposed Subansiri Dam project has been met with local protests – citing the unintended ecological and displacement effects such a dam would bring about to an already suffering local community. Additionally, India’s future looks precarious – given that the large number of dams along the stretch of the Brahmaputra that are already in operation has resulted in reduced water flows to Bangladesh, causing yet another source of bilateral diplomatic tensions between India and Bangladesh. With hopes of preserving the relatively amicable and warm bilateral relationships between Bangladesh and India, the delicate Teesta Water Sharing Agreement between India and Bangladesh should be taken off the backburner and worked on towards achieving a comprehensive and more importantly, mutually acceptable compromise to equitably share and access the water resources of the Brahmaputra.

map 3

This map illustrates the water (river) flows between Bangladesh and India. The Teesta river (illustrated by the yellow line) is a small river that depends on the Brahmaputra (red line) for its water volume. If China decided to dam up the Yarlung Zangbu River, it would drastically reduce water flows through India. Given that India too has its own hydroelectric dam projects, Bangladesh would suffer a significant drop in water volumes, which will have a negative cascade effect on its agricultural lands and its ability to sustain the livelihoods on many river communities.

Moving forward & dealing with both known & unknown future implications of China and India’s hydropolitics over the Brahmaputra

Given the current impasse, it is imperative for India and China to engage each other towards working out a long-term and mutually acceptable compromise. Based on current and planned future policy engagement rhetoric, these are some plausible pathways that could be undertaken by both China and India to address this highly contentious and sensitive socio-political and economic issue. These solutions are formulated based on the most plausible way to address the four constraints that were identified at the start of this article. By reversing the order in which states interact over their various positions vis-à-vis the Brahmaputra, this article offers a realistic blueprint for breaking the political impasse over China and India’s Brahmaputra tussle.



However, India also has to find a way to achieve some form of parity in terms of exploiting the water systems for its own use. This is because, under the provisions of international law, a country’s right over natural resources it shares with other nations becomes stronger if is already putting these resources to use. Given that China has already begun exploiting (on a large scale) the Brahmaputra waters, any delays on India’s part to establish its own claims over the Brahmaputra waters would put it in a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis China, at least in terms of negotiating power under the rubrics of international negotiations. However, in so doing, India must also balance its responsibilities as a mid-stream riparian to avoid ending up in a thorny diplomatic situation with Bangladesh, let alone its local communities that are vehemently opposed to any form of dam building projects as evidenced by the Subansiri Dam Project. There also exists the prospect of failure of the dam infrastructures itself, which would unleash a tidal wave of flood waters that would ravage and destroy not only valuable cash crops such as tea plantations in the Assam region and displace many living along the river banks. Should this happen, India (and arguably China and Bangladesh) would have to deal with the added impact of forced migratory displacement, which would put a strain on both local resources and diplomatic relations if not properly managed.

(Featured Image: “Brahmaputra” by Arati Kumar-Rao is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Jeremy Ho

~ "Praying for others in your brokenness, is a selfless act of love". I love simplicity. Life is too short for complications and stresses, so relax and smile a little more today :)

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