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China-India: Revisiting the 'Water Wars' Narrative

July 13, 2015
By Zhang Hongzhou

p>With China’s late-2014 completion of the Zangmu dam, the largest hydropower dam on the Brahmaputra River (known in Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo River), many Indian and international security experts have been warning of the coming of “water wars” between the two countries.

Those who worry about this scenario have three major arguments. First, China will face serious water shortages in the future and so will begin to divert water flow from the Brahmaputra River to its dry north. Second, this would be catastrophic for downstream countries. Third, China’s unwillingness to sign any binding agreement with downstream countries over trans-boundary rivers is evidence of Beijing’s insistence on absolute sovereignty over water, to the significant detriment of downstream countries.

While water issues could well emerge as one of the major threats to Sino-India relations given rapidly rising demand, competing water usage, and threats from climate change, the water wars narrative still seems to be premature.

No Plans to Divert Water

The supporters of the “water war” narratives believe that China already has a plan to divert the Brahmaputra River – more specifically, the western route of China’s South North Water Diversion Projects. This is, however, a misperception. The Grand Western Water Diversion Plan (GWWD), which originated from the Shuotian Canal idea proposed by Chinese water expert Guo Kai, intends to divert water from the upstream sections of six rivers in southwest China, including upstream Mekong, the Brahmaputra River, and the Salween, to the dry areas of northern China. In contrast, the officially approved western route of the South-North Water Diversion (SNWD) project is about linking the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers across the high-altitude Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. In 2011, at a press conference, China’s vice minister of Ministry of Water Resources confirmed that China had no plan to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra.

In recent years, China has spent trillions of yuan damming its rivers and diverting water flows by digging grand canals. This has led to worry that in the future China may eventually proceed with this grand plan and start diverting waters from Brahmaputra River to China’s dry Northern provinces. While India’s concern is understandable, the evidence suggests that it is very unlikely that China will divert waters from the Brahmaputra.

First, despite the fact that a few scholars and some officials, particularly from the military, have expressed support for the GWWDP, the mainstream scientific community has been very much opposed to the plan and the Chinese authorities have never endorsed it. In 2000, Chinese academician and formal minster of water resources Qian Zhengying as well as renowned water expert and academician Zhang Guangdou invited 43 academicians and 300 experts to study the GWWDP. Later, Qian and others submitted their report to the State Council and other relevant departments. The main message of the report is that the GWWDP is not technically feasible in the foreseeable future, and given China’s development trajectory, it is neither practical nor necessary.

China’s policymakers eventually decided to halt further discussion about the GWWDP and approved a less radical proposal that would link the upstream Yangtze and Yellow rivers. This was subsequently known as the western route of the SNWD Projects. In 2005, the book Can Tibet’s Water Save China, authored by Li Ling, drew renewed attention from the public, scholars, and officials on the GWWDP. However, in 2006, China’s then Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng condemned the plan in a speech at Hong Kong University, saying: “GWWDP is not needed, is not feasible, and is not scientific.” Wang reiterated his position on the GWWDP in 2011. In recent years, with attention mostly focused on the feasibility of the western route of the SNWD project, there has been little interest in the GWWDP.

Second, while both the eastern route and central route were completed, the western route of the SNWD projects has been suspended since 2006 for a number a reasons. Economic considerations are perhaps the key driver of the strong resistance to the western route. Many experts argued that the total construction cost would be too high and it does not make economic sense to use the diverted water as it will be too expensive for consumers. Social and environmental concerns are another important factor. As the Yangtze and Yellow rivers are two completely different ecosystems, linking them could have disastrous environmental and ecological impacts. In addition, conflicts of interest among different provinces makes construction of a western route even more difficult. Upper stream provinces, particularly Sichuan, are strongly opposed to the western route as the water diversion would have severe ramifications for their own economies. Therefore, given that the GWWDP is a much bigger proposal, its building cost, economic, social, and environmental impacts will be even higher.

Third, the Chinese government has become more aware of the futility of water diversion projects to meet China’s water shortages as there has been increasing criticism from scholars on the Three Gorges Dam and SNWD projects, as well as growing public resistance to major water infrastructure projects accompanying the rapid rise of civil society in China and public awareness of the potential negative impacts of these mega projects on the environment. The Chinese government is placing more emphasis on the potential environmental impacts as well as the sustainability of mega water projects. In a press conference in March 2015, when asked about the progress of the western route, Jiao Yong, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Water resources, said that while the government is still studying the western route, top priority will be given to water conservation and environmental protection. Moreover, with the declining costs of water recycling and desalination technologies, the western route alone – not to mention the massive GWWDP – could prove economically unattractive.

Inflated Impacts

In estimating the potential impact of the mythical Chinese plan to divert the Brahmaputra River based on river basin data, it is very easy to conclude that the repercussions would be huge, given that 50 percent of the river basin of Brahmaputra is in Chinese territory. However, river basin data can be very deceptive as they are not equivalent to water discharge data, which are a better indicator of the potential impact of water projects along the river.

While China has the largest spatial share of the basin at over 50 percent, it generates only 22-30 percent of the total basin discharge. This is attributable to Tibet’s cold desert climate and the very low annual rainfall. In contrast, the Indian section of the basin, covering 34.2 percent of the basin area, contributes 39 percent of the total discharge. Equally significant is the contribution from Bhutan, which accounts for 6.7 percent of the total basin area but generates 21 percent of the system output. Isabel Hilton, editor of Chinadialogue, has argued that only 14 percent of the Brahmaputra’s flow is generated in China; the other 86 percent comes from India. Given the existence of major border disputes in Southern Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh in India), which also forms part of the river basin for Brahmaputra River, as well as the huge difference in water flow between dry and monsoon seasons, it is very difficult to have a precise and actuate measurement of China’s contribution to total water flows in the Brahmaputra River. Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that China’s contribution is much smaller compared to its share of the river basin.

Next, even if the radical GWWDP were implemented, not all of the water of the Brahmaputra River generated in Chinese territory would be diverted. In fact, the project would divert only around 20 percent of the total water flows of six rivers in southwestern China, including the Mekong, Brahmaputra River, and Salween. As for the Brahmaputra River, even to discard the proposed water diversion volume, at maximum, around 50 percent of the water discharged will be affected as the diversion plan would start roughly in the middle part of the Brahmaputra River in Chinese borders. This is to say, even when 100 percent of the water at that point was diverted-an impossible scenario, it would only affect around 50 percent of the total water discharge originated from China.

Finally, the utilization rate of water in Brahmaputra River is very low. Professor Pranab Kumar Ra estimates that the utilizable water of the Brahmaputra system is a mere four percent of the total discharge, a reflection of the very high speed of the discharge and its sheer volume. This is to say, 10 percent or 20 percent reduction in the water flows of Brahmaputra River would be unlikely to cause water scarcity of any nature in the Indian part of the basin.

China: No Water Hegemon

The perception that downstream countries have of China as an uncooperative water hegemon is largely attributed to China’s passive role in international water governance and its reluctance to cooperate with them. To be sure, China needs to be more engaged with its neighbors on trans-boundary river issues, but it is no water hegemon, for several reasons.

To begin with, owning to the low level of integration and deep-seated mistrust in the region, the degree of cooperation on the Asia’s major trans-boundary rivers remain very limited compared with other parts of the world. In Central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have paid little heed to the water needs of downstream countries, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, in their hydropower development projects. In Southeast Asia, even with the creation of the Mekong River Commission, Laos decided to move forward with the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams despite objections from downstream countries. In South Asia, while reports about China’s plan to divert the Brahmaputra turn out to be illusory, India in fact has unilaterally diverted or withdrawn water from its trans-boundary rivers. In fact, India has long been criticized for paying scant regard to the concerns of lower riparian countries, such as Bangladesh, in diverting waters from and building dams in trans-boundary rivers despite the existence of water treaties.

China did vote against the 1997 United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC), but it is worth pointing out that India has not ratified the agreement either; in fact, in Asia, only Uzbekistan and Vietnam have ratified the UNWC. While they are many factors behind Beijing’s reluctance to participate in regional and international water governance, its decision to vote against the 1997 UNWC is not because of its insistence on the doctrine of absolute territorial integrity. In contrast, according to Professor Patricia Wouters, China in fact embraces the fundamental principles of UNWC – equal and reasonable use and obligation not to cause significant trans-boundary arms.

What also needs to be noted is that in recent years, China has been showing more willingness to cooperate with downstream countries on trans-boundary river issues. In Northeast Asia, China and Russia have a long history of water cooperation; they are bound by numerous bilateral agreements and a number of joint institutions. In recent years, their water-related cooperation has become increasingly active. In Central Asia, China has engaged in bilateral cooperation with Kazakhstan on a number of water-related issues. Their efforts to create an adequate legal and institutional framework have been relatively successful – there are several bilateral agreements and joint commissions. In April 2011, the two countries launched the China-Kazakhstan Friendship Joint Water Diversion Project on the Khorgos River, under which each side will be allotted 50 percent of the water diverted.

In Southeast Asia, China is showing a greater willingness to reach out on issues related to the Mekong River and is gradually opening up to the Mekong River Commission as well. In December 2014, China’s vice minister of water resources, Jiao Yong, during a visit to the MRC secretariat, expressed China’s intention to continue and strengthen cooperation and emphasized that China would work with the MRC on a joint scientific study on water flow fluctuations in the Mekong-Lancang River, among other existing and upcoming activities.

In South Asia, as far as the Brahmaputra River goes, it is certainly true that China and India have yet to establish an effective working mechanism to deal with the trans-boundary river issues. Nonetheless, since they signed a memorandum on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers in 2013, the two countries have been in sound communication through the mechanism of expert-level meetings. What should also be noted is that the key stumbling block to substantial cooperation between China and India on the Brahmaputra is the boundary disputes in Southern Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh in India)m since South Tibet forms a large part of the river basin. This makes any water sharing agreement impossible.


As Selina Ho from the National University of Singapore rightly pointed out, given divergent interests between central and local governments and among different ministries and departments, as well as fragmented and devolved power and authority in relation to the management of trans-boundary rivers, China does not have an independent trans-boundary river policy; instead, it manages its trans-boundary rivers as a subset of its broader relations with other riparian states. Therefore, as far as managing the Brahmaputra River is concerned, playing up a “water war” or China threat narrative is not helpful; worse, the real danger of such a narrative – as with other China threat theories – is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it erodes the mutual trust that is desperately needed to improve Sino-Indian relations and encourages overreaction from both sides.

Zhang Hongzhou is an Associate Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 

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