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India-China Riparian Relations: Towards Rationality

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  • January 16, 2015
    Fellows' Seminar
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Prof. Brahma Chellaney
    External Discussants: Mr. Sanjay Gupta and Mr. Joydeep Gupta
    Internal Discussants: Ms. Shebonti Ray Dadwal and Dr. Jagannath Prasad Panda

    Key points of presentation:

    India and China have long been associated as rising powers in Asia. In order to boost their economy and growth rates, they need uninterrupted sources of water supply. Water has emerged as a contentious issue between India and China with complex inter-linkages. The leadership in both the countries acknowledge the water problem as an existential threat. Given the fact that China has 14 land neighbours out of which 13 are riparian neighbours, it is important to note that it has no water- sharing agreement with any of them. It is in this context the paper argues that it is the principle concern of India to bring water issues into the core of the bilateral discussions with China. The paper also identifies three major elements in India’s concerns over China being an upstream riparian :

    • Dams and diversions;
    • The resultant hydro-politics and power asymmetry; and
    • The impact of climate change

    The paper further suggests, as a counter approach , strengthening of diplomatic tools for a structured dialogue that allows apprehensions of the lower riparian regions and states to be recognised and addressed.

    As many of the regions in the world are lower riparian, including India, Dr. Sinha argued that a stable supply of water is critical to India’s growth and development. Since China is an upper riparian region when compared to India, hence, the “water rationali ty” or “water as a unifier” perspective becomes an important issue for discussion between the two countries for better riparian relations .
    Dr. Sinha also outlined the “power asymmetry” that exists in river basins. Given the political equation between India and China, the latter will use its upper riparian advantage to circumvent any decision made on India’s behalf. It is also important to consider the food, energy and water nexus which is highly dependent on the rapidly changing ecosystem. This will prompt nations to take several actions, many of them unilateral, to secure resources and territorial sovereignty. It is thus essential that water resource utilisation policy takes into account the impact of climate change in terms of seasonal flow and extreme events.

    Dr. Sinha also emphasised the middle riparian position of India and its dependence on the waters of the rivers such as Brahmaputra, and Indus and Sutlej which originates from the Tibetan plateau (which is under Chinese territorial jurisdictions) and then flows into Bangladesh and Pakistan, respectively. However, unlike China, India being an upper riparian state has had longstanding commitments to bilateral river treaties with the lower riparian states.

    The paper concluded with the following recommendations:

    • Any formal water cooperation can be achieved only through a holistic, bold, and imaginative diplomacy.
    • Water issues should be structured on the principles of international water law, particularly ‘limited sovereignty’, ‘no significant harm’ and ‘information sharing’.
    • In addition to what has already been stated in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between India and China in 2002, further accuracy and regular availability of credible hydrological data are vital to the effectiveness of any trans-boundary water arrangement.
    • One of the ways forward is to create a lower riparian coalition. This coalition is not to be militaristic in nature or seen as versus China. It should be about acknowledging and addressing the concerns of lower riparian nations .

    Key points from discussion:

    • India needs to build its own understanding of water. The scientific knowledge on water management in India is minimal when compared to China. The Central Water Commission is not in a state to perform any kind of extensive research and development as there is no investment in this area.
    • Need to shift from supply-side to demand-side management. Most of the treaties are focused on supply side and not on demand side principles. Resultantly, the agricultural productivity in India is lowest.
    • Cross linkage of issues should be built in order to bring China to the negotiation table. For example, Tibet c ould be used as a leverage to negotiate water issues with China. Turning Tibet from a territorial/political issue to one of ecological/environmental concern can prompt China to discuss and cooperate on socio-economic and ecological issues.
    • Are states and nations the best actor/agent to deal with a holistic issue like water? People’s participation is equally important and their ground knowledge and understanding can be of great value .
    • China is making long-term investments in the hydro- power sector in order to phase out thermal power plants by 2030 and meet their demands for clean energy. Apart from Brahmaputra, China is also considering water projects on Indus and Sutlej rivers.
    • India needs to move from bilateral to multilateral diplomacy with lower riparian nations in the region. Realistic approach should be adopted when it comes to formation of a lower riparian coalition.

    Report prepared by Mr. Satyam Malaviya, Research Intern, IDSA.