Brahmaputra: A Conflict-Prone River Takes a Step Backwards

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The Brahmaputra River is a source of life for more than 130 million people in China, India, and Bangladesh, but also a persistent irritant. The three riparian states, unlike those in other regional river basins, have never concluded a water-sharing agreement, and upstream dam construction by China and India is often viewed as a threat by downstream countries (i.e., Bangladesh and even India). Low-level tensions have sometimes boiled to the surface, such as in 2000, when a landslide in Tibet caused a flood that killed 30 Indian nationals, and some have predicted a future “water war” involving a conflict over scarce resources, a probability exacerbated by the impact of climate change. At best, the river has become a challenge to be managed rather than an opportunity to drive regional cooperation.



The latest flare-up between the three states was sparked last month by new Chinese policy guidance that envisioned hydropower construction on the section of the Brahmaputra closest to India. While Chinese diplomats downplayed the decision, Indian officials conveyed concerns, and some speculated about tit-for-tat dam construction. Bangladesh, as the lowest riparian, may be the victim of wrangling between its two more powerful upstream neighbors, but its close economic ties with China mean that it is unlikely to align with New Delhi to pressure Beijing. These problems underscore the need for confidence-building measures between all three countries. Leaders should take small steps in the near term to guard against a further escalation of tensions over the long run.

A More Ambitious Chinese Plan

The trigger of the latest tensions between China and India was language in the Chinese government’s outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan, issued in November, which articulates national development goals between 2021 and 2025. The document stated an ambition to “implement … the downstream hydropower development of the Yarlung Zangbo river.” The Yarlung is the name that Beijing applies to the first 2,840 kilometers of the river as it snakes through Tibet, before it crosses the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control and becomes the Brahmaputra, transiting a disputed area that India regards as Arunachal Pradesh, but China claims as southern Tibet. From there, the river runs an additional 1,856 kilometers through India and Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

The language is significant because it points to a goal of moving the locus of Chinese hydropower construction closer to Indian territory. For more than a decade, leaders of China’s hydropower industry have suggested that massive dams — potentially larger than the 22,500-megawatt Three Gorges Dam — could be built in the “great bend.” This is the section of the river closest to India that features a two-kilometer drop over 50 kilometers, which is ideal in principle for electricity generation despite hydrological challenges, including being in an area prone to earthquakes.

Earlier five-year plans refrained from endorsing those proposals and made only vague reference to developing hydropower resources in “southwestern China.” In the mid-2010s, Chinese authorities only approved a series of four small dams on the middle section of the Yarlung. Two are now operational and the others remain under construction. Decisions not to condone megaprojects in the “great bend” reflected multiple factors, including environmental and feasibility concerns, wariness about provoking India, and limited economic need for additional power generation capacity, even in the renewable energy sector. In fact, Beijing has blocked other renewable projects in western China due to overcapacity.

The policy shift in November reflects a win for the hydropower industry, which has joined forces with Tibetan authorities to argue that further dam construction is needed to provide revenue for Tibetan coffers, contribute to China’s clean energy goals, and enhance local job creation. The 14th Five-Year Plan was a victory in particular for the large state-owned power company PowerChina, which entered into a “strategic cooperation agreement” with Tibet in October. Chinese government officials may have endorsed that cooperation as a way to prop up China’s flagging hydropower industry, which is facing tough times due to increasingly cost-effective alternative forms of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, and as a result of declining options for mega-dam projects in other parts of China.

Part of PowerChina’s marketing strategy for downstream dam construction has been to link new projects to a “national security” motive in terms of protecting “homeland” water resources. Chinese hydrological engineers have indeed considered various proposals to tap into Tibet’s rich water resources to feed water-starved northern China, but these have been rejected as either unnecessary or infeasible. However, in early 2020, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang argued that more consideration should be given to a notional “western route” for the longstanding South-to-North Water Diversion project. The 14th Five-Year Plan’s endorsement of construction in a region often identified with future diversion projects suggests that the hydropower industry may have had success in convincing skeptical officials that such projects may be viable.

Such discussions reinforce Indian analysts suspicions that Beijing’s ultimate aim is to divert the Yarlung as a way not only to increase irrigation within China, but also to gain leverage over New Delhi through an ability to control the flow of the river — just as China has done by restricting water flow along the Mekong to downstream Southeast Asian countries. In the past, China has tried to address India’s concerns by arguing that dams on Yarlung are only “run of the run” projects that cannot store or divert water. Following the latest announcement, Chinese diplomats once again tried to reassure India that construction would pose no threats to downstream neighbors. Even if a new dam has the ability to redirect water, the strategic utility of such a feature may still be small because most of the Brahmaputra’s flow actually originates from rainfall along tributaries on the Indian side of the border (by contrast, the majority of the Mekong does originate in China).

While the hydrological reality reduces China’s ability to threaten India, the fact that the Five-Year Plan condones not just further study, but also the “implementation” of projects in the area most likely to alarm New Delhi, is evidence that Indian sensitivities are among China’s lowest priorities. This should come as no surprise to foreign observers. China’s expanded military presence and infrastructure construction in disputed areas of the Himalayas in recent years, as well as the use of lethal force in border clashes with Indian troops in 2020, all underscore Beijing’s willingness to take risks in relations with India to pursue other aims.

India’s Wariness

Despite China’s assurances, the reported plans to build additional dams closer to the Line of Actual Control have again caused a stir in India. Indian media and analysts have highlighted the dangers of such a dam to India, including potentially diverting water away to other parts of China, storing water and therefore making it inaccessible to India during the annual dry season, or releasing the water suddenly during the monsoon months, leading to flash flooding.

Such concerns have characterized the Indian discourse on the Brahmaputra river for years, even as the countries have pursued a set of dialogues on their shared rivers. The fundamental problems of disputed territory through which the river runs, lack of mutual trust, and periodic clashes across their shared border in India’s northeast near the river have colored specific flare-ups over riparian relations. In the wake of more unsettling news about China’s latest dam plans, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava provided a carefully worded response on Dec. 3. In addition to expressing that India was “carefully” monitoring developments, he elaborated that, “as a lower riparian state with considerable established user rights to the waters of the trans-border rivers, we have consistently conveyed our views and concerns to the Chinese authorities.”

Other Indian officials have spoken of taking more active measures, including possibly building its own dam to mitigate potential impacts of the potential new Chinese dam. Reuters has quoted Teerath Singh Mehra, commissioner in India’s Ministry of Water Resources and India’s representative to the India-China Expert-Level Mechanism on Trans-border Rivers, as saying the plan for a new India dam of 10,000 megawatts is “under consideration at the highest level in the government.” However, India’s track record in building new dams is mixed, complicated by long delays associated with both technical challenges and localized protests which have a wide berth in the Indian federal system. Moreover, it is not clear how a new dam will offset the problems posed by a Chinese mega-dam in the “great bend” area, or even where it might be located.

Meanwhile, Indian officials have long acknowledged that the much of the Brahmaputra’s flow originates from rainfall on the Indian side, reducing concerns about a drop-off of water from Tibet that might be caused by any diversion plan. So while Chinese plans for a new dam for ostensibly national security reasons may create consternation in India about China’s opacity and intentions, the fundamental reality remains that China is unlikely to be able to build a dam that changes the fact that much of the Brahmaputra’s water source is within Indian territory. Hence, the latest squabble is another example of the fundamental lack of trust between the two countries, and to some extent the natural course of democratic debate between the government and an energetic press and public.

The Indian government’s care in responding to China’s reported plans for a major dam to ensure national security (as opposed to a traditional run-of-the-river dam that would not divert, store, or suddenly release water) stands in stark contrast to the currently acutely tense relations between the two countries over borders and territory in the northeast. River issues are a relatively new addition to the Sino-Indian dialogue agenda, but it appears that riparian issues are becoming yet another source of contention rather than cooperation.

Bangladesh’s Downstream Blues — and Hopes

As the lowest riparian in the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh would be the most affected by dam activities undertaken by China and India. After the recent news about China’s potential dam, a Bangladeshi environmentalist expressed concern about the downstream impacts on water flow. In our 2018 book on Brahmaputra river politics, we discussed concerns by Bangladeshi scientists who are seeking to understand the impacts of sedimentation as a result of upstream activities. Whether and how India will coordinate with Bangladesh on any response is so far unclear. A complication to such coordination lies in another potential project on the Brahmaputra, but located in Bangladesh.

Namely, PowerChina, the same Chinese entity mentioned earlier, made an offer to Bangladesh to conduct an engineering project to embank the Teesta River, which is a tributary of the Brahmaputra that enters Bangladesh from India. This river represents a sore spot for Bangladeshi-Indian relations. In 2011, a water-sharing agreement was prepared to be finalized, but then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to secure domestic support. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to make progress, but none was seen in his first term nor at present, in his second. During the dry season (roughly November to May), Bangladesh does not receive enough water via the Teesta, especially for rice farmers. Researchers trace rising food insecurity in Bangladesh to the Teesta water resources that are held in India via a dam known as the Gazaldoba barrage. The failure to conclude this agreement nearly a decade later represents a lack of progress on water issues between India and Bangladesh.

By contrast, China’s recent hydropower initiative on the Teesta appears to have come out of a memorandum of understanding that was signed between the Bangladesh Water Development Board and PowerChina in 2016. As of September 2020, Dhaka was reviewing Beijing’s offer and its terms. Meanwhile, it sought a $983 million loan from China for the project, suggesting its deep interest in finding a solution to its intractable problem of maintaining sufficient flow in the Teesta River during both the dry and wet seasons. Such cooperation would be part of a much larger investment of roughly $25 billion in Chinese commitments to that country under the Belt and Road Initiative. China is also Bangladesh’s top source of imports.

As the middle riparian, India may be understandably concerned by China’s Brahmaputra basin activities both upstream in Tibet and downstream in Bangladesh. However, Dhaka has been waiting almost 10 years to get the Teesta water agreement signed with India, with no progress. At a minimum, if this series of recent developments were to induce India to become refocused on water-sharing issues with Bangladesh and potentially finalize an accord for the Teesta, then Beijing working bilaterally with Dhaka may not be the worst outcome for the southernmost riparian. As of early December 2020, however, New Delhi has not signaled such a renewed diplomatic approach.

Small Steps and a Larger Vision

Dam building overlaid with border disputes and lack of political trust is exactly the type of problem that international observers predict will exacerbate resource competition in developing regions. The latest U.S. National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2035 report suggests that such dynamics will put a premium on adapting “governance structures” to mitigate tensions in basins such as the Brahmaputra, Mekong, Nile, Amu Darya, Jordan, and Indus.

The problem is, unlike in other river basins, management of Brahmaputra is woefully underinstitutionalized. Due in part to the river passing through disputed territory, there remains no multilateral water-sharing accord between China, India, and Bangladesh. Instead, bilateral cooperation is limited to periodic expert meetings and hydrological data-sharing agreements, and even these have been subject to failure, such as in 2017, when China withheld data from India during the Doklam standoff. Beijing’s unilateral decision to pursue hydropower construction in a sensitive region only undermines the potential for increased cooperation. India, for now, has kept its powder dry, but ruminations about a tit-for-tat response are worrisome for Bangladesh, which has portrayed itself as a victim of major power maneuvering. Moreover, Sino-Bangladeshi cooperation reduces the possibility that the two downstream riparians will be able to coordinate to pressure China to scale back its plans.

The ability of the three countries to manage a resource-driven escalation in tensions depends fundamentally on individual leadership choices not to adopt policies that will antagonize others. Such choices are more likely when the three are in regular dialogue. In the short term, a renewed dialogue between scientists and policymakers from the three countries could help defuse some tension. This could allay Indian concerns surrounding potential Chinese diversion plans and poor dam construction that could create a humanitarian catastrophe (such as a repeat of the 2000 Tibetan landslide). Although it would be a difficult option, Beijing should also allow Indian officials and hydrological specialists sustained access to government plans as well as construction sites..

In the long run, the stakeholders should lay the foundation for a more ambitious goal: the formation of a Brahmaputra Basin Commission. Such a commission — which would not have to be predicated on a resolution of territorial disputes or require a high level of preexisting trust between the riparians — can serve as a venue to air grievances among high-level officials, but also to advance cooperation where all three states’ interests are aligned, such as agreements on data sharing, search and rescue, flood control, and dam construction “best practices.” It would also allow Beijing to demonstrate its value as a leader in regional governance and stabilize overall relations with New Delhi. Aware of such benefits, Chinese academics have supported the idea of modeling cooperation on the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism, set up in 2016 to formalize Chinese outreach with its Southeast Asian neighbors. This model might be a useful first step in the long-term goal of increasing institutionalization.



Joel Wuthnow is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University. @jwuthnow

Satu Limaye is vice president and director of the East-West Center in Washington. @SatuLimaye

Nilanthi Samaranayake is director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis Program at CNA. @nilanthis

This article reflects only the authors’ personal views and not those of their respective institutions, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: Flickr (Photo by Anurag Peshne)