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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Of India, China and water disagreements

Asia needs a river water-sharing framework. It is unlikely to get one

Later this month Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to visit China. In any such visit, issues of mutual interest between countries are discussed. The one subject that Singh should try and address on priority is the looming water dispute between the two countries.

It has been known for a while that China is constructing a number of dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra river or what it calls the Tsangpo. China either denies that this is a concern for India or, more often, claims that India is blowing the issue out of proportion. The chances of a water-sharing agreement appear remote for this reason.

Cooperation in sharing water resources, basically river waters, between states is not a problem for India. After all it is party to what is probably the most generous inter-state water sharing agreement, the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan. Under this legal framework, Pakistan has exclusive rights over three rivers—Jhelum, Chenab and Indus—that flow westward. The key point is that these rivers originate in India. But India recognizes the rights of the lower riparian state—Pakistan—over these rivers. Nothing—including three wars—has impeded any aspect of this treaty. India believes in a liberal water-sharing order and has stuck to it. Similarly, it has an agreement to share waters of the Ganges with Bangladesh.

The country’s eastern border, however, presents a starkly different situation. There, the mighty Brahmaputra is in danger of being dammed thoroughly in its upper reaches by China. No amount of persuasion or negotiation with China is likely to yield a water-sharing agreement. This is not a situation unique to India: China has no such agreement with its any of its riparian neighbours. And Brahmaputra is not the only river that has contentious projects being built on it by China: Salween (involving Myanmar and Thailand) and Mekong (involving Cambodia and Vietnam) are two other big rivers where similar disputes exist. In fact, Beijing has a very different perspective on the subject. It believes, and implements, a policy that calls for exclusive use of all resources that originate on its soil. Now any country has the right to exploit the resources in its territory. But river waters are a different kind of resource: throughout history, they have been shared between different countries and states. This doctrine is a modern Chinese invention without parallel in history.

Can India do anything about it?

Currently, India has plans for 25 hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh. One part of the thinking behind these projects is to implement them before China completes its dam projects. If that happens then India can press its usage rights by what is called the doctrine of prior appropriation. Under this legal concept, the first country to use these resources has a claim over them before any other country. In practice, however, this idea is a non-starter in India. Of these 25 projects, not a single one has been completed so far. On an average, it takes India 10 years to build a dam of even a modest size; China takes roughly three years. India is experiencing a double hit on this front. Where bureaucratic lethargy and inertia end, environmental activists take over. In effect, environmentalism now poses a strategic challenge for India.

So where does this leave a rules-based water-sharing order? The idea is a non-starter. The idea of sharing waters or a cooperative arrangement is essentially a liberal concept. China for historical and political reasons is alien territory for this. And the problem is not limited to water resources: China’s trade practices, too, defy any notion of a rule-based international trade regime. This is in spite of the fact that China’s prosperity is in no small measure due to the benefits it has reaped from free trade.

Reports suggest that China is not interested in addressing the water issue as it thinks it is not a problem in the first place. Perhaps the issue may not even be addressed during the Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing. India, however, needs to think harder on what it has to do to secure the ecology and economic future of its North-Eastern states. So far there are no signs that it has done that.

Can India and China reach a water-sharing agreement? Tell us views@livemint.com

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