Border, Now Water: The Indo-China Tension Continues

Brahmaputra River

Just as when we thought the dust over Doklam standoff between China and India has settled down, the issue of China’s plans to divert water from Tibet flowing into India had India worked up again.

News reports divulged China’s plan to “build a 1,000km tunnel – the world’s longest – to carry water from Tibet to Xinjiang” that would divert Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo river. Yarlung Tsangpo downstream becomes the Brahmaputra in India, passing through Bangladesh before joining the Bay of Bengal. The report speculated the construction of a tunnel in Yunnan province in August that is viewed as a “rehearsal” of new engineering techniques required for the Tibet-Xinjiang tunnel.

China was quick to call the news “a false report” and plainly denied any planned project to divert the Brahmaputra through the construction of the thousand km tunnel to Xinjiang, an arid land that is reportedly over 90 per cent unfavorable for human habitation.

It is reported that India will store Brahmaputra water to prepare itself in “worst case scenario” should China divert the river’s flow. In the last couple days, the Indian government has expedited its work on proposed projects to build reservoirs. According to various Indian media reports, India wants to store around 14.8 billion cubic meters of water of hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh, and these reservoirs are expected to help control annual floods in the nearby regions. Yet, the concern runs as long as the river does, among other nations as well.

Nearly a billion and a half people in the downstream countries depend on Tibet’s rivers. If the speculation turns out to be a secret fact, then a large population of Asia will face serious threat. At such a time in the future, one can imagine water as a provocative force behind world peace or war. Researchers and writers such as Steven Solomon, contemplate that water could be 21st century’s trigger point for conflicts just as oil was for many of the conflicts in the previous century.

During his visit to Guwahati last week, the President of the Central Tibetan Administration, Dr Lobsang Sangay talked about global warming and its impact on Tibet-the earth’s third pole. Stressing on the importance of Tibet’s rivers and glaciers, President Sangay said, “Growing water shortage is a reality and water will be a major cause of discontentment among nations in the future.” He expressed his concerns regarding the Brahmaputra diversion issue which he expressed is clearly China’s plans to assert greater control over Tibet’s vast water resources and stated, “China has 19% of the world’s population but only 12% of the world’s fresh water resources. Therefore, it’s a reality that they might divert Tibet’s pristine rivers to quench the thirst of its own people.”

China and India have agreements to share hydrological data of the river during monsoon season, mainly water level to alert downstream countries of floods. While officials from Bangladesh have been receiving water level data from China, India, however, has not received the same.

Border and water remains to be among the top concerns for the two countries and both do not appear to be anywhere near an agreeable solution for the time being. Professor Brahma Chellaney in his book rightly made a premonition that ‘water is Asia’s next battleground’ and Tibet’s waters remain at the heart of the matter.

Article submitted by Dukthen Kyi, UN and Human Rights Desk, DIIR