India’s need for hydro-diplomacy with China, Pakistan and Bangladesh

It is critical for India to articulate its middle riparian position, first to change the perception in the neighbourhood that India is a ‘water hegemon’, as is often expressed by Pakistan and Bangladesh, in spite of the robustness of the water treaties with these two countries; and second, to draw China into the South Asian water equation through a multilateral basin approach, thereby sensitising China to downstream concerns and upstream responsibilities, writes Uttam Kumar Sinha for South Asia Monitor

By Uttam Kumar Sinha Jul 22, 2019

Rivers are complex socio-natural realities that invariably get entangled with politics. Riparian relations are developed by varied interpretations of the use of river water and the differing claims. With state interest as an overriding factor, riparian relations are largely influenced by the prevailing political dynamics and strategic considerations. India is an interesting riparian country. It is simultaneously an upper and lower riparian. In contrast, China is a supreme up-riparian country while Pakistan along with Bangladesh are down-riparian states. India’s lower riparian position increases its dependency (and thus water insecurity) on the headwaters of the rivers such as Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra, which originate in the Tibetan plateau, an autonomous region of China.

China’s hydrological position gives it enormous latitude in shaping larger political equations with its riparian neighbours. India, on the other hand, given its upper-lower riparian position and its longstanding commitment to bilateral river treaties, has to assiduously balance the anxiety and concerns of its lower riparians (Pakistan and Bangladesh) without compromising its own water requirements.

With Pakistan, India’s approach as a responsible upper riparian state abiding by the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), signed in 1960, is remarkable but is under pressure to rethink the extent to which it can commit itself to the Treaty as its overall political relations with Pakistan becomes intractable. It is also important to underline that if the Treaty has remained ‘uninterrupted’, it is because India allows it to function.

It is critical for India to articulate its middle-riparian position, first to change the perception in the neighbourhood that India is a ‘water hegemon’, as is often expressed by Pakistan and Bangladesh, in spite of the robustness of the water treaties with these two countries; and second, to draw China into the South Asian water equation through a multilateral basin approach, thereby sensitising China to downstream concerns and upstream responsibilities.

The geographical reality of China being the upper riparian cannot be changed but India’s lower riparian position does not necessarily mean acute disadvantage. Informed science is a good starting point for India to build its capability and capacity on the Brahmaputra and in the process de-emphasis China as a hydro-hegemon.

The Brahmaputra originates in Tibet, where it is known as the YarlungTsangpo. When the Yarlung reaches India’s territory and becomes the Brahmaputra, it swells and becomes mightier because of the heavy monsoon rain and spring water and also the contribution of the fast flowing tributaries the Luhit, Dibang and Siang/Dihang. Peer reviewed data clearly suggest that both during the lean and peak flow, the total annual outflow of the Yarlung from China is significantly less than the Brahmaputra. This means that India has ample water on its side to develop and harness.

India needs to have more water development footprints in Arunachal to enhance economic growth in the region, particularly building more water storages and thereby exerting down riparian prior appropriation rights. China’s claim to the Arunachal territory (South Tibet) is also a claim to the vast amount of water flowing in the area. Greater economic integration by New Delhi in the border region is an effective way to neutralise China’s claim. Of course the hydro projects in Arunachal, apart from being scientifically sound and technologically robust, has to have wider stakeholder and inter-provincial participation, particularly with Assam which is downstream to Arunachal. It will be counter-productive for India to create upstream and downstream acrimony within its own territory.

Inland navigation is an important entry point to bolster basin level cooperation and harness the potential of the basin. This could potentially have major dividends, including economic growth, increasing employment, and improving livelihoods. Other entry points include strengthening regional hydrological services for flood mitigation (including data sharing), and hydropower development and trade. With the current government’s investment on inland waterways, the Brahmaputra National Waterway 2 would act as a critical economic corridor with direct access to Chittagong Port in Bangladesh and the Haldia Port in West Bengal and boost trade with Southeast Asian countries.

There are other ways to pursue positive interactions on the Brahmaputra, exclusive of China and, more significantly, de-emphasising China. An important element of India’s hydro-diplomacy would be to initiate a lower riparian delta coalition stretching from the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra to the Thanlwin/Salween and Mekong basins in order to draw China into a water dialogue. India’s hydro-diplomacy has to ensure that the coalition is not seen as a counter-force or a challenger or even a pressure group, but rather a concerned group seeking to open channels of communication and transparency with China on upstream usage based on the principles of ‘equity’ and ‘no-harm’.

The sub-regional groupings like BIMSTEC and BBIN can act as a catalyst. Whether it is tourism, culture, transport and communication, rivers can be a force multiplier.

Pakistan has huge motivations to raise concerns over the Indus river system which, by all accounts, is well settled under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). Water issues are being politically constructed in Pakistan and its water scarcity is increasingly couched in the language of security vis-à-vis India, the upper riparian state. Pakistan’s leadership is noted for its heightened expressions of war over water to draw international attention.

There have been debates in India during the last decade about the IWT; (a) the need to replace it with another improved treaty, (b) to abrogate it and (c) to utilise the provisions of the treaty to inflict pain on Pakistan as a counter measure. 

Those who advocate revision argue that the treaty is outdated in the sense that it does not take into account new realities and grounds for cooperation and hence begs for revision. 

The advocates of abrogation argue that the treaty has unjustly signed away more waters to Pakistan than it rightfully deserved, and has not ensured friendly behaviour from Pakistan. There is a third perspective that centres round the optimal use of IWT provisions. Those advocating this hold that India has been quite generous in not using the provisions of the Treaty to good effect (to store water granted by the treaty to India) especially at a time when the problem of water scarcity has started haunting Pakistan.

In view of the third perspective, adequate attention must therefore be paid to harness maximum possible water from these rivers through multipurpose projects. Out of the total capacity of 11,406 MW which is to be harnessed from the three western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Indus), only 3034 MW has been tapped so far.

Under the Narendra Modi government storage projects like the Ujh and Shahpurkandi Dam along with the 2nd Ravi Beas Link Project, which can harness water flowing across the border to Pakistan but which were hanging fire, have become a national priority. On the western rivers, the “permissible storage capacity” as per the IWT provisions has not received serious attention in India. One of the projects identified for storage purposes is the 11,230 MW Bursar Multipurpose Project on the Chenab in Jammu & Kashmir. The second multipurpose project being planned is the 300 MW Gyspa on Bhaga River (Chenab Main) in Himachal Pradesh. 

These two projects need to be pursued with due sensitisation of the people about the value of such efforts, with well-planned rehabilitation and compensation measures. State governments must be engaged effectively in this regard. All power projects on the western rivers – 33 under construction and 8 under planning and execution – should be given top priority.  The Modi government is paying attention to rivers in general and to fast-tracking a number of water projects on both the Indus Basin in the west and inland navigation on the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin in the east.

(The author is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He can be contacted at

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