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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

View: Sino-Indian water divide

August 5, 2009

Brahma Chellaney
Daily Times (Pakistan)
August 4, 2009

China’s hydro-engineering projects and plans are
a reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the
India-China divide. Tibet ceased to be a
political buffer when China annexed it nearly six
decades ago. But Tibet can still become a
political bridge between China and India

As China and India gain economic heft, they are
drawing ever more international attention at the
time of an ongoing global shift of power to Asia.
Their underlying strategic dissonance and
rivalry, however, usually attracts less notice.

As its power grows, China seems determined to
choke off Asian competitors, a tendency reflected
in its hardening stance toward India. This
includes aggressive patrolling of the disputed
Himalayan frontier by the People’s Liberation
Army, many violations of the line of control
separating the two giants, new assertiveness
concerning India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh
state -- which China claims as its own -- and
vituperative attacks on India in the state-controlled Chinese media.

The issues that divide India and China, however,
extend beyond territorial disputes. Water is
becoming a key security issue in Sino-Indian
relations and a potential source of enduring discord.

China and India already are water-stressed
economies. The spread of irrigated farming and
water-intensive industries, together with the
demands of a rising middle class, have led to a
severe struggle for more water. Indeed, both
countries have entered an era of perennial water
scarcity, which before long is likely to equal,
in terms of per capita availability, the water
shortages found in the Middle East.

Rapid economic growth could slow in the face of
acute scarcity if demand for water continues to
grow at its current frantic pace, turning China
and India -- both food-exporting countries --
into major importers, a development that would
accentuate the global food crisis.

Even though India has more arable land than China
-- 160.5 million hectares compared to 137.1
million hectares -- Tibet is the source of most
major Indian rivers. The Tibetan plateau’s vast
glaciers, huge underground springs and high
altitude make Tibet the world’s largest
freshwater repository after the polar icecaps.
Indeed, all of Asia’s major rivers, except the
Ganges, originate in the Tibetan plateau. Even
the Ganges’ two main tributaries flow in from Tibet.

But China is now pursuing major inter-basin and
inter-river water transfer projects on the
Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish
international-river flows into India and other
co-riparian states. Before such hydro-engineering
projects sow the seeds of water conflict, China
ought to build institutionalised, cooperative
river-basin arrangements with downstream states.

Upstream dams, barrages, canals, and irrigation
systems can help fashion water into a political
weapon that can be wielded overtly in a war, or
subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction
with a co-riparian state. Even denial of
hydrological data in a critically important
season can amount to the use of water as a
political tool. Flash floods in recent years in
two Indian frontier states -- Himachal Pradesh
and Arunachal Pradesh -- served as an ugly
reminder of China’s lack of information-sharing
on its upstream projects. Such leverage could in
turn prompt a downstream state to build up its
military capacity to help counterbalance this disadvantage.

In fact, China has been damming most
international rivers flowing out of Tibet, whose
fragile ecosystem is already threatened by global
warming. The only rivers on which no
hydro-engineering works have been undertaken so
far are the Indus, whose basin falls mostly in
India and Pakistan, and the Salween, which flows
into Burma and Thailand. Local authorities in
Yunnan province, however, are considering damming
the Salween in the quake-prone upstream region.

India’s government has been pressing China for
transparency, greater hydrological data-sharing,
and a commitment not to redirect the natural flow
of any river or diminish cross-border water
flows. But even a joint expert-level mechanism --
set up in 2007 merely for "interaction and
cooperation" on hydrological data -- has proven of little value.

The most dangerous idea China is contemplating is
the northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra River,
known as Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans, but which
China has renamed Yaluzangbu. It is the world’s
highest river, and also one of the
fastest-flowing. Diversion of the Brahmaputra’s
water to the parched Yellow River is an idea that
China does not discuss in public, because the
project implies environmental devastation of
India’s northeastern plains and eastern
Bangladesh, and would thus be akin to a
declaration of water war on India and Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, an officially blessed book
published in 2005, Tibet’s Waters Will Save
China, openly championed the northward rerouting
of the Brahmaputra. Moreover, the Chinese desire
to divert the Brahmaputra by employing "peaceful
nuclear explosions" to build an underground
tunnel through the Himalayas found expression in
the international negotiations in Geneva in the
mid-1990s on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
(CTBT). China sought unsuccessfully to exempt
PNEs from the CTBT, a pact still not in force.

The issue now is not whether China will reroute
the Brahmaputra, but when. Once authorities
complete their feasibility studies and the
diversion scheme begins, the project will be
presented as a fait accompli. China already has
identified the bend where the Brahmaputra forms
the world’s longest and deepest canyon -- just
before entering India -- as the diversion point.

China’s ambitions to channel Tibetan waters
northward have been whetted by two factors: the
completion of the Three Gorges Dam, which,
despite the project’s glaring environmental
pitfalls, China trumpets as the greatest
engineering feat since the construction of the
Great Wall; and the power of President Hu Jintao,
whose background fuses two key elements -- water
and Tibet. Hu, a hydrologist by training, owes
his swift rise in the Communist Party hierarchy
to the brutal martial-law crackdown he carried out in Tibet in 1989.

China’s hydro-engineering projects and plans are
a reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the
India-China divide. Tibet ceased to be a
political buffer when China annexed it nearly six
decades ago. But Tibet can still become a
political bridge between China and India. For
that to happen, water has to become a source of
cooperation, not conflict. -- DT-PS

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic
Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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