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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Damming of Tibet’s Yarlung Zangbo raises fears of future water conflict with India

September 9, 2013

September 5, 2013 - The sensitive issue of water sharing between China and India is again under the spotlight.

India raised its longstanding concerns about Chinese dam construction on rivers that start in China and flow into the sub-continent at the 5th round of the India-China strategic dialogue in New Delhi last month.

However, the Chinese response to a proposed problem-solving framework for the issue was "less than enthusiastic", according to Indian media.

China is the world's most prolific builders of hydropower dams, and is the source of 10 major rivers flowing to 11 countries. It's not surprising that its neighgbours downstream fear that Beijing has a tight grip on "Asia's water tap".

Beijing firmly rejects speculation it may exploit its position to pressure its neighbours.

As far as India is concerned, Beijing currently has three dams mapped out on the mighty river in Tibet called the Yarlung Zangbo, not far upstream from where crosses into India and eventually Bangladesh as the Brahmaputra.

Despite assurances that China's hydroelectricity projects will not harm downstream flows, a perceived lack of transparency about the projects has not calmed Indian fears.

Indian politicians and activists alike have long railed against Chinese dam construction, with some saying water issues could outweigh the two countries' longstanding territorial disputes as a reason for potential conflict.

Meanwhile, Indian media have been quick to seize on outlandish ideas attributed to the Chinese - including rumours of a "peaceful nuclear explosion" in the Himalayas to change the course of the Brahmaputra river.

Experts in hydrological relations often argue that while past conflicts have been fought over territory, and present disputes are over access to energy resources, tomorrow's wars will be over water, and that nowhere are the stakes higher than between the two Asian giants.

India and China combined have more than a third of the world's population, but only a tenth of its water reserves. Both rapidly growing economies compete for access to the resource, yet they are among the world's least efficient users of water.

Almost two billion people in South and Southeast Asia depend on the melting waters from Tibet's glaciers, but few countries have been as alarmed as India over their vulnerability.

Avilash Roul, an expert on India's water security and senior fellow at the Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, said China has not interfered in any neighbouring countries' unilateral development of shared water, except in controversial hydroelectric projects in Burma and Laos. "However, the potential to interfere is absolutely high," he said.

Wang Dehua , a South Asia specialist at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies who has written extensively on Sino-Indian water sharing, said China had no plans to divert rivers flowing from its territory.

India's water security fears had given rise to "exaggerated propaganda", but Beijing had always sought to be a good neighbour. "This cold war mentality needs to be dismantled," he said.

Wang said that China was willing to share its water, as well as the hydroelectricity it produces, with its neighbours, who could also benefit from flood control during the monsoon.

"The more dams that are built, the more downstream countries benefit," he added.

Meanwhile, leaders on both sides have played down the issue. As neither India nor China is party to any water treaty or bilateral agreement, legal mechanisms to settle disputes are largely absent. Neither water nor climate issues have been seriously incorporated in regional framework agreements such as the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Above all, Chinese sensitivity over Tibet, the source of the major rivers, reduces chances of a settlement in a potential dispute.

The clock may be ticking, as both China and India have reason to fear increasing water shortages. China's lack of usable water resources is already causing a shortfall of 2.3 per cent of gross domestic product, according to World Bank estimates - a problem likely to worsen with continued economic growth and the effects of climate change.

Its obsession with access to water triggered the controversial South North Water Diversion project, drawing water from southern rivers to the dry north.

New Delhi on the other hand has its own reasons to worry about disrupted access. With a projected population of 1.4 billion by 2050, India is forecast to become "water-stressed" by 2025 and "water-scarce" by 2050.

There are also concerns of the impact that disrupted river flows may have on people's livelihoods and native plants and animals.

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