By Obja Borah Hazarika
Beijing’s recent flood alert enabled India to issues its own warning in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. To formalise sharing of hydrological data, India and China can use the Indus Water Treaty as a template
News reports on August 31 said that the Chinese government alerted Indian authorities about an increase in water levels in the Yarlung Tsangpo (the Brahmaputra as it is called in China), which originates in Tibet.
This alert, issued after excessive rainfall in China, enabled the governments of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the two states into which the Yarlung-Tsangpo flows, to issue their own alerts. Following these alerts, several people were airlifted to safer places.
While the security dimension consumes much of the larger narrative on India-China ties, trans-boundary rivers have garnered less attention despite the severity of the issue.
The Brahmaputra is the lifeline of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. While flooding is common in the river, the devastating floods of 2000 have been linked to the excess release of water by China. However, the flood this time is related to excess rainfall in China and not because of anthropogenic machinations.
India-China riparian relations are contentious because of several reasons.
First, since Arunachal Pradesh is the state into which the river flows, the strategic overtones are not hard to miss, given that China considers the entire region as part of southern Tibet.
Second, unlike other river basins, there is no formal institutional mechanism between Bangladesh, China and India (the three nations through which the Brahmaputra flows) where river data is managed in a transparent management. The MoU signed in June is laudable, but anything short of a formal treaty makes the entire process of relaying information precarious.
Ecologists, such as Jayanta Bandhopadhyay, are less concerned because they are of the view that the Brahmaputra being a rain-fed and tributary-fed river, it depends very minimally on the water flowing in from China.
Fourth, India has planned its own inter-linking of rivers with the aim of diverting excess water in rivers to drought-prone areas. Such grandiose projects are often an engineer’s delight but most ecologists are wary of such large-scale human interventions in river flows as examples from around the world show that they have not resulted in favourable outcomes.
Water-sharing mechanisms need to be formalised and political ties must not have a bearing on it. India and China can take a leaf out of the Indus-Water Treaty. Despite contentious ties between India and Pakistan, the treaty has never been abrogated. Since water is not only an emotive issue but also serves as a lifeline for many in the region, it should not be held hostage to high politics of border standoffs and other national security matters.
The people of the Northeast and others in the sub-regions of China and Bangladesh who are directly impacted by the waters of the Brahmaputra should be made stakeholders in the process of formalising transparency to make the process participatory.
There are two main theses with regard to water and its impact on relations between countries. While environmental scientist Peter Gleick states that trans-boundary rivers will lead to conflict between concerned nations, Aaron Wolf, professor of geography, Oregon State University, opines that countries generally cooperate, despite contentious ties, on issues relating to trans-boundary rivers.
China’s recent flood alert relayed to India can be seen as a way in which it is cooperating with India on the issue, which it is hoped, will soon segue into a more institutionalised formalisation, which will not be held ransom to possible contentions on border or other issues between the two nations.
(Obja Borah Hazarika is assistant professor, department of political science, Dibrugarh University. Views expressed are personal.)