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Sun, 19 May 2019

Northeast Today

Water War: An Impending Truth

Water War: An Impending Truth
March 31
13:42 2018

Cover Story of February Edition, NET Bureau

Water is the essential part of human life. ‘Right over water’ is one of the basic human rights. But over the past few years, this right has come under severe threat as several countries are trying to gain complete control over the rivers that flow through their heartland carrying major volumes of water and flowing into another country where the river is either on it’s downstream or the volume of water carried is less. In a nutshell, we can say that major conspiracies of gaining the benefits of the trans-boundary rivers by countries at the upstream are gradually gaining momentum. The recent statement made by the Indian government regarding the Indus Water Treaty and the sudden rise in the turbidity of the Brahmaputra (with fingers being pointed at China of constructing dams over the Yarlung Tsangpo to divert its course) have raised quite a few eyebrows. Questions are being asked if there looms a threat of a Water War between India and Pakistan and India and China, where Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal would eventually turn out to be sorry spectators? It is a catch-22 situation for each of the countries. Partha Prawal tries to analyse the possibilities of a water war between India and China and India and Pakistan and its consequences. The author also tries to find out if at all there is a possibility of water wars and if there is then why?

Water Conflicts in India

Disputes over water/river in India is pretty old and it date backs to the time when the country was ruled by several princely kingdoms. However, under the British rule, these conflicts gradually came down but after independence, the sporadic disputes began to emerge from different parts of the country. And according to government information, these disputes over the years have only increased and presently there are eight (8) major Inter-State water disputes in the country. The list below highlights the eight major water disputes of India.

Even though the conflict between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam over the Brahmaputra is not on official records, however, over the years it has become evident that there is an undercurrent regarding the water sharing of the river between the two states.

RiverStates in Dispute
KrishnaMaharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka
GodavariMaharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha
NarmadaRajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat
CauveryKerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Union Territory of Pondicherry
Model/ Mandovi/MahadayiGoa, Karnataka and Mahasrashtra
VansadharaAndhra Pradesh & Odisha

Sharvan Bharali, a Dhemaji-based freelance journalist, while interacting with Northeast Today said, “I think it is very natural for any country or a state in the upstream of a river to take advantage of its water resources. I have lived my life here in Dhemaji. Over the decades I have witnessed the Brahmaputra behave abruptly in a number of occasions. And each time the Brahmaputra has inundated surprisingly, bringing in large-scale devastation in Assam, especially in Dhemaji. I feel, somewhere there is an Arunachal Pradesh hand in all these. I feel they are trying to control the Brahmaputra in their favour. But all these are my mere assumptions.”

“The Assam-Arunachal conflict over the Brahmaputra is a mere assumption as for both the states the bigger threat is China. Brahmaputra’s upstream portion flows through the Dragon country and the Brahmaputra in China is called as the Yarlung Tsangpo. There have been numerous reports about the construction of dams on the river to divert the water. Chinese policies regarding water sharing data have always been under the cover and this has made things murkier. Yes, the Brahmaputra is an apple of discord, but not between Assam and Arunachal, but India and China,” says a journalist based in Itanagar seeking anonymity.

China Waging Water War?

Towards the end of 2017, the water of Brahmaputra turned turbid abruptly in Arunachal Pradesh and in Assam. There were speculations by both the officials and residents that China might have had something to do with it. This suspicion stems from a widely cited news report about the Chinese government’s purported plan to build a tunnel to divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo in southern Tibet to the parched Taklamakan desert area in the province of Xinjiang. However, later these claims were dismissed and it was proved that the turbidity was indeed caused by an earthquake of magnitude 6.3, which had struck the Nyingchi region of Tibet on November 18, 2017.

But people living in the Siang valley were convinced that there was indeed a “Chinese hand” in the river turning black.

To a media interaction, the general secretary of the Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum Tasil Pangkam had said, “We have got reliable reports in social media that the Chinese are building a tunnel. This is the first time such a thing is happening, so this can’t be a natural process.”

Budhan Saikia, a Dhemaji resident, speaking on the similar veins said, “The groundwater at several places across the world depleting at a rapid pace. The glaciers are melting and the inflow of water into the rivers is also increasing. So it is very natural for a country that has an upper edge to try and control the river/rivers. China may say a thousand times, but to believe on their claims is quite difficult.”

Saikia, who is also the president of a local NGO that engages educated unemployed youths into multiple crop farming further said, “Several scholars have said it long back that war for water is the future and I think, today we are on a verge of water war. It may have already begun, but we are yet to feel the wrath of it.”

“China has always carried this dream of harnessing the Brahmaputra. However, this dream of constructing dams over the Yarlung Tsangpo and also the proposed plans to divert the river have set off ripples of anxiety in the two lower riparian countries- India and Bangladesh. China, however, has always denied such claims made by India. If this claims even have an iota of truth, then I am sure that it is going to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream. There is an almost certainty that these could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relation,” Saikia further adds on.

“It is worth mentioning here that with Tibet being controlled by China, is a great strategic asset for China in its pursuit of an often improvident style of economic growth. The spreading Tibetan plateau also arms Beijing with water control over downstream countries because it is the starting point for most of Asia’s great rivers, many of which are being heavily dammed just before they cross into neighbouring nations,” further says Saikia.

“Over the years, water has indeed emerged as a new divide in the relationships between India and China. The main reason for this has been Beijing’s continuous denial of building dams and other structures on rivers flowing to India. In fact, China has also rejected India’s proposal that two countries enter into a water treaty and share the water data of the shared rivers. The 2000 and 2005 flash floods in Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh respectively were also linked to the unannounced releases of water from the Chinese dams that were swollen due to heavy rain. Yes, these are all Indian speculations ad there is nothing in concrete, but even then the Chinese role cannot be ruled out,” says Philip C Sangma, a Kolkata-based geologist.

“For a country or a state in the downstream of a river, it is essential that the country has some idea about the flood-related hydrological data from the country at the upstream. But China has always denied sharing this data. The question is why? Why is that China wants to control the entire data inflow? Why this autocratic rule over the river data? These are some questions that make me confident of the fact that China is indeed waging a water war against India. Denial of China to share data has been crimping India’s models to mitigate flash floods,” Sangma adds further.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author, in a Times of India article (China is waging a water war on India, August 21, 2017), wrote, “By embarking on a dangerous game of water poker, Beijing has demonstrated how the denial of hydrological data in the critically important monsoon season amounts to the use of water as a political tool against a downstream country. Indeed, even while supplying data in past years, China’s lack of transparency raised questions. After all, like rice traded on the world market, hydrological data comes in different grades and qualities — from good, reliable data to inferior data and broken data.”

“China’s latest action actually violates two bilateral MOUs of 2013 and a 2014 accord, which obligate it to transfer hydrological data to India from three upstream monitoring stations in Tibet every year from May 15 to October 15. No data has been transferred thus far this year, although India, in keeping with the MOUs, paid for the data in advance. While China sells hydrological data to downriver countries, India provides such data free to both the downstream neighbours- Pakistan and Bangladesh,” Chellaney further writes.

In an August 2017 article published in the Asia Sentinel (India and China in a water war), Sripadh Menon, a water expert and former Secretary with the Ministry of Water Resources, quoted, “The tug-of-war between the neighbours over transboundary rivers, particularly the Brahmaputra River, is likely to intensify.

“With exponential economic growth and expanding the population, China is staring at crippling water shortages,” he said.

“It is already one of the most world’s water- stressed countries and relies on mega-infrastructure projects such as Three Gorge Dams and South-North Water Diversion projects to deal with its water challenges. It is also diverting waters from the Brahmaputra to its dry north. All these have ramifications for India,” Menon further added.

Menon added that though Indian and China have mechanisms over water sharing, there’s no bilateral water treaty without which water conflicts can potentially become a serious challenge to Sino-Indian relations.

Indus Water Treaty

1. The Indus Waters Treaty was signed on September 19, 1960, by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan.

2. It was brokered by the World Bank.

3. The treaty administers how river Indus and its tributaries that flow in both the countries will be utilised.

4. According to the treaty, Beas, Ravi and Sutlej are to be governed by India, while, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum are to be taken care by Pakistan.

5. However, since Indus flows from India, the country is allowed to use 20 percent of its water for irrigation, power generation and transport purposes.

6. A Permanent Indus Commission was set up as a bilateral commission to implement and manage the Treaty. The Commission solves disputes arising over water sharing.

7. The Treaty also provides arbitration mechanism to solve disputes amicably.

8. Though Indus originates from Tibet, China has been kept out of the Treaty. If China decides to stop or change the flow of the river, it will affect both India and Pakistan.

9. Climate change is causing melting of ice in Tibetan plateau, which scientists believe will affect the river in future.

10. Both India and Pakistan are still at loggerheads over various issues since partition, but there has been no fight over water after the Treaty was ratified.

“It wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which control over the river becomes enmeshed with a larger border conflict,” he said.

As Indian scholars and pundits continue to point fingers at China for waging a war over water in secret but gradual manner, the Chinese pundits, however, have been denying such claims. They have argued consistently that the Chinese activities will not have an adverse impact on the Indian rivers.

“The Chinese government has been continuously denying to any complaints raised against the regarding the Brahmaputra. And apart from partly believing them, we cannot do anything. But what about the facts and figures? These facts and figures point towards a different direction,” quotes several environmentalists unanimously.

Indo-Pak Water War!

It is often said that ‘a victim today may be an assailant tomorrow’. If on one hand, India has suffered due to the non-sharing of hydrological data by China then, on the other hand, India too has made life tough for Pakistan. Time and again, reports and claims from Pakistan surface in the media where they accuse India of blocking the rivers that flow into Pakistan from India and they point fingers at India of violating the Indus Water Treaty signed in 1960.

In November 2016, while inaugurating a new AIIMS at Punjab Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, “The fields of our farmers must have adequate water. Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan…The government will do everything to give enough water to our farmers.”

After this, tensions prevailed in Pakistan and many pundits said that India was waging a water war against Pakistan.

“What Modi said was really uncalled for. I personally do not think that such magniloquence is required while addressing something for the farmers. Indian farmers have been dying due to the drought-like situation and instead of doing anything fruitful for these farmers, the political leaders are resorting to rhetorics. This is utter nonsense,” says SK Kapoor, a Pune-based journalist.

“Even though India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads with each other since the days of partition, yet there has been no war over water. But what Modi said if at all it is implemented in reality, then mark my words, this is going to be the dawn of the World War 3 and it will be fought over water,” Kapoor further emphasised.

In the later turn of events after Modi’s speech, India did soften its stance and it became clear that India does not plan to revoke the decades-old Indus Water Treaty and they only want to use more of the rivers’ waters, which again is likely to hurt Pakistan as the Islamic Republic depends on snow-fed Himalayan rivers for everything from drinking water to agriculture.

However, the softer tone from India found fewer buyers in Pakistan and the nation’s then Foreign Policy Adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2016 said, “Islamabad would seek arbitration with the Indus Water Commission which monitors the treaty if India increased the use of water from the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus rivers. However, if India revoked the treaty, Pakistan would treat that as an act of war or a hostile act against Pakistan. It’s highly irresponsible on part of India to even consider revocation of the Indus Water Treaty.”

It may be mentioned here that in 1948, there was a water brawl between India and Pakistan. India being the upper riparian state had blocked the water flow towards Pakistan. This was possible because after partition, the headwaters were located within the Indian territory and it left Pakistan exposed to India’s physical capacity to cut off vital irrigation water. India kept limiting Pakistan’s share of water. Seeing the possibility of another conflict between the two neighbours, the international community plunged in to fix the Indo- Pak water crisis. With the help of the World Bank, both states eventually agreed to the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) in 1960.

The Indian position when it comes to going into water war, either with China or with Pakistan, is risky. If India wages a war against Pakistan, then there is a possibility that China would mount pressure on India to ease things out and for doing this, China would simply block a tributary of the Brahmaputra. With the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the friendship between the two nations has reached a different level. China remains the most valuable investor and facilitator in overcoming Pakistan’s existing acute shortage of energy. If the water supply to Pakistan is choked, then several China- funded power projects in Pakistan would be jeopardised. China will certainly not let that happen. China would resort to any means to put pressure on India so that it removes the water choke and allow the free-flow of water into Pakistan.

(India currently generates about 3,000 megawatts of energy from hydropower plants along rivers in its portion of Kashmir but believes the region has the potential to produce 18,000 megawatts and says it can use more water and still remain within the terms of the treaty. Source: Reuters)

“As per reports and experts’ views, India could become water-stressed by 2025. To ensure water availability during the dry period, India will certainly pursue alternative methods. Reserving river waters is one of the many alternative methods that India may look into. But doing the same may not be easy and not forget about the 30-year bilateral water-sharing agreement that India signed with Bangladesh in 1996. Question is, will India lose out on its own water when she herself would become water-starved? If India is successful in revoking the IWT and the international community can’t effectively forestall the newly emerging Indo- Pak water crisis, New Delhi could also decide to obstruct water flowing towards Bangladesh for power production and irrigation. This is certainly going to start a war and then there is a possibility of more players joining in, with China being the key player,” Kapoor further stresses, adding, “India shares water issues with nearly all its seven neighbouring states. Sparking a water crisis will not give India a positive image. Revoking the IWT or any other agreement with neighbours could only add insult to injury. At a time when New Delhi is facing a number of water sharing disputes, reviewing a long-settled water-sharing formula with Pakistan would be a harmful option to experiment with. Instead of invalidating existent water-sharing procedures, India should try to find a mutual workable arrangement that could assist all, thus avoiding a water war.”

A Serious Note

According to environmentalists across the globe, groundwater across the world is decreasing at an alarming rate. Experts say that with the current patterns of consumption, if continued unabated, then by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages as a daily reality.

“Water is the new white oil and let us face this reality that water wars will be a reality in a decade from now. War will continue between countries and within states as well. We have been pumping groundwater so aggressively that the land above has begun to sink. Beijing is the world’s fifth most water-stressed city and there the land is sinking at a rate of 10 centimetres a year,” says Bidyut Bora, a Guwahati-based water activist.

“We are paying for our own deeds. We have abused the nature in every way in the name of urbanisation and in return we plagued ourselves with climate change. Climate change is a natural process, but we catalysed the rate. And as a result of this, droughts have become common and far too many and a result of this, many cities across the world are on the verge of becoming waterless. There is a huge possibility that Cape Town in South Africa will dry out completely by April 2018. Beijing will soon follow Cape Town and to meet the water needs of its population, countries will adhere to any means. For China, diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo or any other tributaries of the rivers that flow towards and into India is one of the easiest things,” Bora further says.

“But the sad part is that here we are focusing only on the Sino-India water war, but we have never addressed the situations in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Many of the rivers that flow into India, also pass through Bhutan and Nepal. If China wages a water war against India, then these two nations are going to suffer a lot. For Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra is an important Indian river that enters into its territory after travelling kilometres through the Northeast. Now if China chokes the Yarlung Tsangpo, not only Northeast India but Bangladesh is also going to suffer,” adds on Bora.


When the topic is water then how could we possibly not recall Samul Taylor Coleridge’s famous lines from his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”- Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink, Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. Even though the context of the poem was different, but this is gradually going to be a reality in the ‘extremely near future’. To imagine a life without water is simply unthinkable.

In our normal life, we do everything to preserve water. As residents of community flats and housing societies, we often preserve water in every possible utensil available as we know that water would be supplied only for a stipulated time period and if we miss that time, then we will have to live thirstily. As parents, we never want to see our children cry for a drop of water. Then a nation will also do anything and everything to conserve water for its citizens.

When Modi said “Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan” he probably might have forgotten a fact that China may also resort to not allow the water that belongs to them to flow to India. When there were reports that China is planning to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo at several places, the Mistry of External Affairs, Government of India, took up the issue with their Chinese counterparts and demanded an official report on it. The Indian government further said that China cannot dam the Yarlung Tsangpo without consulting India and Bangladesh as the river is a lifeline to both India and Pakistan.

If India can decide about its rivers, China can do the same as well. But are these decisions going to do any good? Certainly not. The high turbidity of the Brahmaputra, sporadic flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, the sudden drying of the Brahmaputra during pre-monsoons are some of the issues that may actually point towards a Chinese propaganda of trying to take complete control over the Yarlung Tsangpo aka the Brahmaputra. All we can do is speculate and even if there looms a threat of water war and the Central government is aware of it, there is a less possibility of it being made public immediately. Because if it is made public, there is going to be a complete chaos.

Instead of fighting over water, the best thing for the nations is to sit together and discuss the issue and reach an amicable solution. War brings only destruction and we have had enough of it. Instead of ‘water war’, the new slogan should be ‘water peace’.


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