Following flooding in Assam and Uttar Pradesh, Sino-Indian relations have hit a new low after China refused to release hydrological data on its upstream operations. With border tensions continuing near Pangong Lake on the Doklam plateau, China has fashioned a powerful weapon in its bid to undermine Indian territory.
China created ripples of anxiety in September last year when it announced that it would divert the Xiabuqu, a domestic river feeding into the trans-boundary Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra is a regional giant, its arteries extending through Tibet, across the hills of Northeast India and valleys of Bangladesh, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. China’s diversion was to allow for the construction of two hydroelectric dams and, while only temporary, was a stark reminder of the advantage Beijing holds over its downstream neighbours in Delhi and Dhaka. This month, amid devastating flooding in India’s Assam state, China refused to release hydrological data on its upstream operations on the Brahmaputra. With India and China locked in a months-long border dispute on the Doklam plateau, China’s refusal to cooperate over shared water resources shows it is willing to use water as a geopolitical weapon as regional tensions unfold.
Chinese development comes at a cost to its neighbours
China’s plans for dams along Tibetan waterways are well-documented, and are central to national economic and energy-development priorities. The state-run Communist Youth Daily has boasted of the irrigation benefits to be brought by the Xiabuqu project, with the State Council bent on boosting grain production in an area known as Tibet’s “breadbasket”. Further, as one of China’s most impoverished regions, improving flood control and supporting electricity production in Tibet no doubt forms a central part of President Xi’s anti-poverty legacy. Even so, vulnerable communities outside Chinese borders are growing increasingly concerned, and with good reason.
Each year, the Chinese rainy season brings with it the threat of Chinese dams releasing water to ease pressure, often with little warning. As such, India has pointed to sudden discharges from Chinese dams as the cause of devastating flash floods in the north of the country, including one that caused an estimated $30 million in damage and left over 50,000 people without homes. This years’ flooding in Assam has brought similar protests, with Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma pointing the finger at heavy rainfall in China as the cause of flooding that has affected over 100,000 people across five districts.
Insecurity over downstream water management works both ways. In times of drought, China keeps a tight handle on upstream water supply. Last year, Vietnam pleaded with China to release water from the Yunnan dam into the Mekong River. In this instance, China complied, and waters flowed to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Even so, the drought damaged some 140,000 hectares of rice in the Mekong Delta, and over 600,000 people faced water shortages.
A ticking time bomb
As Sino-Indian relations heat up over the ongoing Doklam border dispute, growing water scarcity in China is set to aggravate tensions even further. Home to 20% of the world’s population, China contains just 7% of the world’s fresh water, putting its available water per capita at one of the lowest levels in the world for a country of its standing. Meanwhile, demand grows by more than 10 percent annually in most Chinese cities, and more than five percent annually for its industries.
This shortage is made worse by widespread pollution, despite government efforts. More than 90 percent of China’s underground aquifers, supplying 70 percent of the country’s drinking water, are polluted. More than half of the population currently drinks water polluted with organic waste, and more than 75 percent of surface water is unsafe for drinking or fishing. At least 30 percent is unsuitable for agriculture or industry. It is of little surprise, then, that attempts to boost regional partnerships are on shaky ground.
Doklam at the centre
It is in this context that China and India’s competing claims over the Arunachal Pradesh region, home to the coveted Brahmaputra River, make the most sense. China cannot relinquish control over this region without weakening its claim over Tibet and its riverways. The state is also the site of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, during which China claimed more than 20,000 square kilometres of territory from India and inflicted heavy casualties. With border tensions representing an ever present trigger for renewed military conflict, China’s control over Southeast Asia’s water supply is a diplomatic bargaining chip of panacean proportions.
In a region experiencing explosive growth, the economic ramifications of insecure water supply downstream are severe. So-called “water risk” is increasingly reported as a “systemic and material dimension” of investment decisions the world over, with infrastructure and other major investment projects often the first affected by community protests over access to water, in tandem with the risk of extreme weather events and associated collapse of governance. A report by the World Economic Forum identifies water crises as one of the main risks to global economic prosperity, and environmental and human factors in South Asia serve to compound the region’s vulnerability to Chinese operations upstream.
Regardless of the State Council’s intentions, water has become a kind of weapon in ensuring China holds political leverage over its neighbours in the south. Despite the best efforts of regional partnerships and agreements, South Asian countries have yet to succeed in encouraging the sustainable and responsible development of shared river resources. As climate change and population increases exacerbate existing water shortages, Chinese power will only intensify – along with diplomatic spats.