The Water War of China Against India by Navin Doshi (November, 2008)

The former senior vice-president of the World Bank was quoted several years ago as saying: ‘The next World War will be over water.’ Indeed, water needs of emerging nations, as their populations industrialize, seems to be a key concern for global economists and environmentalists. This is certainly true of Asia where nearly 47 percent of the world’s population can be found, and where two growing economic giants, India and China, are potentially competing to complete water projects that could not only affect the strategic relationship between the two countries, but perhaps even the world.

The issue here also involves Tibet, and one of the reasons it appears highly unlikely China will ever allow the exiled Dali Lama to return to his currently occupied country Tibet’s vast glaciers and high altitude have endowed it with the world’s greatest river systems. Its river waters are a lifeline to not only China and India, but to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries make up 47 percent of the global population.

The Tibetan plateau is the principal watershed in Asia and the source of its 10 major rivers, including the Brahmaputra (or Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet), the Sutlej and the Indus. About 90% of the Tibetan rivers’ runoff flows downstream to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Yet Asia is a water-deficient continent. Home to more than half of the human population, Asia has less fresh water — 3,920 cubic meters per person — than any continent.

There are two parts to China’s grand scheme which seems to rival India’s plan to connect all its own rivers: One is the construction of the world’s largest hydroelectric plant on the Great Bend dwarfing all other similar projects (it will generate 40,000 megawatts, more than twice the electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam); the second is the diversion of the waters of the Tsangpo which will be pumped northward across hundreds of kilometers of mountainous region to China’s northwestern provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu. China’s green light for the project could indeed be considered a declaration of war against South Asia.

While intrastate water-sharing disputes have become rife in several Asian countries — from India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China — it is the potential interstate conflict over river-water resources that should be of greater concern. This concern arises from Chinese attempts to dam or redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan plateau, where major rivers originate, including the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Karnali and the Sutlej. Among Asia’s mighty rivers, only the Ganges starts from the Indian side of the Himalayas.

As water woes have been aggravated in its north due to environmentally unsustainable intensive farming, China has increasingly turned its attention to the water reserves that the Tibetan plateau holds. It has dammed rivers, not just to produce hydropower but also to channel waters for irrigation and other purposes, and is currently toying with massive inter-basin and inter-river water-transfer projects. After building two dams upstream, China is building at least three more on the Mekong, inflaming passions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. In matters of projects connected with Tibetan water flowing into India, Beijing is loath to share information.

The 10 major watersheds formed by the Himalayas and Tibetan highlands spread out river waters far and wide in Asia. Control over the 2.5 million-square-km Tibetan plateau gives China tremendous leverage, besides access to vast natural resources. Having extensively contaminated its own major rivers through unbridled industrialization, China now threatens the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia in its bid to meet its thirst for water and energy.

It also makes one wonder if China, would ever consider a UN proposal to let India collaborate with its plans to dam rivers that are the life blood to India and Bangladesh downstream, the way Pakistan has been collaborating with India on water projects that have affected it since the 1960s. Theoretically during the monsoon, release of waters from China’s new dams could literally drown millions of Indians and Bangladeshis in the south, or withholding water during the dry seasons (from October to May) could create awesome famines. As a political/military weapon a dam has suddenly become an awesome weapon with catastrophic force.

Whatever the future holds for India and China, it doesn’t exactly echo Nehru’s dream of a Sino-Hindustan alignment (Remember India China bhai bhai?) where each country mutually supports the other’s development. Right now, India may need to encourage the UN and China to make some treaties on what and where the waters of Tibet go. So far, nothing has changed. I have never understood why India’s left has always been aligned with China, a country occupying India’s land, aiding India’s nemesis Pakistan, and wanting the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. I suspect the Devil here is the leadership of the left and ignorance of the people supporting them.

Navin Doshi (November, 2008)
(Mr. Doshi is a writer, philanthropist, and manages his financial and real estate holdings)

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