China’s Water Weapon

This piece was originally published by the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies on December 7th, 2009. I was invited to discuss the piece with Star News, a leading Hindi-language News channel. I was later interviewed by a journalist from the Associated Press for a piece they put out on Water Conflict in Asia.


In the recent uproar over India-China relations, the Indian media has been surprisingly silent on a key issue in the dynamic – Climate Change. At face value, climate change is one issue on which India and China, as two large developing nations, agree. But probe a little deeper, and climate change is perhaps the biggest potential point of contention between the two Asian giants.

Glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau source most of the rivers in Asia. These include the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra river systems, which are the lifelines of the subcontinent, providing drinking water, irrigation, transportation, electricity, and livelihoods to the 1.5 billion people of South Asia.

Global temperatures are anticipated to rise by 2 to 5 degrees Celsius over the next half century. The Tibetan Plateau, which has long been seen as a barometer of global climate conditions, is no exception. According to Zheng Guoguang, chief of the China Meteorological Administration (CMA), “in Tibet, the [temperature has risen] an average 0.32 degrees Celsius every decade since 1961,” compared with the national Chinese average of 0.05-0.08 degrees Celsius rise every 10 years. Even if current warming trends remain constant, the Plateau’s glaciers could be reduced by a third in 2050 and by half in 2090, according to a 2007 survey conducted by the Remote Sensing Department of the China Aero Geophysical Survey.

As these glaciers melt, the rivers they source will experience massive flooding in the short-term and recede in the longer-term. Slow depletion of these glaciers would greatly reduce the river water flow in north India, intensifying existing problems of water scarcity and competition. Similar changes will affect the 11 Asian countries to which Himalayan waters flow.

However, one country would emerge relatively unscathed. With the Tibetan Plateau under its control, China has far more autonomy over the way climate change affects its populated eastern provinces, as well as how it shapes South Asia. Chinese control over the rivers of Tibet gives Beijing the power to use, divert or dam the receding waters as it sees fit—whether to increase supply to their eastern provinces, to generate more electricity, or to use it as a punitive measure against South Asia. Even if China simply fails to communicate incidents of concern—such as the bursting of dams that create artificial lakes in Tibet—India may be caught off-guard. These actions could cause abrupt flooding or drought, ravaging the water supplies on which the subcontinent depends and implicating South Asian geopolitics in the process.

In Nepal, as the country looks to generate hydroelectricity and irrigation, management of the Koshi, Gandaki and Karnali river systems and communication with India about their conditions is vital. To the east, the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River makes its way from southern Tibet into Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, finally winding up in Bangladesh. Any shocks to these rivers could implicate Indo-Nepali relations, increase tensions in the two Indian states, and cause domestic disturbances in Bangladesh that would cascade into India.

Chinese river diversion would also aggravate the water tensions that are at the core of the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. Many of the rivers of South Asia flow from the Himalayas, through Kashmir, on to the Punjabs of both India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, water-sharing tensions between Pakistani Punjab and Sindh have been deflected onto Kashmir, the source of the rivers.

Although the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan has kept a relative peace over Kashmiri waters since 1960, a large shock to the water supply may change the course of events in India’s northwest.

Given the inextricability of water with the already tense politics over its control and supply throughout the subcontinent, China’s water weapon is no insignificant matter. Climate change strengthens China’s hand over South Asia and adds a great deal to the Asian power dynamic. Any conflict between China and India (and other South Asian nations) in this realm would make border disputes in Arunachal Pradesh pale in comparison.

India and China have signed two Memoranda of Understanding and established a ‘Joint Expert level Mechanism’—in 2002, 2005, and 2006, respectively—to exchange hydrological information regarding the Brahmaputra and Kashmiri Sutlej rivers during flood seasons every year.

But given the scale of the emerging challenges, a broader, effectual treaty with China along the lines of the Indus Water Treaty may be needed to preemptively address any sharing, diversion, or communication issues. Such a treaty could serve as the basis for enhanced trade relations in India’s northeast that could mitigate geopolitical tensions there.

Any Chinese reluctance to create a formal institution to manage the issue can be counteracted by a cohesive bloc of the South Asian countries, all of which will be harmed equally by China’s environmental weapon. Water is an issue on which the estranged neighbors must come together, reinvigorating an otherwise factious SAARC. United behind the cause of ensuring water flow, the South Asian countries can in turn resolve the water disputes that plague their own bilateral relations.

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