Updated: Sep 20
Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, UNESCO Chair on International Water Cooperation, Uppsala University, Sweden
The Himalaya, the “Water Tower of Asia”, is the source of ten large river basins of the world, several of them transboundary, including the mighty Ganges-Brahmaputra River. The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin with the largest population density in the world and widespread poverty has been identified by many as an area to experience severe water crisis due to unsustainable economic growth, deteriorating ecosystems and increasing demand for water. Moreover, the quantity and nature of runoff in this system is projected to change significantly as a result of global climate change.
The countries sharing the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin are presently witnessing changing power relationships, changing economies, and a changing climate. The riparian power dynamic has become extremely complicated due to China’s growing global power and its increased water development activities on the upstream. Old water agreements are being often challenged, while new agreements are difficult to arrive at. The unilateral activities by the basin countries to protect/acquire more water from the shared river system has not only caused more and more inter-state tensions, it has also further aggravated the conflicts between and among water user groups and regions within these countries.
The impacts of global climate change are likely to be severe in the near future in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin where people are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. Both Ganges and Brahmaputra originate in the Himalayas where glacier meltwater is an important source for their headwaters. The Himalayan glaciers are melting more rapidly than ever before. In the monsoon period, the basin is experiencing frequent devastating floods. The glacial lake outburst floods have also increased manifold. Besides climate change, the other main challenge to the ‘business as usual approach’ in the basin comes from China.
Till recently, the Brahmaputra River, which is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in China was considered to be undammed but the economically powerful China has already built four major hydropower dams on this river in recent years. These upstream dams generate serious anxiety for India as China effectively challenges India’s historical domination in the basin. China has not committed to any formal agreements with its neighbors regarding any of its shared rivers, including the Brahmaputra. Its advantageous geo-strategic position and economic-technological muscle in the basin allows China to unilaterally build dam projects on the shared rivers.
The absence of China’s interest in the Brahmaputra water in the past had given India a free hand to dominate the basin. However, in recent years ‘superpower’ China has not only engaged in building dams in the Brahmaputra upstream, it has also been very actively engaged in water development projects in Nepal, Bangladesh, and even in Bhutan. As the experiences from the Mekong River suggest, China is not likely to take part in any water-sharing agreement with India.
China was one of the three countries to vote against the UN Convention of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse in 1997 at the UN General Assembly. In June 2020, at the UN Security Council, while discussing the dam dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt, China has made it very clear about its adherence to the principle of upstream riparian’s right to develop its water resources. China has no economic or political incentive to come into an agreement to manage the Brahmaputra River within a basin-based framework.
The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin spreads over Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and China. Even if China stays out of any basin based cooperation, there are many hurdles also to develop a working and effective cooperation among the lower basin countries. The primary problem is India’s established approach in the region to address water sharing issues bilaterally. India is yet to see its benefit in discarding the policy of bilateralism and adopting a multilateral approach. As Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh are not geographically contiguous, they also lack a common agenda on which sector(s) to cooperate on the shared river system.
The cost of non-cooperation among the countries in the Ganges-Brahmaputra sub-basin has been huge as a large number of planned water development projects in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal have not been able to be implemented. The inability of the lower basin to manage its shared water efficiently and cooperatively leads to regular droughts and floods. Various international initiatives have tried in the past and are working now to promote and support basin based cooperation but have not achieved much success primarily due to India’s abhorrence towards multilateralism in managing the shared water.
There is a lack of political will in India, which is a must to provide the space to basin based water management institutions and/or regimes to effectively emerge and operate. The trust deficit is also extremely high among the countries in the basin as other riparian countries consider India as the basin’s bully. However, the changing power relations in the region due to China’s emergence as a counter-hegemon [similar to some extent, the emergence of Ethiopia as a counter hegemon to Egypt in the Eastern-Nile Basin] might convince India to adopt multilateralism and bring an end to the mutually hurting stalemate in the lower Ganges-Brahmaputra basin.
China becoming an active water user on the upstream has brought serious concerns for India. Even China’s dams on Brahmaputra upstream have limited India’s option to threaten Pakistan in stopping Indus water as that might lead to China’s reciprocation in support of Pakistan. For India to get certain power parity with China in the basin, it needs to learn from the Mekong basin experience, and seriously work towards developing a sub-basin water cooperation framework in the Eastern Himalayan region with Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin can be able to somewhat manage to meet the challenge of climate change and China, if Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and India can come together like the lower riparian countries of Mekong, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have done it since 1995.