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India and China gear up for a new battle, this time over water


Amid an unending seven-month long border stand-off between their troops and economic decoupling, the frayed ties between India and China now have a fresh flashpoint: water.

Fuelling this new conflict is a mix of mutual mistrust, lack of transparency and an intense rivalry over one of the world’s largest rivers, known as Brahmaputra in India and the Yarlung Zangbo in China.

Late last month, China announced its intentions of building what could be its biggest hydropower project, potentially generating three times more energy than the Three Gorges project, the current largest such project in the world.

The nationalist tabloid Global Times quoted Yan Zhiyong, chairman of the Power Construction Corporation of China, as saying that such a project could produce 70 million kilowatt hours and would have “no parallel in history”.

While Beijing did not announce the exact location, it indicated that it could be near what is known as “The Great Bend”, where the river turns sharply southwards to enter the Arunachal Pradesh region in northeast India.

Many in India are concerned about the impact such a large project would have on the country’s water and food security, as well as the possible weaponisation of the water by China owing to its firm grip on the flow – by using it to cause floods or induce droughts.

Two days later, New Delhi said it was mulling a major hydropower project of its own on the Brahmaputra to “mitigate the adverse impact of the Chinese dam projects”, an official in India’s water ministry told Reuters.

Analysts warn such a race between the two Asian powers could easily spin out of control with repercussions not just for both, but also for Bangladesh, where the river flows through before entering the Bay of Bengal.

“The border conflict, shrouded mystery and secrecy around the dams and information exacerbates the situation,” said B.R. Deepak, sinologist and Professor of Chinese and Chinese Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

So far, New Delhi has been guarded in its reaction.

On Thursday, its Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson said it “carefully monitors all developments” around the river. “The government has consistently conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities and has urged them to ensure that the interests of downstream States are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas,” the spokesperson said.

However, analysts believe New Delhi’s reaction belied the concerns that India might harbour around China’s project, which has been titled a “super dam” by Indian media.

According to Sayanangshu Modak, a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation with expertise on transboundary water governance and flood-risk management, it will be a “massive concern for India” if China goes ahead with its plans.

“The region has a history of avalanches and landslides and is also a hazard-prone region since it is tectonically active. If there is an accident and the dam bursts, it would wreak havoc,” he said. “But China would not lose anything since the location is where the river exits China. It will impact India, downstream.”

With control over the river’s flow, China could also “cause floods downstream” through a sudden release of river water, Modak said.

Such “psychological warfare” might be the most devastating of all the effects of the “super dam” Beijing might be planning, a 2013 research paper by the US Naval War College’s Centre for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups indicated.

The control of the water flow through damming and diversion could give China “the ability to choke off the food supply to its largest neighbour”, the paper said, pointing to the Brahmaputra’s ability to help sustain agriculture in India’s northeastern region.

“Once the dams have been built, the ability to create suffering at the human level in India and Bangladesh through induced water and food shortages, will stand implicitly behind any request coming from Beijing,” the paper said, calling such a scenario “nearly an existential threat” to India.

Modak said such concerns might be exaggerated since the river’s flow is boosted by rainfall in the Indian regions. But he added that the dam could also have an effect on the ecology of the downstream regions in India.

“Generally, rivers have seasonal flow patterns – in some seasons, the rivers will have a lot of water whereas in others, it will be a trickle,” he said. “But once you create such a large dam, these patterns will change each day, not seasonally. When the turbines are on, the water flow will increase and when they are off, the flow will halt.”

Normally, such project arrangements would merit detailed discussions and planning between the countries over sharing the waters. However, the two Himalayan neighbours have not signed any water-sharing agreement with each other.

Added to this is the mutual distrust that has shaped bilateral ties – the two have been caught in a boundary dispute for nearly seven decades now, with both making overlapping claims over territory controlled by the other. The dispute has resulted in skirmishes between soldiers as well as a full-blown military war in 1962.

According to the academic Deepak, this distrust has also shaped the neighbours’ ties over water-sharing and planning, with India fearing China will use water-sharing as a tool of warfare.

He pointed to a 2002 agreement to share hydrological data of the river, allowing transparency and cooperation in the relationship.

“At times, this agreement has not been adhered to by the Chinese side, say for example, in 2017,” Deepak said, highlighting China’s decision to discontinue data-sharing after the 72-day troop stand-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction of Doklam Plateau.

New Delhi’s fears have been further hardened after the events in June this year, when satellite imagery showed Chinese bulldozers had blocked the flow of the Galwan river, just days after troops from both sides had clashed on its banks, leading to the deaths of 20 Indian and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers.

Indian Army brigadier (retired) Deepak Sinha, who has carried out counter-insurgency and airborne special operations in India’s northeast region, said that weaponising waters and river flows was not an uncommon military technique. “But they are not very effective today, as the element of surprise is lost on the enemy thanks to advanced surveillance techniques.”

For now, both sides seem keen to play the row down.

A day after the Global Times said China was “to build (the) historic hydropower project”, the Chinese embassy in India clarified that the project was in the stages of “preliminary planning” and there was “no need to over-interpret it”, even as Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that constructing such a project was “China’s legitimate right”.

India, on its part, said China has conveyed to it “on several occasions that they are only taking run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects which do not involve diversion of the waters of the Brahmaputra”, and that it “intends to remain engaged with China”, according to a government spokesperson.

But with New Delhi simultaneously going public with its consideration of a dam on the river in Arunachal Pradesh, the relationship might be entering increasingly choppy waters, according to Deepak.

“China objects to such dams along with other infrastructure projects India undertakes in Arunachal Pradesh owing to its perception of the Eastern Sector,” he said.

As a result, “the river, essentially, becomes part of the border issue and geopolitics” between the two countries.