6 October 2015

Cry Wolf - A Perspective on the Brahmaputra Water War


September 23, 2015  By Ghanshyam Katoch 

Mr Brahma Chellaney one of the foremost strategic thinkers of India has written extensively of the potential of water shortages to be a flashpoint for wars in the future.[i] In an article in 2009 he warned of Chinese plans to divert the waters of the Tsangpo through gigantic tunneling projects to the parched areas of NorthernChina.[ii] This led to a flurry of writings about the potential of this action to starve India of water, an action akin to declaration of war. Many strategic thinkers and military writers have used this to ring alarm bells about a potential Water War between India and China. A few such articles are listed below: 
Water Wars: The Next Clash between India and China- Geopolitical Monitor 20 Apr 2014.[iii] 
India- China- Water War Over the Brahmaputra ?- Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies dated 30 Apr 2014.[iv]
Water Wars- China, India and the Great Dam Rush- The Diplomat- 03 Apr 2015.[v]
Great Chinese diversion- India must be prepared to deal with China’s plans to divert Brahmaputra waters -Indian Express 21 Apr 2015.[vi]

This article opines that the extremely difficult venture of diverting the water of the Tsangpo to North China, even if can be done successfully, is not going to starve Assam of water. In fact the impact may be overall beneficial.

The Brahmaputra does not originate in Tibet. What originates in Tibet is the Yarlung Tsangpo, one of its tributaries, albeit the primary one. On entering India in Arunachal Pradesh the Tsangpo is called the Siang or Dihang. The Siang descends through Arunachal where it meets another large river, the Siyom. It then enters the plains of Assam where it meets the Dibang and Lohit. Below this confluence point, the river is the Brahmaputra. The Siang brings 30% of the water of the Brahmaputra. The rest of the water originates within India.[vii]

A layman who has not travelled all over the Brahmaputra valley and the mountains which form its basin will be alarmed by the writings on Chinese perfidy of waging a water war on us. Those who have physically seen the Assam/Arunachal area will be better able to comprehend that should China divert the water of the Tsangpo, the flow of the Brahmaputra may reduce by 30%, but that is all that is possible. Even this could be incorrect as depending on the bed conditions, 10 to 30% of dammed water seeps under the dam and reappears downstream. This is all the more likely where the dammed river has a steep gradient. In this case from the area of the Great Bend (where China is expected to build a dam to divert the water[viii]) to its entry point in India, the Tsangpo drops nearly 2000m in a distance of 200kms. The descent rate is 4.3 to 16.8m per km.[ix] This is an extremely steep drop and consequently substantial seepage has to occur.

The only other tributary of the Brahmaputra that originates in China is the Lohit. Geographically there is no way for the water of the Lohit to be diverted to China. The small Rima Bowl in which the Lohit forms is at 1400m with the mountains around it rising over 4200m. It is closer to Yunnan which is not water deficient, and far away from North China. The Lohit has about 30 to 40% of its water originating from its five major tributaries in India, the Dichu, Dau, Delai, Tidding and Lang. Approximately 50% of the catchment area of the river is in India.[x]

Empirical studies have brought out that diversion of water by China is not cost effective.[xi][xii]While water can and will be a cause of war in many parts of the globe, the diversion of the waters of the Tsangpo should not be a cause of war.

Like every year, this year too during the monsoons, floods ravaged the Brahmaputra valley. As on 07 Sep 2015, 42 people had died and 17.67 lakh people affected.[xiii]This has been one of the years of less damage. Every year hundreds of crores of rupees are spent in flood relief and in measures to prevent erosion of valuable fertile land. If one stands on the South bank of the Brahmaputra when the river is in spate, the awesome power of the river is a frightening sight. The erosion control gabions, embankments and bamboo breakwaters are flicked off like matchsticks and houses and roads on the banks of the river are swallowed by the coursing water in one gulp. 

In case China diverts the water of the Tsangpoit is possible that the results may be salutatory for India.Each year the Brahmaputra eats away 72.5 sq kms of fertile land in Assam.[xiv] Since 1920 approximately 2000 sq kms of fertile land has been lost to erosion. The floods also destroy crops. Reduction of water in the Brahmaputra may reduce this loss significantly. The Brahmaputra constitutes 30% of the water resources of India of which barely 4% is used[xv] It is as difficult for India to take this water elsewhere in the country because of geography as it would be for China to take it to its Northern region.

Analysis should be done objectively. Subjective analysis leads to misrepresentation of facts. A TRP hungry media quickly picks up news items about perceived conflict situations and airs it at the earliest without time for a detailed analysis. In subsequent TV panel discussions a more nuanced view may emerge amongst the intelligentsia. However, by that time public opinion has formed. Public opinion is enflamed by vested interests and snowballs into acrimonious exchanges between nations. A recent detailed analysis brings out the propensity of Indian media to frequently paint the situation that war is imminent with China.[xvi]The article also states that “ in news as in architecture, a frame is the basic structure[…] it is the central organizing idea for news content […] frames […] influence public opinion by their power to provoke a particular kind of inference”.[xvii] By using the ambiguous scare over the diversion of the water of the Tsangpoas a frame, analysts and media are evoking a more emotive response from their readers and the public. The conclusions that this article arrives at are the following: 
There is no doubt that fresh water is a scarce resource in our planet where the pressure of the population is increasing, therefore wars over water are a reality. 
The Brahmaputra is not going to be affected significantly even in the unlikely scenario of China diverting the water of the Tsangpo. 
The regular flooding in the Assam valley has led to a reduction in food output with farmers restricting the acreage of the Kharif(Monsoon) crops to areas which do not suffer flooding. The reduction of flow of the Brahmaputra by even 20% may lead to large tracts of land being available for two clear crops in a year. 
The monsoon season in China roughly corresponds to the Indian monsoon season. However the Northern area is a non-monsoon region.[xviii] Hence, in case China diverts the Tsangpo water it will continue to draw it in our monsoon season. This allays the fear that in the monsoons there will be no reduction in the fury of the floods which strike Assam. 
The reduction of water flow by even 10% may reduce the loss of land due to river erosion significantly. 
India should speed up the hydro-electric projects planned on the Siang to realize its full hydel potential. Under the doctrine of prior appropriation, a priority right falls on the first user of river waters.[xix]
In the manner that the successful Indo-Pak Indus Waters Treaty was sculpted, India, China and Bangladesh should also work towards a Tsangpo/Brahmaputra/Jamuna waters treaty. China has river waters treaties with a number of its neighbours (Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam). A similar treaty could pave the way for a settlement of the much more contentious boundary dispute. 

In Oct 2014 an ex Indian Army Chief wrote a fictional story of war between India and China triggered by the diversion of the waters of the Tsangpo by China.[xx] This article opines that the foremost flashpoint of an India China war is the unresolved boundary dispute, a secondary one could be China coming to the aid of Pakistan in case Pakistan is an existential adverse situation in a war with India. A war over water is not warranted.

Views expressed here, by the author, are personal.


[i]Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman& Littlefield) and Water: Asia's New Battleground (Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC) 

[ii][ii]Brahma Challaney.Coming Water Wars-Beware the Future.International Economy.http://www.international-economy.com/TIE_F09_Chellaney.pdf. Accessed 11 Sep 2015. 

[iii]AmitavaMukerjee. Geopolitical Monitor.http://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/water-wars-the-next-clash-between-india-and-china-4962/. Accessed 09 Sep 2015. 

[iv]RoomanaHukil .ICPS.http://www.ipcs.org/article/south-asia/india-china-a-water-war-over-the-brahmaputra-4415.html. Accessed 12 Sep 2015 

[v]SudhaRamchandran. The Diplomat.http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/water-wars-china-india-and-the-great-dam-rush/. Accessed 12 Sep 2015 

[vi]http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/great-chinese-diversion/ Accessed 12 Sep 2015. 

[vii] Unquiet Flows the River- Brahmaputra Issue in India China Relations. Commodity Online.Interview with Dr.Jabin T. Jacob, Assistant Director & Fellow; Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.http://www.commodityonline.com/news/unquiet-flows-the-river-brahmaputra-issue-in-india-china-relations-54861-3-54862.html. Accessed 13 Sep 2015. 

[viii]Anil Sasi. NTPC Steps up Work on Hydel Project to Pip China. Indian Express 23 Jan 2012. http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/ntpc-steps-up-work-on-hydel-project-to-pip-china/902787/. Accessed 10 Sep 2012 

[ix]NDMA Study by IIT Rourkee. Final Report On Study Of Brahmaputra River Erosion And Its Control. May 2012. http://www.ndma.gov.in/images/pdf/NDMA%20Final%20Report%20Brahmaputra%20River.pdf. Accessed 13 Sep 2015. 

[x]Lohit River Basin Study.http://www.internationalrivers.org/files/attached-files/lohit_basin_study_report-aug_2011.pdf. Accessed 10 Sep 2015. 

[xi]Palmo Tenzin. China, India and Water Across the Himalayas. Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 29 Jul 2015. http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/china-india-and-water-across-the-himalayas/. Accessed 13 Sep 2015. 


[xiii]Assam Floods Update.Skymet.http://www.skymetweather.com/content/weather-news-and-analysis/flood-situation-in-assam-worsens-rivers-rising-way-above-the-danger-mark/. Accessed 12 Sep 2015. 

[xiv]NDMA Study by IIT Rourkee. 

[xv]NDMA Study by IIT Rourkee.p.65. 

[xvi]Debasish Roy Chowdhury. Between the Lines: Indian Media’s China War. China Report, Vol 51, Number 3, Aug 2015. Pp 169-203. 

[xvii]Ibid. p.173. 

[xviii]China Travel Guide.http://www.travelchinaguide.com/climate/. Accessed 10 Sep 2015. 

[xix]Anil Sasi. 

[xx]General. S. Padmanabhan. Next India-China War- World’s First Water War 2029.( Delhi-Manas Publications 2014) 

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