China and River Water Arrangements with Neighbors*

Ambassador (retd.) Kishan S RanaHonorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

*This text has been amended on the basis of a comment sent in very kindly by a reader.

By a quirk of geography, China is virtually not a river water lower riparian to any country. Thanks to the abundance of rivers that originate in its territory, especially the Himalayan plateau, it is an upper riparian in relation to many of Asia’s great trans-border river systems, including the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. In the North-East of the country, it does have the Amur river as the boundary with Russia, but not the status of a lower riparian.

Consequently, as some commentators have noted, China does not have a real cooperative frame of mind on river sharing. Brahma Chellany addresses this issue in an article in The Mint of 27 April 2016, titled ‘China’s Water Hegemony in Asia’. [1]

He makes the following points:

  • It has a major dam just before the Mekong river leaves Chinese territory. It has just agreed to release ‘emergency water flows’ to the countries located downstream. But 14 new dams are under construction on the Mekong, which is one of the lifelines of SE Asia, which will affect the downstream states.
  • China is a ‘dialogue partner’ but not a member of the Mekong River Commission.
  • Today, China has more large dams than the rest of the world combined. [And the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze is perhaps the most debated of them all, in the ecological disaster it represents, as Chinese officials also now concede. [2]
  • China rebuffs the idea of a water-sharing treaty with any country.

On the Brahmaputra, China has built a ‘run-of-river’ dam, claimed to involve no water storage, the Zangmu dam commissioned in October 2015; they are in the process of building at least three more at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu. That activity needs better monitoring, besides continuous efforts to engage China to part with more information than they have done hitherto. It should be added that Arunachal Pradesh is also engaged in extensive dam construction.

In India we do not use the term ‘water towers’, which captures well the huge importance of major river systems – for us the best example is the Ganga, both in its geographic and economic value, as also in its impact on history and culture. Jawaharlal Nehru’s will is one of the finest tributes to the latter dimension of the Ganga. We do need to pay greater attention to river systems, and also activate and better manage our water sharing arrangements.

This issue merits attention, for all countries that depend on rivers that originate in China. International dialogue is needed, especially among the affected countries.

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