For Sub-regional Cooperation on the Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River Basin

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, is a PhD candidate at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati, Assam and Panchali Saikia is Scientific Officer-Social Science, International Water Management Institute, New Delhi at the International Water Management Institute, New Delhi. Both were part of ICS delegations of scholars to China in December 2015 and April 2016 respectively.

China’s engagement with India on Yarlung Tsangpo/ Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra water cooperation has been limited to mere Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) – mostly related to hydrological information (limited to water level, discharge and rainfall in flood seasons) on the river by China to India. These MoUs fall short of the objective of ‘Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-Border Rivers’ or of the obligations of a bilateral treaty.  Beijing has time and again spurned India’s proposal of having any water treaty or establishing institutionalized cooperation towards having mutual rights and responsibilities on management of the shared rivers. It is often seen that Chinese officials and academics are either reluctant to address or ambiguous in their responses to questions concerning YarlungTsangpo-Brahmaputra River. This strongly supports the general impression that China stresses on the full sovereignty of the riparian state over the water within its boundary and may use it according to its needs, even in the case of transboundary rivers. As an upper riparian, China’s approach towards engaging with the lower riparian countries, be it on the Mekong or the Brahmaputra, has been strategically placed rather than establishing commitments or acknowledging any regional concerns of the river basins.

With no formalized cooperation arrangements or legal commitments, China uses its leverage to exploit the upstream water to its interest, and unilaterally progress with its ambitious dam-building projects on the river, which has created a lot of friction with lower riparians. China’s Zangmu dam in Tibet, and other proposed dams on the river and its tributaries have become a major strategic and environmental concern for middle riparian India and lower riparian Bangladesh. Sub-national units within Northeast India such as Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are also faced with challenges associated with flood mitigation, erosion, planning for hydro-power and other riverine infrastructure projects, agricultural productivity and irrigation.  The absence of a multilateral institutional arrangement/framework has slowed these country-specific development projects, and increased suspicion of unilateral river resource exploitation by upper riparian China and middle-riparian India, subsequently impacting the co-riparian relations.

Interdisciplinary research has been led by various non-governmental organizations and policy networks in the region, notably the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies in Hyderabad, through its flagship research programme, ‘The Brahmaputra Dialogue’, has emphasized constructive debate among stakeholders and riparian cooperation on transboundary waters in South Asia but there still exists an aversion towards formal multilateral engagement on rivers- or water-sharing treaties, in both New Delhi and Beijing. The question is how to offset these hardened stances and build alternate processes, an informal code of conduct, which brings a sense of collective responsibility to the Brahmaputra river basin. Sub-regional initiatives such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Cooperation Framework, involving all the Northeast Indian states’ water resources and beyond, to Bangladesh and Myanmar, need attention towards creating an enabling environment for mutually inclusive sub-regional participation on water cooperation.

The BCIM Forum can draw upon its experience in promoting a multidisciplinary approach to the river basin and be a platform to encourage interconnected research on rivers, infrastructure building and other related aspects, and bringing together people from politics, engineering, geology, economics, social scientists, hydrologists, environmentalists, activists’ forums, local stakeholders, which is now missing. This would require the BCIM Forum to build on the strategic interests of the political leadership of China on its ‘one belt. one road’ (OBOR) flagship economic project, of which it considers the BCIM Economic Corridor as an important part.  International transboundary rivers can be catalytic agents, and cooperation that yields benefits from the river and reduces costs can pave the way to much greater cooperation between states, even economic integration among them, generating benefits beyond the river – the ‘catalytic river’. The Asian Development Bank- and the World Bank-led impetus to regional and sub-regional cooperation being already present, India’s Act East Policy and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), focused on the OBOR, should also help facilitate such initiatives.

Another emerging concept in this paradigm is ‘Trans-Himalayan cooperation agenda’ which has surfaced at several discussion platforms, especially led by the Chinese, as a regional mechanism to strengthen economic cooperation among the Himalayan countries. But this seems limited to just cross-border infrastructural connectivity and seems to be just another strand in Beijing’s ‘forum shopping’ behaviour to promote and sell its OBOR in the region. Another example is its initiative of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM) with the Mekong countries introduced in 2015. Nevertheless, this could accelerate the process to co-opt Beijing into a formalized structure with the South Asian countries on economic cooperation as well as water resource management of Himalayan river systems.

There are question however – will India take such an initiative to engage in a multilateral agreement on water cooperation, away from its earlier bilateral stand on transboundary waters? Will other riparians of Himalayan rivers, such as Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Pakistan agree to engage?

Southern Asia’s co-riparians need to engage purposively in managing the rivers of the region ensuring that regional development is not impeded by unnecessary posturing on water issues. The totality of their bilateral relations with each other and mutual economic cooperation would largely depend on how they handle these issues in the future; water will become even scarcer, given increasing population and growing water demands. China, India and Bangladesh are already facing active domestic opposition to their present policies and approaches towards the development and utilization of shared water resources, particularly in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in India and Sylhet in Bangladesh. It is, therefore, essential to cooperate towards a solution based on functional terms rather than on a political basis, and work towards an integrated river basin management and development. Towards this joint research studies could be conducted on the hydrological cycle of the Brahmaputra River, basin-wide assessment of climate change impacts on the river systems, and a systematic scientific study of the actual impact of dam buildings or diversion project planned on the river and its tributaries by the riparians. This will help promote mutual cooperation and understanding, and provide positive spillover effects for regional economic development.

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