River in Uttarakhand

Water Security: The Himalayan Hydro-Political Tug-of-War

In our new series on water security, we take a look at how shortages of the planet’s most vital resource will carry major conflict risks in the near future. In each article, we will explore the water conflict risks facing a new region, and how these conflicts might play out. In part two of the series, we examine India and China’s rivalry along the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, and its subsequent impact on Nepal.

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Areas of physical and economical water scarcity at the basin level in 2007

Fig 1.0 – Global Water Scarcity at Basin Level, 2007

The state of regional relations over South Asia’s valuable water resources is once again raising concerns over the lack of agreement on management of the waterways that provide for almost a third of the global population. India and China – both regional powerhouses and rivals – have regularly accused the other of taking unilateral action to meet their national needs through the construction of dams and water diversion projects. The growing convergent pressures of increasing populations, industrialisation and climate change has triggered alarms regarding water availability in the region, especially for the ‘smaller’ states caught in this hydro-political tug-of-war between India and China.

Dry China

Asia has been referred to as “the global hotspot for water insecurity” and rightfully so. China’s Tibetan plateau – the Water Tower of Asia – is the source of twelve trans-boundary rivers, including the Indus and Brahmaputra which both flow into India. China’s upstream position serves as a strategic advantage for the nation and provides a potential monopoly over the region’s freshwater supply. Despite the abundance of water in Tibet, overuse and pollution has aggravated China’s emerging water crisis. In confluence with increasing population growth, the Chinese government has predicted that the country’s annual freshwater shortage will increase to 200 billion cubic meters by the year 2030. Furthermore, China’s underground aquifers, which provides the country’s drinking water for over two-thirds of its population, are severely polluted.

China’s disparity between water demand and geographical supply is another cause for concern. The country’s north, which is home to 45 percent of China’s population and 60 percent of its agriculture, has only 13.8 percent of its fresh water. To tackle the water divide in the country, China announced its South-North Water Diversion Project in 2002, calling for the redirection of waters along three different routes. The proposal for the project to be extended to upstream areas of the Yarlung Tsangpo River (known as the Brahmaputra in India) has created cause for concern for China’s southern neighbour.

Anxieties Flow Downstream

New Delhi is concerned about Beijing’s clear techno-centric approach because it would impact the downstream flow of the Brahmaputra River. Its significance is huge, accounting for almost 29 percent of India’s surface waters and 44 percent of India’s hydropower potential. Despite the sheer size and importance of this interconnected river system, a multilateral integrated framework still does not exist on the management of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM). While the Chinese government has not officially approved its diversion plans, China’s current dam construction projects, not only within their own territories, but also those in neighbouring countries, have strained its relations with India.

The Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers cross borders in the Himalayas

Fig 2.0 – The Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Himalayas

Water Disputes

Territorial disputes between South Asian states have intertwined with the sharing of water resources. In 1948, India’s West Punjab government cut off the water supply to Pakistan’s East Punjab following intense conflict over the Kashmir territories. Furthermore, following the 1962 Sino-Indian war, claims over territory in Arunachal Pradesh – the territory where the Yarlung Tsangpo River transforms into the Brahmaputra – remain ongoing to this day. Furthermore, the recent Doklam standoff between India and China in 2017 resulted in speculation over China’s decision to not share its hydrological data with India in a strategic political move later that year. The political sensitivity of territory and sovereignty in South Asia has seemingly impeded effective cooperation between the countries and has hindered any real progress to a collective agreement on the management of the GBM waters. It is the lack of a coherent multilateral agreement that I argue not only has a drastic impact on the water security of India and China, but has unprecedented effects on the smaller states of South Asia that fall victim to the hydro-hegemony of the region.

The Case for Nepal

Nepal, a nation sandwiched between China and India, is vulnerable in the midst of this ongoing regional rivalry. Nepal is a resource rich country, especially in terms of its water resources, and should have the potential to avoid water stress. Due to large drops in elevation on the course of waterways sourced in the Himalayas, it possesses enormous hydropower potential estimated at 84,000 MW, with 43,000 MW of this being classed as economically viable. Despite this, Nepal lacks the financial and technical resources to harness its hydro-political potential, with the country regularly suffering from both water and energy shortages. India has historically enjoyed a positive relationship with Nepal, with New Delhi regularly providing foreign direct investment and technical resources for hydropower construction projects across the country. However, recent perceptions have been changing in Nepal, with many Nepalese officials growing skeptical of India’s true ambitions surrounding these waters. Following Indian Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s state visit in 2014, counterparts from the two nations discussed the feasability of linking Nepal’s Sharda River to India’s Yamuna and Sabarmati Rivers. While India will gain from the additional water reaching their arid regions, Nepal will benefit from cheaper energy production from the hydropower projects provided by the link.

As an upstream riparian country, certain Nepalese officials feel that India is using water belonging to Kathmandu for their own agricultural and energy needs amidst the ongoing Sino-Indian rivalry. China is looking capitalise on this growing divide through its own plans for hydropower projects in Nepal; a situation that indirectly threatens India’s position on the Ganges-Brahmaputra rivers. India has reportedly informed Nepalese officials that India will not be buying energy from Chinese-built dams in Nepal, however the impact of this response has yet to be seen.

For Nepal, it has long been a case of balancing their diplomacy with their Indian and Chinese counterparts. China has regularly taken out its chequebook for development projects in South Asia, but these initially appealing loans have often burdened recipient nations with large amounts of debt that cannot be paid back, allowing Beijing to seize control of these assets for their own use. While Nepal’s balancing game has seen the country gradually grow closer to its northern neigbour China, Nepal has not overly-relied on Chinese investment. Keen to avoid becoming another Sri Lanka, Nepal has been careful about over-reliance on Chinese investment, leading to the cancellation or delays of dam agreements between the two nations.

Looking Forward

It is entirely possible that Nepal will continue to benefit from the ongoing water rivalry between India and China. Nepal’s position of maintaining close diplomatic ties with both countries has allowed the country to benefit from foreign direct investment in a gentle bidding war between the two. However, a long road lies ahead for Nepal to meet its true hydro-political potential to solve its persistent energy and water shortages.

The absence of a multilateral agreement between the co-riparians of the GBM river basin is potentially dangerous. If India and China’s dam rush throughout the basin continues, coupled with increasing populations, industrialisation and climate change, the future of this historically water abundant region will be under extreme pressure. Insufficient transparency and data exchange between India and China has slowed down cooperation on these contentious waters. The habit of conducting water agreements bilaterally, rather through multilateral means, indicates the slow progress towards reaching a cohesive water management strategy for this vulnerable basin. Water is increasingly becoming intertwined with the national security of these countries, and if disputes continue over dam construction and diversion projects, it is not impossible to anticipate us witnessing water being used as a weapon once again in South Asia.

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Manish Gohil is a geopolitical writer specialising on South Asian Security and International Water Security. Manish holds extensive field-based research on Indo-Nepalese Transboundary Water Management and is currently conducting research on the participation of diaspora groups towards homeland secessionist movements. 

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Photo credit: Cover image – Sharada Prasad, Berkeley, India // Global Water Scarcity Map – MDPI // GBM Rivers Map –The Conversation