Brahmaputra issue

The Brahmaputra,also known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, the Siang/Dihang River in Arunachal Pradesh, and Luit, Dilao in Assam, originates in the Manasarovar Lake region, near the Mount Kailash, flows through South Tibet, India, and Bangladesh.
The construction of Dams over Brahmaputra River in Tibet region has raised concerns among Indian side. It has been a long-standing part of the grand South-North Water Transfer project conceptualised as early as in the 1950s by Mao Zedong.

Brahmaputra iRiver

Both the countries are among the highest populated, together constituting 37% of world’s population.


Important points from Historical interactions:

  1. The Brahmaputra agreement between China and India is a suboptimal arrangement within broader bilateral relations. China has thus far agreed to share hydrological data on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra (YTB) during the monsoon season. Further cooperation on water, however, is in a state of a deadlock. The agreement, at best, is a piecemeal discount offered by China.
  2. Discussions over the YTB have often been overshadowed by the border dispute.
  3. Departing from the past, China’s approach to trans-boundary water sharing is shifting towards multilateral arrangements. Eg. In 2015, China signed the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework.
  4. China is cooperating more with Bangladesh on water issues. China charges approximately $125,000 for the data it provides to India; at the same time, it sends similar data to Bangladesh for free. China could well be aiming to encircle India to reach a deal on the sharing of YTB that favours China’s objective of economic expansionism.
  5. Indian approach to the YTB issue is influenced by developmental imperatives and domestic politics. India’s own water diversion plans – the national river interlinking project – Bangladesh and Pakistan have criticised India for being hypocritical in its approach with China. India tends to play the lower riparian card to gain sympathy from its domestic political constituencies, especially of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.


Environmental concerns:

  1. Flooding in states like Assam and Bangladesh affecting flora and fauna in prominent national parks like Kaziranga which is home to some of the critically endangered species.
  2. Himalayan belt is prone to frequent earthquakes.

Brahma Chellany: Northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra waters (known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) from the Tibetan borders through constructions of dams would lead to drying up of river downstream in Assam and Bangladesh.

Nilanjan Ghosh: Water flows in arid Tibet are much lower than in the Indian side. Most of water to Brahmaputra comes from Indian monsoon and tributaries of Indian rivers so even with Zangmu Dam there isn’t much water for China to divert.


India’s Plans:

  1. It needs to clearly envision the desired end goal and strategic outcomes for dealing with impending water conflicts.
  2. It needs to de-emphasise China’s role for the time being and restrengthen its relationship with Bangladesh. It needs to push the impending Teesta river agreement and restore its image as a responsible upper riparian.
  3. India needs to mirror its strength and firmness in negotiations with China on water rights, as it did in the case of the Doklam stand-off and in opposing the Belt and Road Initiative, rather than projecting itself as a victim.

Both the countries must work towards not just preserving the environment and restoring ecological balance but also to sustainably use the water resources for its abundant population.