The recent flooding of the Brahmaputra, and China’s sharing of satellite data showing flooded districts in Assam has brought attention to the need for better management of this important river basin by China, India, and Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra is the fifth-largest river in the world by flow. However, unlike the major river systems of the Indus and the Ganga, it currently has no water-sharing treaty, nor is an agreement under negotiation.
A recent book I co-authored with Satu Limaye and Joel Wuthnow examines the challenges faced by the three countries at the domestic, bilateral, and multilateral levels. Underscoring the environmental and humanitarian challenges, the breach of the Brahmaputra’s embankments in mid-July displaced an estimated 5.8 million people in Assam and 400,000 people in northern Bangladesh. At a minimum, better forecasting capabilities and data-sharing are required to reduce the impact of future flooding on downstream populations.
But the geopolitical stakes are also high, not least because the Brahmaputra runs through Arunachal Pradesh, an area disputed by China as “Southern Tibet.” India, China, and Bangladesh have not yet prioritised this issue, but continue to allow tensions in diplomatic relations to compromise water security in this river basin.
For example, China apparently cut off limited data-sharing with India due to the Doklam standoff in 2017. The year before, China announced that it would temporarily divert the Xiabuqu river — a tributary of the Brahmaputra, which is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet — due to the construction of a dam. Both moves caused alarm among Indian policymakers and strategists over the potential for China to cause difficulty to downstream countries.
However, India also has a downstream neighbour — Bangladesh — which is concerned about India’s river linking project, and its potential to adversely affect the resources of the Brahmaputra (known as the Jamuna in Bangladesh). More immediately, Dhaka is eager to finalise a water-sharing agreement over the Teesta River — a tributary of the Brahmaputra — with New Delhi. The agreement has been stalled since the failure to conclude it in 2011.
Being downstream of China and India, Bangladesh suffers severe impacts (widespread erosion and flooding), and thus, has the most to gain from a water-sharing agreement. But India and China stand to benefit from an agreement as well. For China, this is an opportunity for it to demonstrate leadership on a serious issue of human security and improve its international reputation, which has been damaged by the country’s assertiveness in East Asian waters.
India for its part would benefit not only from data-sharing with China to mitigate flooding, but also from the exchange of information about hydropower dam construction. As an example of an important river cooperation, China was the first country to provide India with satellite data of flooding in Assam after New Delhi requested this information under the International Charter Space and Major Disasters.
In recognition of the challenges and uncertainties faced by the Brahmaputra stakeholders, the three countries should take action. By the summer of 2020, India, China, and Bangladesh should aim to sign a trilateral memorandum of understanding on the Brahmaputra. This would represent an acknowledgment of the importance of this basin, and the need for all three countries to work together to manage this large body of shared resources.
In the short term, an MoU that launches a dialogue between scientists and policymakers would help depoliticise water security, and provide an opportunity for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to demonstrate high-profile cooperation to the international community.
An ambitious long-term goal could be the formation of a Brahmaputra Basin Commission. The attainment of this goal will face several obstacles, including China and India agreeing to set aside the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh as it relates to water security, and India bringing on board domestic-level stakeholders. But laying the groundwork for a commission is a necessary first step in addressing the environmental, humanitarian, and geopolitical threats that will only continue to rise in the Brahmaputra River Basin.