Chinese Control of Hydrological Data is a Source of Growing Concern for India

11 October 2017 Daniel Pearson, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

China and India have long experienced strains in their relationship with the Doklam standoff being the most recent. For two months China attempted to extend a road on the Doklam plateau, which India claimed violated Bhutan’s claim to the territory. After its ambiguous resolution, Indian officials accused China of violating an agreement that guarantees that China supply the Indian side with hydrological data during the monsoon season. Due to the importance this data holds for India, it could become a long-term source of instability and increasing water insecurity.

Comment

The Brahmaputra River (also known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Chinese) begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows east before bearing in a southerly direction to enter India, emptying in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. During each monsoon season, which roughly occurs between May and October, the river can become a great source of danger through its flooding and displacement of people. In an effort to reduce this risk India and China signed an agreement, the India-China Expert-Level mechanism, in 2006. Part of the agreement ensures that China provides India with hydrological data from its portion of the river. This data, collected during the monsoon season, allows India (as well as Bangladesh) to anticipate and prepare for a possible overflow and flooding of the Brahmaputra.  India claims that it has not received data for this monsoon season, however, and this appears to be a growing source of contention for the two countries. Due to the fact that Bangladesh has continued to receive the same data this season, India believes that it could be a result of the Doklam standoff. China, however, maintains that the interruption is due to needed maintenance and upgrading of the relevant data-collection technology.

This recent water governance disagreement could also be seen as part of a larger, ongoing issue regarding Chinese efforts to construct various hydro-electric dams upstream of India. There are several reasons why Indian officials find this to be a cause for concern. These dams, if they are constructed, could reduce the flow of the Brahmaputra and thereby affect the livelihoods of the millions of Indians who depend on it. Indian officials also remain unnerved by the prospect that China could create diversions in the flow of the river to provide water to parched regions of China. Due to these two concerns, India has requested hydrological data for times outside the monsoon season to better judge the progress of such activities.

The Brahmaputra presents China and India with distinct water security and water governance challenges, as outlined by a previous FDI analysis. The short to medium term effects of climate change are only set to increase the variability of river flow and increase the intensity of the monsoon season. In the longer term these factors will likely result in reduced river flow and water supply. Hydrological data that China continues to have control over will only become more valuable to India over this time. Clear mitigation and adaptation strategies will also need to be a part of any attempt to resolve such water supply issues.

Increased diplomatic negotiations and the creation of firm bilateral institutions between the two countries would help to diffuse periodic short-term confrontations, such as the Doklam standoff and the current data sharing issue, as well as secure-long term regional stability and co-operation. Though it is widely accepted that such cooperation would reap enormous economic benefits, it is unlikely that the co-operation will eventuate in the near future due to ongoing mistrust between the two countries.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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