China’s Brahmaputra dam: Trans-boundary water governance in South Asia

  • IASbaba
  • December 19, 2020
  • 0
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Topic: General Studies 2,3:

  • Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests.

China’s Brahmaputra dam: Trans-boundary water governance in South Asia

Context: On November 29, 2020, Chinese state media announced that Beijing will build a mega dam on the the Yarlung Zangbo river close to the Line of Actual Control in Tibet. The move could have a far-reaching impact on water security in India’s North East.

South Asia and Transboundary rivers

  • The whole of South Asia comes under ‘high’ to ‘extremely high’ water-stressed areas. This, even though it has a lot of fresh water.
  • South Asia is separated from the rest of the continent by the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. 
  • There are some 25 major rivers in South Asia. Of the 30 major river basins of the world identified as global level priorities for the protection of aquatic biodiversity, nine are in India, which constitutes the majority of South Asia.
  • The Brahmaputra carries a flow volume that is greater than Europe’s 20 major rivers. The river passes through the world’s deepest gorge and three of its most populous countries — China, India and Bangladesh — before merging into the Bay of Bengal.


  • Transboundary Impact: Natural resources like rivers, forests and mountains pay no attention to political boundaries. They have evolved over millions of years of natural cycles. Dams or water diversion projects in the upstream areas of rivers have a significant effect on downstream countries through which river flows. 
  • Advantage to China: China has a clear advantage in building dams and other infrastructure to reduce or divert water flow from river systems originating in Tibet. Communities in the lower riparian areas have to accept what is being offered to them. Thus, there is a general feeling that China controls the headwaters. 
  • Ecological threats for Himalayan Ecosystem: The glaciers and snowlines of the Himalayas are retreating. If the current warming continues, there is a projection that the waterways of the Tibetan Plateau could first flood and then dry up gradually, turning the vast landscape into a desert.
  • Water conflicts: Discontent and conflict result from a situation where water demand is more than its supply. They can also result from asymmetric power controls over access and allocation of water between competing users or between transboundary governments. Further, the lack of a cooperative framework for managing river systems in South Asia leads to unresolved conflicts.
  • Unsustainable Approach: The reductionist engineering approach only looks at short-term gains on a model of competitive exploitation of river water resource. The supply-centric irrigation department talks in terms of diversions, dams, barrages, canals, tunnels and turbines. They do not know the science of bringing water into the river. 
  • Domestic Federal Issue: As water is a state subject, states assume exclusive powers over water governance. The cumulative outcomes at the national level do not inspire optimism about long-term security and sustainability. This is partly attributed to the poor devolution by states and weak institutions.

Way Ahead- A change of Approach

  • The real issue is not the scarcity of water resources. Rather, it is scarcity of ‘social resources’ and abundance of ‘power disparities’ between the riparians
  • We have to reconsider the fluvial landscape approach to river basin management. This approach respects the integrity of the landscape and the catchments.
  • It respects river behaviour and patterns, it respects the river’s legitimate rights to flood and cause droughts. They are inseparable parts of the hydrological cycle.
  • The fluvial memory concept is not based on ‘solutionising’ at reach scales on an ad-hoc basis. It takes the entire flow-habitat-catchment perspective.
  • Since the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin and the Himalayas are shared by all riparian states, the fluvial memory of the Brahmaputra should respected and it should be allowed to flow freely from source to mouth without any major obstructions.

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