What is India Editorial

Water and river management
in South Asia

China's environmental record has been far from exemplary. India should join an Asian alliance to pressure the big neighbour into behaving more responsibly

Aravind Sitaraman
What is India News Service
September 1, 2004 

Few really appreciate the importance of actively managing bilateral relationships. Bilateral relations are important not just to maintain peace but also to increase trade, exchange information and education, and in the last couple of years, to fight terrorism. A major issue that has cropped up in the last few days is a huge human-made dam in Tibet. 

Tibet was colonised by China in the 1950s by first encouraging insurrection
and later by an all out invasion. At that time, the Dalai Lama and his senior administrators set up a government in exile in India. This led to serious friction between India and China which resulted in many missteps by both parties, including a border skirmish in 1962. Differences were invented, enemies were nurtured, and borders were disputed all to gain leveraging points over the other. 

However, over the years, there has been a degree of pragmatism that has grown between respective diplomatic communities. The economic growth of China, the economic potential of India, the diminishing of Pakistan as a serious player in South Asian policies, the rise of terrorism and the potential for trade between India and China are some motivations for the growing pragmatism to find common areas of consensus than disagreement.

In the last few years, China has acknowledged Sikkim as part of India while India has accepted Tibet as an autonomous region within China. This agreement disappointed many who saw Chinese exploitation of what they saw as Indian naiveté. Whether it was the “Hindi Chinni Bhai Bhai slogan” slogan as a precursor to the 1962 Indo-Sino war, instigation of rebels in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh, or the occupation of an island in the Nicobar Islands in collusion with Myanmar to create a Chinese Naval outpost in the Bay of Bengal, India's big neighbour has had a dubious track record.

Proposals from Russia and Japan to create a pan-Asian block to create a multi-polar global scenario involving Russia, China, and India or Japan, China, and India has found ready acceptance in China, but Indian acceptance of such proposals has been in part reluctant because of past experience in dealing with China. In many people’s minds, China is not a country that needs to be trusted.

This is a sad saga to millenniums of close co-operation in art, culture, trade, religion, and technology between many Kingdoms in India and corresponding kingdoms in China. Overland and maritime trade was always active with an active flow of information and people between these two large dominions. Ancient Indian kingdoms even had stationed large trade and military guilds in China. There was a frequent exchange of ambassadors and trade missions between the dominions. However, recent history has not seen congenial behaviour and outlook between the two countries.

One such recent incident that is fast reinforcing such fears and reluctance to accept China as an honest partner of India is an artificial and supposedly unintentional dam created by Chinese road engineers across the Peerechu river (a tributary of Sutlej) in Tibet. A burst in that dam could create a huge calamity that could affect over half a million people over 280 kilometers away. A similar incident in 2000 ended with 120 people dead in India and it is not clear what diplomatic and bilateral consequences China faced for that incident.

By all accounts, this situation is far more serious than the incident in 2000. What makes it worse is the Chinese reluctance to allow Indian engineers
to visit the site and evaluate the potential impact to India. This again reinforces the suspicion that China is engaging in environmental warfare.

The bigger question is the environmental damage that this incident could create. The Himalayan region is known for the tectonic activity resulting in large earthquakes and creating a large body of water will have unknown implications to the stability of the region. A downward thrust of such a force would remove all tree cover in the valleys that it would go through creating major landslides, flooding, destruction of property, ground cover and trees, irrigation systems, aquatic life, etc. In other words, it may result in the destruction of ecosystem as we know it today. Another unknown is the impact of rainfall, snow further up the Himalayas and the 
Tibetan plateau. Ten major rivers of South Asia and South East Asia originate in
Tibet and 90 per cent of the water flows through India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal. Millions of people in South Asia and South East depend on this water feed and any alteration to this eco-system is bound to impact them.

China has had a disastrous record in water management. Being an authoritarian regime, that country has caused great hardship to its population through failed dams, broken dams, and unilateral  construction of dams. Since the so-called “Great Leap Forward,” China has constructed  dams across dams across all rivers except the Salween that originates high in Tibet before emptying into the Andaman Sea through Myanmar and Thailand. While 80,000 dams and check systems have been built since then, 40 per cent of major dams (4,500 of 10,000 large constructions) were found to be ineffective for flood control and below specifications. Over 3,000 dams have since collapsed, including some major ones on an average of 110 dam collapses a year. While Government estimates that only 10,000 people died from these accidents, independent sources suspect the figure is close to a quarter of a 

Hence, if anything, China has been balanced in the destruction that it has caused—equally to its own population and other countries. The irresponsible water management policy of the “Great Leap Forward” movement has actually taken China and South and South East Asia backwards on environment and resource management. The demonstrated incompetence of China to manage natural resources and its indifferent attitude towards actually fixing these issues is worrisome. 

Instead of trying to deal with China on an individual level, India would be better off gaining momentum and support from other South Asian and South East Asian countries to leverage China to be more transparent in its water management policies and plans. There also needs to be an acceptance and applicability of International Water treaties that govern water sharing between riparian nations. Only collective bargaining will work.

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