Author name: 
Dr. Sriparna Pathak, Assistant Professor at Nowgong College, Gauhati University and a former Consultant at the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi.

The relationship between India and China, often known as the leaders of the Asian century is a complex one and is often labeled as a mix of cooperation and conflict. However, differences in approaches to nontraditional security challenges are rapidly becoming the reason for the relationship tilting in favour of conflict. The latest and additional arena for conflict is that of water. Even though India and China recently inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) this month to share hydrological data, China has been using ecological frontiers such as the Tibetan Plateau and trans-boundary rivers such as the Brahmaputra as political tools.


Last year during the 73 day long Doklam standoff, China refused to share hydrological data with India, despite the fact that the two sides have two agreements regarding the same and China charges India an annual fee of close to Rs. one crore for the data. Sharing of hydrological data is extremely important for India’s Northeastern states. In general, Beijing provides data from three hydrological stations at Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia, lying on the mainstream of the Brahmaputra River and from the station at Tsada for the Sutlej River. However, last year China cited “technical difficulties” for its inability to provide India the data. While certain news reports state that last year China stopped sharing the data because the hydrological data gathering sites were washed away due to floods; other reports state that China could not share the data with India due to the upgradation of data collection stations in Tibet. Of course, there is a huge gap between the two reasons.


The reason behind China’s refusal to share hydrological data being purely political is more credible since China shared the same data (that it was apparently unable to share with India) with Bangladesh. Mofazzal Hossain, a member of the joint rivers commission of Bangladesh was quoted saying, “We have been receiving such data from three hydrological stations in Tibet since 2002”. The hydrological stations which China claimed were being upgraded and/or washed away due to floods had been able to provide hydrological data to Bangladesh but somehow failed when it came to India. However, keeping in line with the already existing agreements between India and China on hydrological data sharing, India had paid for the data in advance. There is no mention of refund of the advance paid in primary or secondary documents so far.


The denial in 2017 is actually a violation of two bilateral MoUs of 2013 and 2014 accord which obligate China to transfer hydrological data to India from three upstream monitoring stations in Tibet. In the lack of the data last year, at least 29 districts in Assam suffered devastating floods. This year, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated “On the basis of humanitarian spirit and our shared will to develop bilateral ties we will continue with the cooperation on hydrological information cooperation”. However, this humanitarian intent for cooperation is clearly something that China uses as per its convenience and not in the sense of what the terms actually stand for. The death tolls due to heavy floods in Assam last year proves that strategic concerns come first and humanitarianism gets least priority in China’s policymaking in this regard.


Though there are international agreements in trans-boundary rivers, they do not really cover data sharing. Hydrological data is mostly shared on the basis of bilateral or regional agreements- which as seen in the case of the ones it has with India, China flouts based on its selfish interests. So far, China has refused to enter into a water sharing treaty with even a single country. Additionally, it voted against the 1997 United Nations Watercourse Convention which called for a regular exchange of hydrological data between basin states. India also is not a signatory to the Convention. However, in this context what is pertinent to point out is that China provides data only for a price. The Watercourse convention requires that no charges are levied unless the data is not readily available. India on the other hand provides such data free of cost to the countries it shares rivers with. Therefore, China has clearly come to understand water and data sharing as a tool of coercive diplomacy. Last year’s flouting of the bilateral agreements was actually fallout of two events – the Doklam standoff and India’s refusal to acquiesce to China’s grand One Belt One Road (OBOR) programme.


Last year’s denial of data is not the first instance of China using water as a political tool. Flash floods that wreaked havoc in Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh between 2000 and 2005 were linked to unannounced releases of water from rain swollen Chinese dams and barrels based on satellite imagery. More recently, in December last year, the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh reported blackening of water, high turbidity and iron levels, so much so that fishes died and the river was deemed too polluted for human usage. The Siang flows down the Tibetan Plateau into Arunachal Pradesh, where it joins the Lohit and Dibang downstream, in order to become the Brahmaputra in Assam. While there were multiple analyses for the blackening of the river and one even stated that the cause was actually an earthquake in Tibet, the fact remains that human-made destruction in China was seen as the main cause.


Satellite imagery from December last year, shows the Brahmaputra River disappearing into a 900 metres long tunnel in China, and polymer resin adhesives being sprayed all-round the area by China. Polymer resin adhesives act as a dust suppressant and are used for large construction projects but are never used near water since the resin adhesives are harmful to animal and human life. This was the plausible reason behind the crisis in the Siang River downstream. However, China’s state run Global Times declared that since Arunachal Pradesh was a part of China, there was no question of China polluting its own rivers. In this case, China is not only using the river for its own selfish interests, and actually creating hazardous situations for human life and ecology, but through this pronouncement in the Global Times also reiterated its claim over Arunachal Pradesh, even when the issue at hand was of river water sharing and not of land territory claims per se. In each and every instance, water becomes a tool of China’s aggressive politics.


On the issue of hydrological data, in any case, what is received from China does not detail the place and the time of recording, thereby limiting India or Bangladesh’s scope for detecting any upstream diversion. It is not just India which is concerned about Chinese activities on the Brahmaputra. This month itself, Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Syed Muazzem said that Bangladesh is extremely concerned about Chinese dams being built on the Brahmaputra. Beyond the sheer volume of water in the Brahmaputra, which makes it the lifeline of India’s Northeast, the river is also important in the context of the volume of silt it brings along with it. Flowing downstream from the Himalayas, it carries nutrient rich silt and the annual flood cycle of the Brahmaputra helps it refertilise the plains in Assam and large parts of Bangladesh. Therefore, beyond livelihood, the Brahmaputra is directly important for agriculture as well.


In the absence of international agreements binding China to trans-boundary river water sharing, India’s options are limited. However, it is time that India starts treating water as a strategic asset, and while renegotiating treaties on hydrological data sharing, India at least puts forth a clause for payment post receipt of data, and the necessity of the data having important specifications such as time, date and place of recording. Beyond all of these, India needs to strengthen its own satellite systems enabling it to monitor upstream river conditions, significantly reducing the reliance on China which is clearly using water as a geopolitical tool of arm twisting.


(The author can be reached at or @Sriparnapathak on Twitter)


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.