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Article

Dilemmas in and Pathways to Transboundary Water Cooperation between China and India on the Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra River

by 1,2,*, 1,2 and 1,2
1
Institute of International River and Eco-security/Asian International Rivers Center, Yunnan University, Kunming 650091, China
2
Yunnan Key Lab of International Rivers and Transboundary Eco-security, Kunming 650091, China
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Water 2019, 11(10), 2096; https://doi.org/10.3390/w11102096
Received: 9 September 2019 / Revised: 4 October 2019 / Accepted: 7 October 2019 / Published: 8 October 2019
(This article belongs to the Section Water Resources Management, Policy and Governance)

Abstract

The Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra River is a hotspot for the discussions on regional security. The interactions on water between China and India are key to realizing water-related 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets in the basin. Using a series of secondary literature information, and the method of event studies, we created a timeline of the Sino-Indian relation events since the 1950s, analyzed the correlations among the contents, the duties by each side, the events of water cooperation, and the diplomatic events between them. We found the following dilemmas hamper water cooperation: (1) The scopes of, and steps towards, transboundary water cooperation are hampered by patchy Sino-Indian diplomatic relations; and (2) there is a lack of motivation for China to cooperate with India without benefits sharing, given that China has undertaken more duties and has often received negative feedback. However, we also found the following pathways toward improving water cooperation: (1) A national cooperation mechanism on transboundary rivers has been established, which may be beneficial for further water cooperation; and (2) a channel for interdisciplinary dialogue should be encouraged to bridge the disparate outlooks and improve interactions between policymakers and scientific experts.
Keywords: transboundary water cooperation; diplomatic relations; China; India; the Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra River transboundary water cooperation; diplomatic relations; China; India; the Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra River

1. Introduction

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river is one of the world’s richest basins with freshwater, and one of the future risk hotspots for transboundary water disputes [1,2,3,4]. The Brahmaputra River (BR) is the largest in the GBM system by annual runoff, and originates in China (where it is known as the Yaluzangbu, or the Tsangpo, or the Yarlung Zangbu), obtains five tributaries from Bhutan, flows through India (as the Brahmaputra) and Bangladesh (as the Jamuna), and finally empties into the Bay of Bengal [5] (pp. 64–80) (Figure 1). However, all of the riparian countries are under increasing pressures, due to global change, severe water scarcity, and rising demands from population growth [6,7]. As a result, water issue of the BR are becoming an important part of the political agenda and potential incentive for deepening historical conflicts, particularly between China and India, which may have broader implications on regional security in South Asia [8,9]. In recent years, the projects on water development (including the planning ones) both, in China and India, are concerned about a future water crisis, which have more or less affected the Sino-Indian relations [5,10,11,12,13].
To explore the status, and the intensity of, water cooperation between China and India over the Brahmaputra River Basin (BRB), we look at the evolution of cooperation since 1950s from hydropolitics and multi-track water diplomacy [14,15,16,17,18]. To evaluate current challenges in Sino-Indian water relations in BRB, we measure the progress of integrated water resources management (IWRM), the implementation through transboundary cooperation in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [19,20], combining with the water-related targets and indicators of SDG 6 [21].
From the processes and challenges of water cooperation between China and India in the BR, since 1950s, we identify that transboundary water cooperation plays an assisting role in Sino-Indian diplomacy, due to a long-term mistrust and territory dispute, China and India are unlikely to reach full implantation of IWRM of the SDGs in the BR. Further cooperation, such as interdisciplinary scientific dialogue channel in the BR would be promoted, based on the established national cooperation mechanism on water and on a hydrological information sharing. In Section 1 and Section 2, we raise the issue on Sino-Indian water cooperation in the BRB to partly respond to the hotspot during recent years, and introduce the materials and methods used in the analysis process. In Section 3, water volumes and populations, in each of the four riparian countries in the BRB, are calculated. Then we review Sino-Indian water cooperation, including the bilateral events that occurred from 1954 to 2018, the issues involving transboundary waters in diplomatic relations since 1997, the responsibilities taken by each of the two countries in water cooperation, and the average percentage of the BRB covered by operational arrangements. Section 4 discussed the importance and vulnerability of the BR, the water issues of the BR in China-India relations, and the views of the media. Section 5 summarizes the dilemmas involving, and pathways towards, water cooperation for the BR between the two countries.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Materials and Methods to Calculate Water and Population Distribution among the Riparian Countries

To explore the relative importance of the BR’s water resources to the riparian countries, and the significances of the BR’s water for China and India, we calculated the water distributions and populations among the four riparian countries, based on a range of primary and secondary sources. The mean annual runoff of the BR was calculated according to the observation discharge data at Bahadurabad (Bangladesh) in 1961–2011. The population in 2017 was used for Bhutan, which was released by the National Statistics Bureau of Bhutan [22]. For China, we totaled the number of people living in the watershed in 2017, according to the data from the Bureau of Statistics of Tibet Autonomous Region [23]. The 2017 populations of India, Bangladesh, and South Tibet (China)/Arunachal Pradesh (India)—the disputed area between China and India, were calculated by using data from the 2011 census, the population growth rates of the relative states in India, and the divisions in Bangladesh, as released separately by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation of India [24], and by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics [25], and the percentages of the areas in the watershed compared to the total areas of the states/divisions [26].
With respect to the lengths of the mainstream, drainage areas, and annual runoffs within the watershed, we calculated the measurements in China by using the relative data from the Department of Water Resources of Tibet Autonomous Region [27]. The annual runoff in Bhutan was the difference between the runoff from Bhutan to India [28], with the outflow from China to Bhutan [27]; while for Bangladesh, we used was the difference between the runoff at Bahadurabad and the runoff from India to Bangladesh [28]. The lengths of the mainstream and drainage areas, in Bhutan and in Bangladesh, were from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) [28]. The annual runoff in India was equal to the runoff from Indian to Bangladesh, minus the runoff from Bhutan to India [28], and from China to India [27]. The length of the mainstream and drainage area in India were identified from Datta and Singh [29] (pp.139–195). We also gave special consideration to the disputed area between China and India in the BRB, which is known as South Tibet (claimed by China) and Arunachal Pradesh (by India), as the volume of the water resource and the drainage area were double-counted by China and India. The annual runoff in this area is estimated by the assumption of water resources evenly distributed in the southern slope of the Himalaya Mountains.

2.2. Methods to Assess the Progress of Water Cooperation and IWRM Implementation in the BRB between China and India

To gain a better understanding of the developing process and the status of Sino-Indian water relations, we created a timeline of Sino-Indian water cooperations since 1954, and found that the well-developed period of bilateral water cooperation was in 2002–2015, based on governmental documents and literature review. We consulted the joint official documents since 1997, to gain a clearer understanding of the relationship between water cooperation and Sino-Indian relations. After collecting all the Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) and the relative implementation plans on the BR, signed by China and India since 2002, we identified the corresponding duties undertaken from each side. According to the articles from the MOUs, we gained a deeper understanding of the reality of Sino-Indian water cooperation.
To measure the progress of IWRM implementation in SDG 6, in the BRB between China and India, based on the contents of water cooperaton between China and India, and SDG Indicator 6.5.2 “proportion of transboundary basin area with an operational arrangement for water cooperation” [30] (pp. 18–20), we redefined the content of “transboundary basin area” in the study. This was the surface water catchment of the BRB located in China and India. The indicator was derived at the BRB level between China and India by the area of the surface water catchment, covered by an operational arrangement divided by the total area of the BRB in the two countries, which was then multiplied by 100 to obtain the percentage share. We then used the method of “typology of cooperation” [31,32] to evaluate the outcome of “operational arrangement” for Sino-Indian water cooperation.

3. Results

3.1. Water Resources Distribution in the BR Basin

From the calculations, we found the following: The mainstream of the BR has a total length of 2937 km; the total drainage area is around 514,300 km2; the mean annual runoff at Bahadurabad is 661.7 km3; and the total population in the BRB in 2017 was around 112 million (Table 1, Figure 1).
From the water distribution and population totals among the four countries in the BRB, we observed two important findings: (1) Water resources of the BRB are very rich, but their distribution between the riparian countries is quite uneven. China contributes about 46 percent of the total annual runoff and occupies over 60 percent of the drainage area, but its utilization is lower, and it has fewer people. The populations in Bangladesh and India occupy over 95% of the total. All of Bhutan is located within the BRB, and it has rich water resources and fewer people. (2) The issues around water and territory rights interweave between China and India in the BRB, which will potentially affect the water developing plans of both countries in the future. For example, the disputed area occupies 16% of the drainage area, has around 12% of annual runoff, and is home to around 1.6 million people.

3.2. China-India Water Cooperation

3.2.1. Water Cooperation Process Since 1950s

According to the timeline of Sino-Indian water cooperation since 1954 (Table 2), there were 82 agreements/treaties/joint declarations covering 13 fields signed between China and India from 1950 to 2015 [33,34], 13 of which concerned cooperation of transboundary waters. Water has clearly been one of the key issues in the diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Several points on the timeline are noteworthy:
  • In 1955, China began to provide the discharge data from three gauges on the mainstream of the Yaluzangbu River to India from 15 July to 15 October, as requested by the Prime Minister of India in 1954. In 1957, China provided hydrological information on rainfall, water level, and discharge of the above stations [35].
  • China stopped providing hydrological information to India from 1963 to 2001, after the border conflicts between China and India in 1959–1962.
  • An agreement between China and India on environmental cooperation was signed in 1993, after a bi-lateral trade agreement in 1983 and the gradual restoration of Sino-Indian relations.
  • In 2002, China and India signed the first MOU on the provision of hydrological information of the Yaluzangbu/BR, in response to India’s flooding concerns. For example, in June 2000, a flood killed 30 Indians and left 50,000 homeless, after a break in a natural dam formed by a landslide on a tributary of the Yaluzangbu River in Tibet. During 2002–2015, the China-India cooperation on transboundary rivers continued to develop, and a series of MOUs and corresponding implementation plans were signed for sharing hydrological data on the Yaluzangbu/BR and the Langqen Zangbo/Sutlej River, during the flood seasons. The China-India Expert Level Mechanism on Trans-Border Rivers (ELM) was established in 2006.
  • However, in 2017, the provision of hydrological information by China to India, and the annual meeting of the ELM, were halted [36] following the 73-day Doklam standoff between China and India, and after hydrological stations were damaged by floods or undergoing technology upgrades [37,38].
  • In 2018, the top leaders of each country met informally, which led to a cooling down of tensions [39]. This resulted in the signing of an MOU and an implementation plan on the provision of hydrological information for the Yaluzangbu/BR, and the 11th meeting of the ELM was held in Hangzhou (China).
As the timeline above shows, cooperation on transboundary water developed at an early stage, following the establishment of modern diplomatic relations between China and India, and continues to be an important issue in Sino-Indian relations. Transboundary water cooperation has developed during friendly periods, while territory disputes has led to disruptions. Until now, cooperation on hydrological data sharing has been the objective, while further cooperation has been incremental.

3.2.2. Issues on Transboundary Rivers in Sino-Indian Diplomatic Relations

According to the well-developed bilateral water cooperation in 2002–2015 and the joint official documents since 1997, we found the issues on transboundary rivers’ cooperation between China and India were involved in (Table 3).
The following results can be summarized from the above documents:
  • Issues involving Sino-Indian transboundary rivers have been a concern, and cooperation has been facilitated by both governments since 2003. This followed communication between the ministries of water resources was supported by the Protocol on Cooperation between China and India in 1997 and the MOU on the provision of flood season hydrologic information by China to India was signed in 2002. As the former Prime Minister of China Wen Jiabao [40] said, “to properly preserve, utilize, and manage the trans-border rivers is our shared responsibility. We are ready to further improve the joint working mechanism.” The two sides agreed to promote and enhance further cooperation and strengthen communication on the utilization and protection of transboundary rivers.
  • Cooperation on transboundary rivers is being extended, for example, by the provision of hydrologic information of one river to two rivers, from information sharing on emergency management and other issues, and by communication between the two ministries of water resources, and the establishment of ELM. Water cooperation between the two countries is being developed in the background of China-India relations; as the Prime Minister of China Li Keqiang said [41], “in the larger interest of China-India relations, as well as the humanitarian spirit, we have been providing assistance to the Indian side in terms of sharing flood-season hydrological information and managing emergency.”
  • The value and achievements of transboundary river cooperation have been recognized. From the Chinese perspective, the ongoing cooperation on transboundary rivers has contributed positively to building mutual understanding and trust, and has proved valuable in flood forecasting and mitigation. The Indian side has expressed deep appreciation for data being made available that has helped ensure the safety and security of its population along the rivers, and for the assistance and efforts in emergency management by the Chinese side.

3.2.3. Duties Undertaken by China and by India in Water Cooperation

From 2002 to 2018, there were four MOUs on the “Provision of Hydrological Information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River in Flood Season by China to India”, and one MOU on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-Border Rivers, signed by Ministry of Water Resources, China and the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (the former “Ministry of Water Resource”), India (MWR-RDGR). Each of the MOUs on the provision of hydrological information includes 11 or 13 articles, remain in force for a period of 5 years, and contain the following major provisions.
  • Duties of the Chinese side: To provide hydrological information on water level, discharge, and rainfall of Nugesha, Yangcun, and Nuxia stations at 8:00 and 20:00 (Beijing Time) from 1 June to 15 October each year to the Indian side; to provide hydrological information when water levels exceed mutually agreed levels during the non-flood season; to provide water level, discharge, and rainfall data of earlier years (10 years) during flood season with respect to the three stations; to provide documents relating to the catchment area of the Yaluzangbu River and the historical information as available on the occurrence of floods and natural disasters; to provide information on any abnormal rise/fall in the water level/discharge and other information which might lead to sudden floods on the basis of existing monitoring and data collection facilities. Among the above duties undertaken by the Chinese side, the duty on the provision of hydrological information of earlier years was cancelled from 2008, and another on the data provision period was changed from 15 May instead of 1 June to 15 October, since 2014.
  • Duties of the Indian side: to provide the Chinese side information regarding data utilization in flood forecasting and mitigation, since the 2008 MOU.
  • Duties of both sides: To identify the agreed water levels during the non-flood season; to identify costs involved and discuss the modalities for apportioning the expenditures; to identify the implementing agencies of each; and to guide the implementing agencies to discuss and finalize the Implementation Plan after signing of the MOU.
Implementation plans for “Provision of Hydrological Information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River in Flood Season by China to India” were signed in 2002, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2018 by the Bureau of Hydrology and Water Resources, Tibet Autonomous Region, China and the Central Water Commission, under the MWR-RDGR. Among them, the implementation plan in 2014 replaced the 2013 plan after China agreed to provide the data two weeks early, starting on 15 May instead of 1 June. The implementation plans remain valid duration the term of the corresponding MOUs, and they refine the articles of the MOUs for implementation so that the duties of each side can be identified more clearly. The following includes some of the key details.
  • Duties of the Chinese side: To provide hydrological information of water level, discharge and rainfall of Nugesha, Yangcun, and Nuxia stations, within 30 minutes after 08:00 and 20:00 (Beijing time) every day, from 1 June to 15 October during 2002–2013, and from 15 May to 15 October, since 2014; to provide hydrological information on water levels and discharge if the water levels of the above-mentioned stations are close to or are reaching warning levels during the non-flood season; to conduct a trial provision of hydrological information at 12:00 (Beijing time) on 28 May, during 2002–2013, and on 12 May since 2014, in order to guarantee the timely provision of hydrological information; the rating curve of water level and discharge, with observed discharge data from each of the stations, use this information in the next year, in order to guarantee the precision of the hydrological information; to transmit hydrological information to the Indian side directly, in the form of text, in accordance with the agreed e-mail addresses via the Internet and; to send the data again if the Indian side does not receive the data and informs the Chinese side in time. For 2002, to provide the pre-flood section data of the above-mentioned stations above the maximum flood level of 0.5 m (this was not included in the later implementation plans).
  • Duties of the Indian side: To reply in a timely manner to the Chinese trial provision on 28 May or 12 May; to inform the Chinese side by e-mail or fax immediately, if the Indian side does not receive the data; to transfer payments for the provision of the hydrological information and the operation of the hydrological station at the end of every April, within the period of validity of the implementation plans, since 2010; to provide information regarding data utilization in flood forecasting and mitigation; to provide information of the hydrological station of India, which is on the mainstream and close by China’s Nuxia station, including the station’s name, latitude, and longitude, and type of data observed, since 2010 and; to submit other requirements through diplomatic channels for the duration of the hydrologic information provision of 2002, which is not included in the later plans.
  • Duties of both sides: To comply with the corresponding MOUs; to agree to the warning water levels for the relevant stations in non-flood season; if necessary, to dispatch hydrological experts to each other’s countries, in order to conduct study tours according to the principle of reciprocity, after mutual consultation through diplomatic channel, and in order to ensure the normal provision of hydrological information.
Our findings on the present condition of water cooperation between China and India on the BR, from the analysis of MOUs and corresponding implementation plans, are summarized as follows: (1) Sino-Indian water cooperation in the BRB has been developed, but its scope is narrow and progress is slow. (2) The Chinese side is undertaking more duties than the Indian side, in order to maintain and develop cooperation, but this is unequitable. It is difficult for China to share water cooperation benefits with India on the BR. (3) Two different administrative systems in China and India have been established, in accordance with the MOUs and implementation plans, for decision-making and implementation. The Chinese system is a top-down system, organized by the Ministry of Water Resources (Beijing) and the Bureau of Hydrology and Water Resources, Tibet Autonomous Region (Lhasa). The Indian system is a parallel system of the Ministry of Water Resources (New Delhi) and the Central Water Commission (New Delhi). This system is sometimes not optimal for the reasonable and adequate dissemination and utilization of information. (4) Payments by India to China are mutually agreed, and would start from the 2010 Implementation Plan, to cover the cost of hydrological data and the operation of the hydrological stations. However, this is not an information purchase agreement. Before 2010, the Chinese provision of hydrological information was free to India.

3.2.4. Roles of the ELM in Transboundary Water Cooperation

Based on the Joint Declaration between China and India in 2006, the ELM was established, and the “Work Regulations of the ELM” was determined at the meeting of the ELM in 2008. According to the Work Regulations, the ELM’s work scope, includes “to discuss interaction and cooperation on the provision of flood season hydrological data, emergency management, and other issues regarding trans-border rivers as agreed.” The responsibilities of the ELM are to “examine and discuss the issues and submit appropriate recommendations to respective government for decisions.” The communication channel of the ELM “would be through diplomatic channels.” The working procedures of the ELM include: “Meet once every year; the agenda of the meeting shall be identified before the meeting, and either side should not disclose the information or the Minutes of the meeting to a Third Party unless agreed by two sides”.
Based on interviews of experts and officials in Beijing, the operation of the ELM can be summarized as follows. (1) The ELM has held 11 meetings since its establishment, and only one annual meeting cancelled, in 2017; (2) normal issues discussed in the agendas include reviewing previous bilateral cooperation and utilization reports on the provision of hydrological information, and discussion of the MOUs and the relevant implementation plans; (3) other issues agreed on by both sides (but without detailed information) include strengthening cooperation, exchanges on the situation of the projects on the Yaluzangbu/BR, notification on blockages of the mainstream, and so on.
In general, the roles of the ELM in transboundary water cooperation are as follows: (1) The ELM is the normal channel and a technical decision supporting organization between China and India to facilitate transboundary water cooperation; and (2) the ELM has a limited working scope, and its effects are restricted by the Sino-Indian diplomatic relations.

3.2.5. Progress of IWRM Implementation between China and India in the BRB

In calculating the SDG Indicator 6.5.2, the basin area with an operational arrangement is 191,240 km2 at Nuxia station, the lowest station on the Yaluzangbu River, sharing hydrological data from China to India, and the total area of the BRB within the two countries is 436,800 km2, so the value of the indicator is 43.8%. The result shows that there is a medium-low implementation of IWRM in the BRB between China and India, but from the above single-track information, sharing from China to India, the degree of IWRM implementation would be much lower than the calculated value.
“Operational” water cooperation between China and India is determined by a measure of the type of cooperation. The types of cooperation [31,32] include:
  • Non-cooperation: no formal or informal cooperative arrangement.
  • Preliminary cooperation: riparian countries have expressed the intent for cooperation, but have no cooperation either, substantively or procedurally.
  • Issues cooperation: a cooperative arrangement exists between riparian countries to address a specific issue(s).
  • Emerging comprehensive cooperation: Riparian countries are developing or have recently developed a cooperative arrangement, to establish a legal framework, address multiple issues, and include coordination mechanisms.
  • Continuing comprehensive cooperation: Riparian countries have developed a cooperative arrangement for an ongoing legal framework for shared management of the basin, and have continued to collaborate to address multiple issues related to the shared waters and solutions include shared benefits.
According to the types of cooperation, and the current process and the issues of Sino-Indian water cooperation, we can recognize that the efforts of cooperation between China and India is in the ongoing progress from issue cooperation (data sharing) to emerging comprehensive cooperation (MOUs, the ELM, emergency management, etc.,). However, the cooperative progress is developing slowly, and interrupted from time-to-time.

4. Discussion

The BR is an important transboundary river in South Asia, and its water resources are especially important to its four riparian countries, three of which are the most populous in the world. Water resources in the BRB are anticipated to worsen under climate change and increasing water demands, due to population growth and economic development. The relations between China and India, including on transboundary waters, have a core impact on regional peace and water security in the BRB. The above analysis indicates that the Sino-Indian transboundary water cooperation has a long history, a formal cooperative mechanism has been established, and both of governments praise the cooperative efforts. However, it also faces some constraints during implementation. We conducted a review of the literature on water issues in the BR and among the riparian countries, especially on conflict or cooperation between China and India, in order to gain a more detailed understanding of Sino-Indian water cooperation in the BR.

4.1. The BR’s Water Issues Concerned by People in Different Fields

The river basins in the Himalayan region and over the Tibetan Plateau are hotspots for studying the effects of climate change [42], which will increase water vulnerability over the coming decades [43,44,45]. In the BR, around 30% of the annual runoff comes from the meltwater of Himalayan glaciers [12]. The BR itself accounts for 29% of the total runoff of the Indian rivers. About 44% of its total hydropower potential is key to India’s River Linking Project implementation, most of which is underdeveloped [46]. For Bangladesh, the BR contributes about 67% of the total annual flow of its rivers [26]. As the lowest riparian country, Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to the actions of the upstream countries [7]. Bhutan’s economic performance depends heavily on hydropower development and exports to India for their contributions to government revenue and GDP [47,48]. However, the country is facing seasonal droughts and floods, as well as environmental problems caused by hydropower construction [12]. The BR and its tributaries, which independently cross the border flow through several important economic regions of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, which has less developed water resources, three run-off-river power stations on the mainstream of the Yaluzangbu River have been constructed or under construction.
The GBM delta is particularly vulnerable to climate change, sea-level rise, subsidence, and land cover change [49,50,51]. The uncertainty and variabilities of the water resource caused by climate change are anticipated to intensify the vulnerability of Bangladesh to floods and waterlogging [52]. Bangladesh is vulnerable to floods, water deficits, and riverbank erosion [53,54,55,56]. The increased flows predicted to occur during monsoon seasons suggest that there will be increased flooding in the future, while drought and the increasing gap between water availability and demand in the dry season are a serious threat to local livelihoods and economic development [57,58,59]. A critical issue in the BR is how to store water in the rainy season, to both mitigate flood damage and make the water available through the whole year [60]. The people in the BRB face a number of challenges, including poverty, groundwater over-abstraction, political unrest, and climate change [5].
From the above studies, we found that the engineers and scientists tend to see the uncertainty and changes of the water resources in the BRB as most problematic, whereas sociologists and observers tend to focus on the problematic features among the riparian countries’ activities. The problems on transboundary waters in the BRB, faced by all riparian countries are clear. However, the approaches to problems resolution do not find up to now, except the intent of transboundary cooperation.

4.2. Transboundary Water Cooperation and China-India Relations

Considering the broader context would deepen our understanding on transboundary water cooperation [61]. Socioeconomic changes, such as the growing population, are increasing the pressure on resources and creating issues of water scarcity, food production, and water-related risks in South Asia [62]. A security dilemma exists between China and India, and water issues could be a particular pressure point or a catalyst in their relations [63]. Water cooperation over the BR is harder to achieve when the mix of issues includes territorial disputes, mistrust, long-standing grievances, water competition, and climate change [5,10,64,65,66,67,68,69]. The BR is the transboundary river that has sparked the greatest tensions between India and China, with both countries acting as the upstream hydro-hegemon/superpower toward their neighboring countries [12,70,71]. India has plans for building more than 160 dams on the BR and its tributaries, including the 3000-MW Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh (South Tibet in China). China considers India’s dam building plans to be a threat to its own water rights and a deliberate attempt to occupy the disputed territory and to complicate border negotiations. Whereas, India considers challenges from China’s upstream activities, such as dam construction as a means of establishing users’ rights to the river waters [72,73]. Sino-Indian water conflicts could potentially intensify and perhaps erupt [74]. The management or mismanagement of disputes over the BR may portend whether water war will be one of the major international relations challenges of the twenty-first century [13]. Agreements among riparian countries can promote trust and cooperation and reduce international tensions [43,75], but it is difficult for India and China to reach a water-sharing agreement unless the territorial dispute is resolved [67]. Hydrologic information for the BR has been provided by China to India, which is utilized in formulating flood forecasts by the Central Water Commission [76]. Many of the agreements on transboundary rivers, between China and its other neighbors, are more substantial than the limited pacts between China and India on the BR, largely because China has no border disputes with those countries [12].
The above results show that there is likely no smooth path in developing water cooperation on the BR between China and India, given that complications exist in relation to the disputed territory and long-term historical distrust. Water disputes between China and India would further increase tension and vulnerability along the BR. The prospect of water cooperation between China and India appears uncertain and gloomy.

4.3. Views Presented through the Media on Sino-Indian Water Relations in the BRB

Differing views have been expressed by government officials in the media, and through other outlets concerning water relations between China and India. From a Chinese perspective, the former Prime Minister of China Wen Jiabao [40] stated that “China takes seriously India’s concern about the trans-border rivers. All the upstream development activities by China will be based on scientific planning and study and will take into consideration of both upstream and downstream interests.” Prime Minister Li Keqiang [41] reiterated that “The Chinese side understands India’s concerns on trans-border rivers. We are ready to enhance cooperation with India in this regard, and strengthen communication on the utilization and protection of trans-border rivers.” In 2014, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson [77] stated that “The Chinese side is always responsible in developing and utilizing trans-border rivers. We lay equal emphasis on development and protection, and take into full consideration the influence on downstream areas. China’s dams being planned will not affect flood prevention and ecology of downstream areas”.
From the Indian perspective, the External Affair Ministry of India noted that, “government carefully monitors all development on the BR. As a lower riparian state with considerable established user rights to the waters of the River, India has urged China to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas” [78]. Concerns have been expressed that Chinese has attempted to store or divert water of the BR, which then results in reduced river flow to India and further stress water resources. Chinese dams could be used to disrupt the flow of water into India in the event of a conflict, or to be used as a form of diplomatic leverage [64,79]. Some have argued that China’s activities, particularly plans to dam and divert water, could help China to claim water user rights, and that India should move quickly to establish its own user rights [11,80]. Chinese hydropower may disrupt water supplies in India, India “will monitor the situation and will convey its concerns to Beijing, if required” [81]. Two officials (Uma Bharti and Amarjit Singh) of India’s Water Resources Ministry have announced plans to build two dams on the BR, in a bid to establish India’s riparian rights over the use of water from the transboundary BR, and one of the two dams is in the disputed area [82]. China failed to share hydrological data with India at a time when severe floods had ravaged large parts of Assam and other areas and the Doklam standoff happened [36].
From these views, it is evident that some Indians believe that Chinese activities, involving water development on the BR, will have a negative influence on India and that India could establish a priority right on transboundary waters utilization, through water development before China does. These views could possibly hurt the Chinese willing to participate with the India on transboundary water cooperation because previous efforts have not been accepted.

5. Conclusions

This paper demonstrates the evolution of Sino-Indian relations from 1954 to 2018, and current dilemmas of water cooperation over the BRB. Based on the perspectives of hydropolitics, of multi-level water diplomacy and the progress of IWRM implementation of SDGs, we identify several main challenges between China and India. Firstly, transboundary water cooperation at a very narrow scope, and with slow steps, play only an assisting role in Sino-Indian diplomatic relations, due to various territory disputes and mutual distrust. Secondly, there is a lack of motivation for China to develop further transboundary waters cooperation with India without benefits sharing. In fact, during the present cooperation India often demands to transfer more duties on China and spreads negative views on water cooperation that has been projected by the media. Thirdly, it is difficult for China and India to reach the SDG water targets in the BR, based on a lower degree of IWRM implementation and an unstable cooperative outcome, at present. Fourthly, a national official cooperation mechanism on transboundary waters, between China and India, has already been established, but a set of multi-level cooperative tracks are needed to support Sino-Indian water diplomacy. An interdisciplinary dialogue channel in the BR is underdeveloped and must be encouraged and enhanced, in order to bridge disparate outlooks and improve interactions between policymakers and the scientific community, by involving specialists from Chinese and Indian research institutes, in available water resources changes under global change, water resources utilization and planning, disaster management, poverty alleviation and further economic development.

Author Contributions

Y.F. conceived and designed the research, and contributed to the writing of the paper; W.W. and J.L. participated in interviews, documents collection and drawing map.

Funding

This research was funded by the Natural Science Foundation of China-International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (NSFC-ICIMOD) Joint Research Program (No. 41661144044), the National Key R&D Program of China (No. 2016YFA0601601), and the Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 41701626).

Acknowledgments

Thanks for information and documents supporting from Xuan Ji to calculate the annual runoff of the BR at Bahadurabad, Yugang Huang and Jie Sun to provide some insights on Chinese-Indian water cooperation, and the reports on general China-India relations by Collaborative Innovation Center for Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Figure 1. Map of the Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra River Basin.
Figure 1. Map of the Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra River Basin.
Water 11 02096 g001
Table 1. Basic information of the Brahmaputra River Basin (BRB) among the riparian countries and the disputed area.
Table 1. Basic information of the Brahmaputra River Basin (BRB) among the riparian countries and the disputed area.
Countries/Disputed AreaLength of the Mainstream/kmDrainage Area/103 km2Annual Runoff/km3Population/Million (2017)
China2057323.4307.11.8
Bhutan038.471.60.8
India918195158.650.8
Bangladesh24039.1124.456.8
South Tibet (China)/Arunachal Pradesh (India)27881.680.51.6
Total2937514.3661.7111.8
Table 2. China-India cooperation process on transboundary water.
Table 2. China-India cooperation process on transboundary water.
YearEventsCooperation on Transboundary Water
1950Diplomatic ties established in 1950; the prime ministers visited each other in 1954.Provisions of discharge data in 1955, and of hydrologic information (discharge, rainfall, and water level) in 1957.
1959Border conflicts in 1959–1962.In 1963, China stopped the provision of hydrologic information.
1984Agreement on trade in 1984. Indian prime minister visited China in 1988.In 1993, agreement on environmental cooperation signed, along with gradual restoration of Sino-Indian relations
1997Protocol on CooperationIn 2002, MOU and the Implementation Plan on the Yaluzangbu/BR.
2003Declaration on the Principles of Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation in 2003; Joint Declaration in 2005MOU in 2005 and Implementation Plan in 2008. The Expert Level Mechanism on Trans-border Rivers (ELM) established in 2006, and the Work Regulation in 2008. MOU in 2008 and Implementation plan in 2010.
2010Joint CommuniqueMOU in 2010 and Implementation Plan in 2011 on the Langqen Zangbo/Sutlej River.
2013Joint Declaration; Agreement on Border Defence Cooperation.MOU in 2013 and the Implementation Plans upon the Yaluzangbu/BR in 2013 and in 2014. MOU on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers in 2013.
2015Joint DeclarationIn 2015, MOU upon the Langqen Zangbo/Sutlej River.
201773-day Doklam standoffIn 2017, provision of hydrological information and annual meeting of China-India expert level mechanism stopped.
2018Informal summit of the top leadersIn 2018, MOU and Implementation Plan upon the Yaluzangbu/BR; the 11th meeting of the ELM held; China notified of emergency information on a landslide on the mainstream to India.
Table 3. Issues in cooperation on transboundary rivers in the bilateral official documents.
Table 3. Issues in cooperation on transboundary rivers in the bilateral official documents.
YearDocumentCooperation Intentions and Achievements
1997Protocol on CooperationTo facilitate exchange of information between the respective ministries.
2003Declaration on the Principles of Relations and CooperationTo work towards exchange of flood season hydrological data on common rivers as agreed.
2005Joint DeclarationTo cooperate in the exchange of flood season hydrological information on transboundary rivers agreed. The two sides expressed their satisfaction with the signing of a MOU on hydrological information provision.
2006Joint DeclarationTo set up an expert-level mechanism to discuss cooperation on trans-border rivers as agreed between them. The ongoing provision of hydrological data has proved valuable in flood forecasting and mitigation.
2008A Common Version for the 21st CenturyAn example of how cooperation on trans-border rivers since 2002 has contributed positively to building mutual understanding and trust. The Indian side highly appreciates the assistance extended by China on the provision of flood season hydrological data, which has assisted India in ensuring the safety and security of its population in the regions along these rivers.
2010Joint CommuniqueTo promote and enhance cooperation in the field of trans-border rivers. The two sides noted the good cooperation in the field of trans-border rivers. The Indian side appreciated the flood-season hydrological data and the assistance in emergency management provided by China.
2013Joint DeclarationTo strengthen further cooperation on trans-border rivers. To cooperate through the ELM on provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest. India expressed appreciation to China for providing flood-season hydrological data and the assistance in emergency management.
2013Joint Declaration on Future Development Vision of Strategic Cooperative PartnershipTo further strengthen cooperation, within the ELM, and work together on provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest. Deeply appreciated the resources and efforts by China in making available data on and emergency management of the trans-border rivers. Welcomed the signing of a MOU on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers.
2014Joint Declaration on Building a Closer Partnership for DevelopmentWithin the ELM, to cooperate on hydrological data provision, emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest. The Indian side appreciated the flood-season hydrological data and the assistance in emergency management provided by the Chinese side.
2015Joint DeclarationTo cooperate on provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest, within the ELM. The Indian side appreciated the flood-season hydrological data and the assistance in emergency management provided by the Chinese side.
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