China Turns Waterman. Weaponizes Waters of Brahmputra

Mayank Singh | May 23, 2020 06:42 PM
Centuries ago, Sun Tzu used the comparison between water and army as a metaphor. Today, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are facing the consequences of China’s weaponization of water. While the world is facing a Chinese-origin pandemic of gargantuan proportions, these countries are additionally dealing with the worst drought in living memory. The origin of this calamity is incidentally again China.
But aren’t droughts and floods natural phenomenon?
The mighty Mekong River has its origin in the Tibetan plateau and flows downstream into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. It is considered to be one of the most fertile rivers in the world and has resulted in these countries being known as the ‘Rice bowl of South East Asia.’ Mekong provides livelihood and sustenance to approximately 60 million people living in its lower basin. The inland waterways of the river make the region propitious for fisheries also.
Suddenly in late 2019, the Mekong began to grow dry. The Mekong River Commission, which has China only as “dialogue partner”, blamed insufficient rainfall during the rainy season with delayed arrival and early departure of monsoon rains and an El Nino effect as the reason.
The impact of the drought in the lower Mekong basin has been severe. Thailand, one of the world’s leading sugar exporters, is expected to produce up to 30 percent less sugar than in previous years. In Vietnam, the drying up of the Mekong has resulted in saltwater intrusion damaging rice fields. About 94,000 hectares of rice fields are expected to be affected because of saltwater intrusion across the Mekong river basin. The saltwater intrusion occurs when enough fresh river water is not available to push away salt water and sea water encroaches up the river. The damage arising from this saltwater intrusion could be long term.
But why blame China for this drought when the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, on a visit to Laos in February, admitted that China was also suffering from arid conditions and shared the pain of farmers in in the country.
So far, so good.
The statement of Wang, however, flies in the face of satellite imagery, which shows that China was not experiencing drought like conditions which it otherwise claimed to be. The headwaters of the Mekong at its origin in Tibet had abundant water as usual. It was just that with 11 dams China had constructed on the Mekong, it was conserving water in these reservoirs. China was using control of the upstream Mekong to parch the lower basin countries. Nothing else could explain normal volume of water in upstream Mekong in China, while downstream portion of the river drying up to the extent of visible cracked riverbeds.
In the past, both China and the downstream nations of Mekong had shared floods and droughts together.
Being a “dialogue partner”, the Mekong River Commission’s rule regarding member nation’s dam building project proposals being presented for discussion before the commission does not apply to China. Its dam building frenzy has therefore, gone unabated.
The disaster, unmistakably, is man-made.
Since the conquest of Tibet, which has the largest headwaters of major rivers flowing through South and South East Asia, China has unabashedly used water as a weapon, a geo-political tool for coercive diplomacy.
With its dam-building exercise, which has led to excess power production from the Mekong itself, China is depriving the river system of its natural flow and in effect, killing the river and its ecosystem in downstream countries. Today, the number of large dams in China are more than the dams in rest of the world put together. China is using water as an exclusive commodity, irrespective of the fact that dams have a damning effect on the downstream communities by changing the natural flood and drought cycle, thereby adversely affecting the ecosystem.
For India, weaponisation of water was evident in 2017, when at the height of the Doklam crisis, China refused to share hydrological data with it, which in turn resulted in unusual flooding in the Brahmaputra River in Assam. The fact that apart from Doklam, India had also refused to attend the first Belt and Road Initiative Summit in China thereby hurting Xi Jinping’s ego, was also not lost on anyone. This refusal to share data was in violation of two legally binding accords between the two countries. Incidentally, China shared this hydrological data with Bangladesh, while refusing to do so with India.
In 2018, water in the Siang River, which is one of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra, turned blackish grey just before it entered India. While the Chinese claimed an earthquake in Tibet had resulted in contamination of the waters, the deception was evident as the water in the Siang had turned dirty before the earthquake. The possibility of China re-routing portions of the Brahmaputra towards mainland China, which once appeared outrageous, does not look so anymore, given its recent unilateral coercive actions in the South China Sea and its flotilla of artificial islands. The threat to the Brahmaputra is real as China is already in the process of building dams over another tributary, the Lhasa River, turning it into numerous artificial lakes. The threat to India from China’s dam building adventure is grave as it receives more than half of all river waters originating from Tibet.
China, with its end justifying the means theory, has a history of retracting on agreements to suit its geopolitical ambitions. In the 1950s, Chou en-Lai beguiled Jawahar Lal Nehru with his “old maps” pretense as China displayed Indian territories in the western and eastern sector as their territories. The “old maps” were subsequently presented as fait accompli once China had gained requisite military and political strength. The 1962 politico-military disaster was an outcome of this chicanery.
India should not expect the standards it has displayed with Pakistan and the Indus Water Treaty. Notwithstanding three wars after the signing of the treaty and a permanent state of asymmetric or hybrid war emanating from Pakistan, India has not moved towards the abrogation of the treaty as a geopolitical tool. The unfairness of the Indus Water treaty towards India combined with the underutilisation of the share of water allocated to it has made Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan as one of the most groundwater depleted regions in the world.
China is uninhibitedly using dams as safe vaults to keep river waters as deposits to be encashed and used as a leverage to settle geopolitical disputes without firing a bullet, when the need arises. Their belief in Sun Tzu’s saying of “subduing the enemy without fighting as the acme of skill” is immense.
The world community cannot allow China and Xi Jinping to play around with environment any further. The time to pressurise them to give up their hegemonistic designs is now. Tomorrow might be too late.
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