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The paucity of water resources in India

Krishna Kavita Meegama

The Indian subcontinent’s population of 1.5 billion is growing at 1.7 percent a year. An Indian gets 1,730 cubic metres of fresh water a year (global average is 8,209 cubic metres). The shrunken Himalayan glaciers will reduce the Indus flow by 8 percent and an eventual 20 percent reduction in the total available fresh water in the next 20 years. Most of our headwaters originate in the Tibetan Plateau, especially the Indus and the Brahmaputra (as also Sutlej). Given that China now controls the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which the Government of India has officially accepted as a part of the People’s Republic of China in 2004, we now have no recourse if and when the Chinese decide to divert the waters to its arid north or to build the largest dam in the world of 540 MW (twice as big as the Three Gorges Dam) to tap into the hydropower at Mount Namcha Barwa (where the Brahmaputra swerves sharply and drops 8000 ft to enter Arunachal Pradesh) generating 38,000 MW of energy. It is no surprise that territorial dispute with China re-started in 2006 along with plans to divert and build on the Great Bend.

By recognising Tibet as a part of China we have given up strategic rights to fight for our waters originating there, we will now have to deal very delicately with China and cannot afford to cause anger, since we have no treaty with it regarding water-sharing. Our economic growth depends on having access to waters for industrialisation and for the well-being of our people. Unless we engage with China, which we fail to do despite knowing how imperative it is, we cannot hope to convince them to stop diversion of the Brahmaputra. Even on the matters of dam building, it is essential that there is joint management of resources.

As co-members of BRICS and SCO, we should leverage on our similarities with the other member nations and concentrate on how we can build together as an alternative to the European Union. We should work on our futures as economic trading partners needing one another to survive than in playing a game of one-upmanship to usurp the other in the international arena. India’s standing too, in the world order will depend on how it can squeeze itself out of the mess it has created for itself over the years by refusing to see the truth about Tibet, the importance of Arunachal, the need to talk to China instead of running away from a confrontation or being belligerent for the wrong reasons. China would be happy to engage with a global power that does not kowtow to the West, unlike now where it looks at India as America’s proxy in the region.

India is already facing domestic water struggles due to excessive population growth, industrialisation, siltation, global warming and glacier melt. To China’s advantage, it is unlikely to be presented with a united opposition since all its downstream states are involved in internecine water conflicts of their own. China faces acute water shortage of 25 percent by 2030. 6000 lakes have dried up & the Yellow River is 30 percent dead, this has lead to desertification. Given this grim scenario, diversion is the only way out. Although with 10 major rivers flowing from it to 11 countries with none flowing into it, it has control of international waters. Any reduction in the flow of waters due to diversion or because of climate change will pose a serious challenge for Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and India as also the proposed large dams on the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) which are being built callously on seismic zones, which in the event of an earthquake at such altitudes can easily flood states of Arunachal and/or Assam.

According to World Watch Institute, since 1965, the water table in Beijing has fallen by about 59 meters or nearly 200 feet. In 1999, Jiang Zemin, then China’s paramount leader, announced xibu da kaifa, or the Great Western Extraction, which would transfer huge volumes of water from Tibet into the Yellow River. The politburo and 118 Chinese generals leant their support to the project, which included the Shuo-tian (reverse flow) canal as the solution to chronic water shortages. B G Verghese of Centre for Policy Research, says fears of diversion of water are “highly exaggerated” because the difficult terrain makes it all but impossible to do this. Colonel K P Gautam of IDSA says “India should negotiate with China. We need data on the quantum of water flow in the Brahmaputra, on the melting of glaciers.” Former water secretary Ramaswamy Iyer agrees that there is a chasm where there should be formal agreement. Until some years ago, water did not even figure in talks between India and China.

Previously India has not paid sufficient attention to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization but the region represented by the SCO countries is strategically vital for India. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Rise of a New Global Order, writer Martin Jacques sounds a wake-up call for India: engage China or prepare to endure its hegemony.

 Krishna Kavita Meegama worked as a Journalist, TV anchor, Filmmaker prior to being a Language and Cultural Instructor. Currently on a sabbatical, she is studying the Upanishads in their original Sanskrit at a Gurukulam.


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