Lessons from the China-India MoU on the Brahmaputra

Lessons from the China-India MoU on the Brahmaputra

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Mostafa Kamal Majumder
Does the latest memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed on the Brahmaputra River by China and India recognise rights of lower riparian countries on its waters? ‘No’, say Indian water experts as against the drum beating on what has been projected in the Indian news media as an achievement.The MoU was signed on 23 October last. It followed four previous bilateral instruments existing between the two countries which were:
a)    the Working Regulations of the Expert Level Mechanism on Trans-border Rivers between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India of April 2008;
b)    the MOU between the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Water Resources, the  Republic of India upon Provision of Hydrological Information of the Langqen Zangbo/Sutlej River in Flood Season by China to India of December 2010;
c)    the MOU between the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China  and the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India upon Provision of Hydrological Information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River in Flood  Season by China to India of May 2013;
d)    and the Joint Statement between the People’s  Republic of China and the Republic of India of May 2013
According to information received in Dhaka the terms of the 23 October, 2013 MoU were:
* The two sides recognised that trans-border rivers and related natural resources and the environment are assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries.
* Both sides agreed that cooperation on trans-border rivers will further enhance mutual strategic trust and communication as well as strengthen the strategic and cooperative partnership. The two sides appreciated the role and importance of the Expert Level Mechanism on Trans-border Rivers between China and India.
* The Indian side expressed appreciation to China for providing flood-season hydrological data and the assistance in emergency management.
* The Chinese side agreed to extend the data provision period of the Yalusangbu/Brahmaputra River, which was agreed upon in the MOU between the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India upon Provision of Hydrological Information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River in Flood Season by  China to India of May 2013 from 2014, that is to start from May 15th instead of June 1st to October 15th of the relevant year. The two sides shall implement this in accordance with related Implementation Plan. The Indian side expressed appreciation to the Chinese side in this regard.
* The two sides agreed to further strengthen cooperation on trans-border rivers, cooperate through the existing Expert Level Mechanism on provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest.
This Memorandum of Understanding has come into force upon signature and can be amended and modified with mutual agreement.
Water experts in India expressed the view that a media hype that followed the signing of the MoU terming the same as an achievement was ‘misplaced and misleading, but there is an interesting sign of hope’.
In the words of former Indian Irrigation secretary, now famous as water expert and activist, Ramaswamy Iyer, ‘…it is difficult to see anything significant in the India-China MoU on rivers, apart from something about information on floods.’
Mr Iyer in a written note has said, the recognition that “trans- border rivers and related natural
resources and the environment are assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries” is hardly earth-shaking. ‘I suppose that one should be grateful that China recognises
the existence of riparian countries other than itself, but the recognition by itself imposes no commitment on China.’
In his opinion, ‘the words “and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest” mean precious little. There was nothing to prevent India (or China) from raising issues of interest to it, and once an issue is raised by one side, the other side has to say something in reply. This did not require an MoU, he says.
Again, Mr Iyer says, “exchanging views” does not mean a convergence. Divergent views can also be ‘exchanged”. India can say “we are worried about your projects” and China can answer “there is nothing to worry about” and go on with its projects. That would constitute an exchange of views!
His conclusion is more blunt, ‘I am surprised that anyone should consider this MoU a great achievement or a ‘breakthrough’. What was needed was a commitment to provide advance
information to India about project planning (with full technical details), prior consultation with India, due consideration of India’s concerns, and an assurance of no harm to India. I don’t see any of this. Can one take the view that the agreement to strengthen cooperation on transborder rivers implies all this? I doubt it.’
The latest MoU on the Brahmaputra between India and China is of great relevance to Bangladesh which is lowest riparian country of the eastern Himalayan river systems and is at the receiving end of all decisions made and actions taken at the upper reaches in India, Bhutan, Nepal and China.
Needless to say, none of the prerequisites mentioned by Mr. Iyer are there in water talks between our largest any virtually only neighbour – India. The 30-year treaty on the Ganges has no provision for the Indian side to provide advance information to Banglaldesh about project planning in the upper catchment of the river, prior consultation and due consideration to Bangladesh’s concerns. Neither Bangladesh has any say nor is India obliged to ensure that projects implemented at upstream do not affect the flow of water down to the Farakka point where water sharing takes place. Thus former Indian High Commissioner Pinak Ranjan Chakravarti aptly said, those who raise voice against shortfall in the share of water do not understand the treaty itself. Adequate share of water is dependent on its sufficient availability at the Farakka point. In other words nobody guarantees water availability, and Bangladesh has neither any access to information on projects implemented at upper catchments nor any say on ensuring a certain quantum water flow into her territory.
The same thing applies to the talks regarding the Teesta on which many water diversion structures have already been constructed at upper reaches. In the state of Sikkim alone there are at least six structures. Teesta waters diverted through hilly tunnels are being used for hydropower generation in the state of Sikkim. Indian water activist and writer Anjal Prakash told a recent dialogue in Dhaka he is not sure about how much water of the Teesta would ultimately remain available for sharing after Bangladesh and India signs a treaty on the river. Water negotiators here still concentrate on percentage of water that would be shared at a border point without a clear vision on the rivers’ upstream and that available must be adequate not only for some services but also to keep the Teesta alive in the Bangladesh part.
Similar shortcomings in negotiations are visible also in respect of the proposed Tipaimukh Dam which has been opened up for discussion only after the big upper riparian neighbour has brought to the implementation stage before studying its impacts at downstream.
Bangladesh’s water diplomacy still falls short of the realisation that the bulk of the country’s landmass is the creation of rivers with silt and sand carried from upper catchments. The rivers sustain life and livelihoods here. Any unsustainable interference in these natural systems is bound to affect the environment, ecology, life and livelihoods in this most densely populated country of the world.
If the rivers die or are killed, and the life and livelihoods get disturbed their impacts are bound to be felt not only here but also on our neighbourhoods.
Environmental refugees that would be created as a result would be difficult to contain within the confines of boundaries of Bangladesh no matter how high the barbed wire fences are at the borders. This is realised by water experts and environmentalists in India, but not by the policy and decision makers who are yet to be adequately sensitised on sustainable development issues and problems.
Yet there are important lessons to be learnt on how India has been dealing with the Brahmaputra water issue with China, and has created as many five instruments, the latest one though not delivering much now but holding promise of a sustainable treaty in future. This also gives us a scope to compare how a lower riparian having a relative disadvantage of power inequity deals with a powerful upper riparian.
There is no alternative but ultimately to come an understanding by all concerned that as natural systems rivers cannot be diverted or divided at political borders without jeopardising their existence. The rivers will not be able to render their ecosystem services if they cannot flow from their points of origin to the sea through their floodplains, that reinforce their streams, because of unsustainable interventions.
(A journalist of international repute, Mostafa Kamal Majumder is the Editor of GreenWatch, Dhaka)

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