Frequent changes in India-China bilateral ties have affected their water-sharing arrangements. In 2017, during a 73-day military standoff between Indian and Chinese soldiers at the Doklam trijunction, China stopped sharing water data with India on the Brahmaputra River, saying that the interruption was due to technical upgrades at water stations in the upper riparian region. However, in the same period, Bangladesh received data of the Brahmaputra’s water levels from China.
Also, during the Doklam crisis, China was ready to “keep communication” with India to reopen the Nathu La pass in Sikkim for Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash and Manasarovar, which was suspended in June that year over the military standoff. China resumed sharing of hydrological information with India in 2018. In 2018, timely information from China about rising water levels in the upper region prompted Indian authorities to take precautionary measures in Arunachal Pradesh. In 2019, China also shared satellite data with India on different flood-hit regions.
India depends on Tibetan rivers for about one-third of its renewable water supply. In 2004, an MoU was signed on the Sutlej River (called Langqen Zangbo in China) whose main purpose was flood control and disaster mitigation in downstream areas. In April 2005, a MoU was signed to share hydrological information in the flood season from Tsada station. The MoU was renewed in 2010 and 2015. It is now in the process of renewal. However, China supplied the monsoon data on the Sutlej River between June 1 and October 15, 2021.
On the Brahmaputra River (Yaluzangbu or Tsangpo in China), India and China signed an MoU in 2002 for five years to share hydrological information during flood season. The MoU was renewed in 2008, 2013 and 2018. It expired on June 5, 2023 and is under the process of renewal. China did not charge anything for the data provided between 2002 and 2007. Afterwards, India pays INR 1 crore annually to get data on Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers. Furthermore in 2006, India and China agreed to set up an institutional mechanism, Expert-Level Mechanism to discuss interaction and cooperation on providing flood season hydrological data, emergency management and other issues regarding trans-border Rivers. The ELM meetings are held every year alternately in India and China. The 14th meeting of ELM was held in New Delhi on 20-21 June 2023.
India’s water position with China is somewhat similar to what Beijing has with Mekong Basin countries. However, differences in political relations, the degree of US influence, the level of cooperation between the Mekong (Lancang) Basin countries and geostrategic calculations toward the region make Beijing cooperate more with them than India. For instance, on September 11, 2023, senior officials from the six Mekong countries endorsed recommendations made in a joint study by the Mekong River Commission and Mekong Lancang Cooperation. One of the key recommendations over the short-term period is to work “more closely to ensure there is effective near real-time sharing of storage levels and hydropower operations data” throughout the Lancang-Mekong Basin Region. The study’s first phase will be released this month, while the second phase can be expected to be by the end of 2024.
As India and China are in the process of renewing their MoUs on hydrological information sharing, it is better if New Delhi diplomatically engage Beijing on the line of provisions in the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which entered into force on 17 August 2014. Article 7 of the Convention says, “Watercourse States shall, in utilising an international watercourse in their territories, take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse States.” In 1997, when the Convention was put to vote and passed, China along with Turkey and Burundi voted against it. India and Pakistan abstained from the voting. Some analysts observe that though Beijing has not signed, during discussions leading to the Convention, it strongly supported many norms, especially the principle of equitable and reasonable use of water, that were eventually included in the Convention. China also claims that on transboundary rivers it adheres to internationally accepted principles, approaches and 1997 Convention. India can ask for detailed information on built and planned infrastructure on the upper basin of rivers flowing from Tibet into India. Beijing’s decision will test many of its claims and existing hypotheses on transboundary waters.
Second, in an Insight for the Observer Research Foundation, “China-India data sharing for early flood warning in the Brahmaputra: A critique,” Nilanjan Ghosh, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Sayanangshu Modak finds that Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia ― three designated hydrological stations for data exchange on the Brahmaputra ― are located in the rain-shadow area. Hence, data exchange for early flood warning is not very effective. India and China should identify a location between Nuxia and Tuting from where much effective water flow data can be gathered.
Third, the trade volume, even during politically tense moments, proves that India and China have largely kept politics and economics in separate categories; they do intersect sometimes. Although the experiences show that the water issue is linked to India-China political situation, keeping them separate and taking steps to address grievances of lower riparian regions and continuous sharing of effective hydrological information may have a spillover effect in de-escalating and normalising their relationship.
Finally, a formal dispute settlement and grievance redressal mechanism are absent between the two countries. In such a situation, there is a need for an effective mechanism within the existing MoU framework to address any water-related matter expeditiously. The ELM can be helpful in this regard.
Amit Ranjan is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.