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Hydro-Hegemony: India and its Neighbours

by Sitendu De

Confluence of Indus river and Zanskar river in India | Wikipedia

“There are some 300 areas across the world where a conflict over water is foreseen by 2025” ---- United Nations

Mumbai. It’s 6 a.m. A serpentine line of plastic buckets and containers builds up near a municipal street water tap. The water starts trickling in. The women folk from nearby areas marches ahead to start the day by fetching some potable water. Every household has been allotted a fixed quota of four buckets or containers. People start losing their patience soon. A local tough appears from nowhere and places his bucket in front of the tap. Women start protesting as he slyly fills up his bucket. The water fight begins. This scene is enacted in Indian movies and almost every town in India.

Water can ensure the “prosperity” of some countries and bring “despair” to others. Currently, there are 200 shared rivers and 300 shared lakes that cross international borders. This is a significant conflict between countries and not forgetting the displacement of millions of people due to lack of water, which can ultimately lead to wars. The fight revolves around controlling water resources or because water is used as an instrument to win. Nuclear warheads, fuel, or weapons arsenals will no longer be important; instead, the design of water conveyance systems will be the key to power.

Conflicts have already taken place in different regions of the world:

  1. Dispute over water in the Nile Basin.

  2. Water shortages and public discontent in Yemen

  3. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq: conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris

  4. Trans-boundary water disputes between Afghanistan and Iran

  5. Dam projects and disputes in the Mekong River Basin

  6. Dispute over water in the Cauvery Basin in India

  7. Droughts, livestock prices, and armed conflict in Somalia

  8. Turkey-Armenia: Water cooperation despite tensions

  9. Security implications of growing water scarcity in Egypt

  10. Water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Weaponisation of water by China

The recent floods in China, which created destruction all over, have never been seen by the Chinese in 1000 years. The nature of water is such that it avoids heights and hastens to the lowlands. Excessive rainfall had broken the dams. Now when a dam is broken, the water cascades with irresistible force, and that’s exactly what happened. The “madness“ of China in building 98,000 dams all over the country to store water for the country and deprive others lying downstream of the river has brought misery. This is called “Instant Karma.”

With these dams, China is storing water and releasing it at will - a power that could even create floods and play havoc to countries lying downstream. China could even trigger droughts, and it has. China can do a lot of damage with this kind of power as free-flowing rivers can go dry, killing the river ecosystems, including trees, plants, and fish. It can drive species towards extinction and disrupt the normal course of life for humankind.

China is the starting point for rivers that flow into 18 downstream countries. No other country serves water to that many nations. China is creating an extensive dam infrastructure to arm itself. It wants to weaponize water and control how it flows, including where it flows and how much water is released to the neighbouring countries.

The mighty Mekong River has its origin in the Tibetan plateau and flows downstream into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. It is considered 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.’ The 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 2019, the Mekong River began to grow dry. The Chinese blamed insufficient rainfall during the rainy season with delayed arrival and the early departure of monsoon rains, and an El Nino effect as the reason. But the satellite imagery showed something different. 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. All these happened because China is constructing 11 dams on the Mekong river to conserve. China was using control of the upstream Mekong to parch the lower basin countries. It was man-made.

Threat to India from China

  • In 2018, water in the Siang / Dihang River (Arunachal Pradesh), 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. China was busy re-routing portions of the Brahmaputra towards mainland China, leading to the drying up of our Brahmaputra river which flows through Assam and Bangladesh before ending in the Bay of Bengal.

  • The threat to the Brahmaputra was real as China has already built 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. Both Brahmaputra and the glaciers that feed Ganga originate in China. China maintains an advantageous position and has build damns intentionally to prevent water from flowing downstream.


  • Teesta river, which originates in the Himalayas and flows through Sikkim and West Bengal to merge with the Brahmaputra in Assam and (Jamuna in Bangladesh), is perhaps the most contentious issue between India and Bangladesh.

  • The river covers nearly the entire floodplains of Sikkim while draining 2,800 sq km of Bangladesh, governing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

  • For West Bengal, Teesta is equally important, considered the lifeline of half a dozen districts in North Bengal.

  • Bangladesh has sought an “equitable” distribution of Teesta waters from India, on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty of 1996 (an agreement to share surface waters at the Farakka Barrage near their mutual border), but to no avail.


  • After numerous dialogues and negotiations, India and Pakistan signed an accord called the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, which determined how the region’s rivers would be divided.

  • In this treaty, control over three eastern rivers of the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej was given to India. At the same time, Pakistan got control over the western rivers of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum.

  • The Indus Waters Treaty has been widely hailed as a success, having survived three post-independence wars between the two hostile neighbours.

  • However, the situation for Pakistan has changed significantly from the 1960s till the present moment, as it is now on the brink of water scarcity.

  • The source or flow of all of Pakistan’s rivers pass through India first, so this naturally provides India with an upper hand in controlling the outflow of these rivers.

  • The Indian Government has more than 40 projects that are either already completed or in the proposal stage on the western rivers. The carrying of such activities within the western rivers has irked Pakistan.

  • On the other hand, India keeps dismissing these accusations of Pakistan as baseless and without any scientific backing.

  • In 2005, Pakistan challenged India’s 450 MW Baglihar dam project on the Chenab River before the World Bank but lost the case in the end.

  • In 2011, both countries went head to head again at the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) over India’s 330 MW project in Kishanganga project in Jammu and Kashmir.

  • The latest dispute is over hydroelectric projects that India is building along the Chenab River. According to Pakistan, these projects violate the treaty and will impact its water supply.


  • India and Bhutan hydroelectric power cooperation started more than five decades ago.

  • Initially, the cooperation was based on the development of small-scale hydro projects such as Tala, Chukha, and Kurisu.

  • Bhutan has the potential to generate 30,000 MW of hydro-power.

  • In 2006, both countries inked a Power Purchase Agreement for thirty-five years that would allow India to generate and import 5000 MW of hydro-power from Bhutan, the quantum of which increased to 10,000 MW in 2008.

  • On the other hand, the people of Bhutan raised objections to such projects as they felt it will have adverse effects in the long run.

  • If ever Bhutan decides to construct storage projects, issues will get intense and more problematic when it comes to dealing with India.

  • The internal challenge in Bhutan is water accessibility.


  • On water cooperation between Nepal and India, there have been agreements signed on major rivers like Kosi, Gandaki, Karnali, or Mahakali, essentially for large hydroelectric and irrigation projects by building dams or barrages.

  • No project except the Kosi barrage has been completed yet.

  • In 1954, when the Kosi Agreement was signed between India and Nepal, talks between the two governments have stalled and water rights issues have not been addressed.

  • There have been various disputes over this agreement fuelled by floods in the Kosi region.

  • Nepal had always considered India’s construction as an encroachment on Nepal’s territorial sovereignty.

  • India and Nepal have traditionally disagreed over the interpretation of the Sugauli Treaty signed in 1816 between the British East India Company and Nepal, which delimited the boundary along the Maha Kali River in Nepal.

  • India and Nepal differ as to which stream constitutes the source of the river.

  • The dispute between India and Nepal might seem minor but it gains strategic importance because the disputed area lies near the Sino‐Indian border


· Water sharing and usage often receive less attention and are combined with larger security or border concerns, or are dealt with only when natural disasters occur. Yet this has far-reaching consequences for the prosperity and security of countries.

· The water disputes in the South Asian subcontinent deal with the complex orientation of the rivers of the region that cut across some countries in the region leading to a tense and uncompromising geopolitical situation amongst the fellow riparian countries. This brings out the strategic role played by water in the region.

About the Author

Sitendu De got his education from St.George's Grammar School, Hyderabad and Post graduated from Osmania University, Hyderabad. He joined Cabinet Secretariat, New Delhi as an officer and was posted at different places in India. After serving for 20 years he joined the corporate world as a business strategist and recruiting new talents. He did Strategic Management Course from IIM (Calcutta). He is a prolific writer, specializes in geopolitical and human interactions. He lives in Kolkata with his wife and a son.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.

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