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A new course for the Brahmaputra

Policymakers must put the needs of people and ecosystems before national strategic goals. Tashi Tsering proposes a radical approach to development along the Brahmaputra River.

In discussions about managing international rivers, it is generally assumed that countries sharing a river can and should work cooperatively for hydropower and, by extension, economic development. International lending institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank have invested billions of dollars on the assumption that such projects not only promote economic development but also regional peace. While such models of cooperative management may fit some cases, it is unsuitable for others such as the countries that share the Brahmaputra Riverin Asia.

The Brahmaputra River, also known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan, is a major international river shared between China, India and Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra watershed represents one of the poorest and most remote parts of India and China, and every year the middle and lower reaches of the river face devastating floods. Yet, there are no multilateral agreements for joint management of the river. Nor is one likely to be signed in the near future despite a strong need. India and China are more concerned about unresolved border issues and political stability in the region than finding a common plan for the Brahmaputra.

The middle reaches of the Brahmaputra River include a large disputed territory in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The watershed is also home to Tibetans and tribes of northeast India, who are embroiled in conflict with the state. Consequently, the whole region is heavily militarised and ranks among the lowest in the human development index of India and China. Therefore, an ideal form of development for the watershed must move beyond nationalistic approaches of economic growth to focus on people’s livelihood and human development.

Existing models of cooperative management of international rivers would be difficult to adapt to the Brahmaputra, largely for political reasons. Compelling examples of international cooperation do exist. There are cases of equitable sharing of additional economic benefits gained from cooperation over hydropower development, such as US and Canada’s Columbia River Treaty; or instances of joint management for conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction, such as the World Bank proposed Rusumo Falls Hydroelectric dam and reservoir for the African countries of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.

But these models are not likely to work for Brahmaputra as India’s and China’s priorities in the region are strategic, not economic. In addition, the idea of third-party intervention in development of bilateral relations will not be well received.

Some water experts suggest that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) could serve as a possible model for the Brahmaputra. The Mekong River runs from the Tibetan Plateau in China and flows through Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  The MRC was founded in 1995 to promote collaboration between downstream countries.

The MRC, as an international basin organisation, has a number of strong features and accomplishments, such as its explicit goal of sustainable development and the establishment of one of the world’s most sophisticated transboundary environmental flows regimes.

However, the MRC is not a promising model for the Brahmaputra because China, despite being an important upper riparian state of the Mekong River, has refused to join. For China, joining the MRC has little benefit and significant costs in the form of conditions and limitations on its hydropower projects on the river. As the most powerful and uppermost riparian state, China also sees no environmental or strategic consequences of non-cooperation and it is likely to see the Brahmaputra River in the same way.

The MRC and other transboundary regulatory authorities in general are criticised for their failure to ensure local populations have a say in the decision-making process and for lack of people-oriented programmes.  Existing regulatory authorities take a nationalistic approach to development and tend to be driven by the agenda of donors and those of more influential members, rather than the people living in the watershed. However, the construction of large dams in developing countries often cause an onslaught of social and environmental problems: forced evictions; flooding of bio-diverse environments; and loss of farmlands.

The nationalistic and macro-economic approaches of these models are not just unsuitable for the Brahmaputra River; they are also redundant.  India and China do not need economic or technical assistance in large-scale hydropower development. In fact, both countries are unilaterally vying to build large dams on the river. China’s extensive dam plans for the river, including possibly the world’s largest hydropower plant, have reportedly led a member of the Indian Planning Commission to suggest starting a dams race to establish a prior use claim to avert China’s ambitious plans. A dams race would be disastrous for the beleaguered people of the Brahmaputra region and its ecology, particularly for the downstream nation of Bangladesh.

Since it is beyond the capability of a single country to manage a transboundary river and the existing models of cooperation are unsuitable, a new alternative approach is needed. One possible approach to address the complex development and security needs of the region is to reframe the mission from the development and strategic interests of member states to the development and security of people living in the region.

The only way to sustainably manage a transboundary watercourse is to give policy priority to the needs of the people and the environmental integrity of the watershed, as the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century has suggested. Allocation of water for commercial, energy and other developmental purposes should be secondary in the hierarchy of policy priorities. The objective of development should be to remove threats to people’s physical wellbeing and livelihood, and to empower them to lead lives that they value. Such an approach will also benefit countries.

By expanding people’s choices to lead more meaningful lives, a focus on human development can also strengthen national sovereignty by reducing the occurrence of bitter conflicts that have plagued the Brahmaputra region for so long. A common development plan for the river will also improve cross border and inter-state relations, saving the region from unilateral zero-sum development plans that the member countries are currently undertaking.

Tashi Tsering is a PhD candidate in Resource Management and Environmental Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Homepage image by Luca Galuzzi