General Shankar Roychowdhury is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament.

Of water wars & dam busters

Published Oct 27, 2015, 6:38 am IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 8:32 am IST
The diverted water is fed back into the river after generating electricity
Zangmu Hydropower Station, Tibet's biggest ever hydropower project, stands more than 3,300 metres above sea level
 Zangmu Hydropower Station, Tibet's biggest ever hydropower project, stands more than 3,300 metres above sea level

Recent reports of a Chinese hydro-electric power project at Zangmu, feeding off the Yarlung Tsangpo river in Tibet (which in its lower reaches is the Brahmaputra in India) has come as an unpleasant surprise to India. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the one in 1960, when similar reports of a Chinese road to Xinjiang cutting across Indian territory in Ladakh were received initially. The reverberations at that time resulted in the China-India border war of 1962. The reverberations of the Zangmu hydroelectric project in 2015 are still in the realm of speculation, but nevertheless beg the question — Ato kim? What now?

Distribution of river waters is an arcane geo-science and has hitherto not been a noticeably significant issue in China-India relations. This might very well change in light of the Zangmu project. As media reports indicate, the project is a run-of-the-river scheme comprising a series of dams and powerhouses at Yarlang, Dagu, Xiacha, Xiexu and other locations along the Yarlung Tsangpo inside Tibet. The diverted water is fed back into the river after generating electricity. China’s actions open up disturbing prospects of unilateral action by upper riparian states for diverting water from lower riparian countries backed by military muscle — recently demonstrated at China’s massive “Victory Day” parade at Beijing in September 2015, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan in the Second World War.

 

China has reportedly conveyed informally that the diversion of water from the Tsangpo will not in any manner affect the quantum of water presently received by any of its lower riparian neighbours. However, it is also obvious that India does not have much leverage in the situation, beyond post-facto discussions with China, either bilaterally or at the United Nations, where China is a permanent member of the Security Council. Given the past history of conflict between the two countries and the hostile public mindset that has developed in India, the geo-political environment appears none too conducive towards a mutually satisfactory resolution.

 

The Zangmu hydro-electric project is yet another instance of pre-emptive unilateralism by China, in conformity with its traditional Confucian mindset of “All Under Heaven” being the prerogative of the emperor. However, India cannot allow its own national interests to be held ransom and must take necessary steps with requisite urgency to build up a credible capability to defend its sovereignty and national interests — in this case its own rights as a lower riparian country along the Brahmaputra, as well as other rivers which rise in the Tibetan plateau and flow from Chinese territory into India like the Indus, Sutlej and other rivers in the western sector.

 

The main approach in this context has to be diplomatic — either directly at the bilateral level or multilateral via the UN. The Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan or the Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty with Bangladesh are examples of successful “water diplomacy”. Perhaps it’s time to take similar diplomatic initiatives with Beijing as well. But all that notwithstanding, alternative military options, however unthinkable at the present juncture, even as a last resort option, should never be swept off the table completely. This can be designated as the “dam buster” option.

 

The Dam Busters was the unofficial title accorded to 617 Squadron, the Royal Air Force, a unit specially raised in 1940 during the Second World War, for the specific task of carrying out precision airstrikes on the Möhne and Eder dams inside Germany to inundate the Ruhr valley and cripple German defence production. The unit was equipped with the four-engined Lancaster heavy bombers and trained to drop the spherical “dam-buster bombs” designed by Dr Wallis Barnes for the specific purpose of breaching dams. World War II is long over and its weapons long gone. But operational requirements remain unaltered and India has to consider the employment of its Agni series of missiles, as well as drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against strategic “water war” targets like the Zangmu complex on the Tsangpo.

 

The geopolitical and military uncertainties of such pre-emptive actions and their implications in terms of conflict escalation are enormous, especially in a regime of precision missiles, nuclear warheads, drones and UAVs. Nevertheless, it cannot be forgotten that India has invested enormous resources in developing a stable of strategic missiles, as also in the acquisition of drones and UAVs. They have a very important and definitive role to play in the context of national security and cannot just remain parade ground tokens to roll down Rajpath on Republic Day. They are to be used whenever required in the national interest, though their use will be a serious step up the escalatory ladder. India’s stated policy of “second strike” cannot be restricted to the context of hostile nuclear missile or airstrikes only. “Water wars” have come to stay and will undoubtedly be a feature of future strategic dilemmas. India must get its strategic planning into gear to factor in this new threat.

 

The strategic scenario of a “two-front war” remains unchanged with some variations — Pakistan is a “downstream” opponent, over which India holds a firm upper hand, but China is an “upstream” opponent against whom India has very limited leverage in a “water war” contingency. In a drought-ridden world hit by variable patterns of climate change, availability of water resources and their equitable utilisation, either by mutual agreements between individual countries or through international arbitration, will increasingly become a major factor in maintaining global peace in a future that is advancing at a frightening pace. There should be no doubts about the chances of the next major regional or even world conflict being a “water war” focused around access to water resources. That is well within the realm of statistical possibility and we must prepare for it.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

 

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