Climate change has deepened the fault lines between India, China; but it could also bring us closer

Editor's note: From May 2017, Firstpost is featuring a fortnightly column by Mridula Ramesh, titled 'Climate Conversations'. In this column, we take a look at pressing issues pertaining to climate change — in an accessible way.

Commenting on the “fairness” of China’s territorial claim over Tibet is beyond the scope of this column. As such, we begin with what is the de facto situation today: China controls Tibet together with all the water stored within its glaciers and ice. Tibet is often called the Third Pole, because it holds the most perennial ice after the Arctic and Antarctica. Tibet’s snow and ice provides the water that nourishes billions across Asia, including several of India’s mightiest rivers: the Brahmaputra, the Indus and tributaries of the Ganga.

Therein lies the first serious fault-line under the India-China relationship — and the bad news is that it is getting deeper.


China is a vast country with widely varying climates. Northern China is very dry and, thanks in part to a warming climate, is getting drier. Indeed, large parts of China’s North is falling prey to desertification because of a combination of climate change and human activity. As the Chinese frequently remind themselves, they need to maintain 21 percent of the world’s population on only six percent of the world’s freshwater resources. That’s a tough task. In the words of Wang Shucheng, former minister of water resources: "To fight for every drop of water or die: that is the challenge facing China."

The situation is worsened by the legendary pollution of China’s many water sources. Which means what water there is to draw from the river or the ground is most likely polluted, in turn driving up the need for fresh water.

For a country that favours investment, there are two options for getting fresh water: by damming and transferring and/or through desalination. In reality, water conservation or waste water treatment can provide cheaper and good quality water, but that is another story.

China loves dams. They are big. They don’t add to the air pollution, at least not directly. They are uniquely suited to a command-and-control economy with a penchant for large infrastructural projects and where large groups of people can be relocated relatively easily. Importantly, they are a visible legacy for the leaders of China, many of whom are engineers and for whom mastery over nature is an appealing concept. What’s not to love?

There is also an older and a deeper reason. China, like many other societies, has a Great Flood in its founding legends. In this story, over 4,000 years ago, a flood threatened to destroy the Chinese society on the banks of Yellow River.

“Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens”: Emperor Yao describes the flood.

The flood raged on for years and many tried to subdue it — first with a supernatural clay, then with administrative reforms. Nothing worked, until finally, Yu subdued the flood through the building of dykes and canals. Moral? Engineering saves the day by proving man’s supremacy over nature.

China has the most number of dams in the world, equal to the dams present in the rest of the world combined. One of the largest — the Three Gorges Dam — displaced over a million people, created a reservoir that spanned a 1,000 square kilometres and powers one of the largest power stations in the world.

A general view shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Yichang, Hubei province, China May 4, 2017. Picture taken May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA. - RTX39XHR

A general view shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Yichang, Hubei province, China. Image via REUTERS

Dams provide hydroelectricity and they provide a means to store water, especially for a river prone to flooding. Hydroelectricity plays a major role in China’s ambitions to green its power supply as it has far lower emissions than coal or oil.

Dams, however, have their disadvantages. When a river is dammed, the water accumulates behind the dam creating a reservoir and submerging anything that might have existed there before — homes, forests or cities. Dams in China have displaced 23 million people. Dams prevent the movement of silt carried by the rivers to cross the dam — with the result that the fertility of the areas downstream is limited. Farmers often talk about the water being “thinner” and less nourishing when a river is dammed.

Dams are also potent geopolitical weapons.

What do I mean by this? The river flow is controlled by the dam — it can be increased or reduced — potentially reducing flooding during peak rainfall and reducing drought by releasing water during lean times. However, if the dam is controlled by another country, the control itself is a potent tool of ensuring good behaviour of downstream countries — a poignant truth in India’s case.

Dams can trigger seismic activity — especially the truly large ones constructed close to geological fault lines. Think of what millions of tons of pressure exerted by the water held in the reservoir can do to a fault line. Several experts consider the Great Sichuan Quake of 2008 that killed 70,000 and left millions homeless to be caused by the Zipingpu dam located 5 kilometers from the quake’s epicentre.

You begin to see the problem.

China annexed Tibet in 1950, adding the tremendous water resources of the Tibetan plateau to China’s geopolitical arsenal.

Now, for China, to transfer the water locked in Tibet and from a wetter South China to a dryer North appeared to make sense. To this end, they created the grand South-to-North Water Diversion Project. In the past few years, China transfers billions of litres of water a year from the South to the North through this project. This is a colossal engineering feat costing over $62 billion, designed to divert 44.8 billion cubic metres of water annually to China’s dry north. This water transfer plan includes a controversial Western transfer plan which would include diverting waters from Tibet.

The Chinese have a saying: “Killing two vultures with one stone”. And damming the rivers in the Tibetan plateau just happens to also generate tremendous amounts of hydroelectricity. This is great because, as mentioned earlier, hydroelectricity does not produce particulate pollution — a particularly important point for China, which is battling with terrible air pollution in its cities, thanks in part to its coal plants. Secondly, hydroelectricity is considered renewable, and thus underscores China’s green image on the world stage.

China has begun to dam the Brahmaputra, with one dam (Zangmu) operational and several more in the works (reportedly up to 40 dams on the Brahmaputra and the subsidiaries). Moreover, China is planning further dams on the Indus — these built on disputed territory.

These dams do not bode well for India, or indeed, for its downstream neighbours. If the Brahmaputra became a seasonal river because of the damming, there is a clear full stop to any river interlinking projects right there, because there will be a lot less water to transfer to the rest of India. Furthermore, this zone is already earthquake prone. Scientists are already warning of the strain building up — the dams would only add to it. There is also loss of silt that is critical to the farmers of Northeast India and the rice farmers of Bangladesh.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the West Lake State Guest House ahead of G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Wang Zhao/Pool - RTX2O0XJ

The fault-line between India and China is being deepened by strong leaders at the helm of both countries. Here, Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, in September 2016. Image via REUTERS

There we have it: the fault-line, how it affects India and why climate change deepens it by making China more keen to transfer water and increase its share of hydroelectricity.

The second big fault-line is China’s determination to take what it sees as its rightful position in the world. More than 200 years ago, Lord Amherst while returning from a British diplomatic mission to China, visited Napoleon during his exile in St Helena. In the course of their conversations, Napoleon is quoted as saying “Quand la Chine s'éveillera , le monde tremblera.” Roughly translated, this mean “When China awakes, the world will tremble”, with the popular appendage, “Let her sleep”.

China is wide awake now and the world is feeling the effects of its wakefulness.

To understand China’s actions, it helps to understand the Chinese game of Wei Qi. Chinese strategy is influenced by an ancient Chinese game called Wei Qi, where the object is not an outright victory but a slow build-up of strategic advantage through encircling one’s opponent (Aside: a simpler version of this game is available as “Go” or “Othello” for the armchair strategists who would like to try it).

China’s moves, viewed through this lens, start to make sense. Chinese investment in the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has reached $62 billion, is one move of this game. The two dams on the Indus are yet another move in this game. The encirclement continues in the south, with the port in Sri Lanka, and in the North East with the manoeuvres in Nepal, and the numerous dams across the Bramhaputra.  The latest move is the incident in Bhutan.

India is also making it counter moves. The closer military ties with Japan and Vietnam as well as exploration of the South China Sea are all Indian moves in this game.

This fault-line is being deepened by the presence of strong leaders at the helm of both countries where the preferred option is to view the world through a domestic rather than an international lens and project strength rather than conciliation.

So, is a conflict inevitable? Not really — and it's certainly not desirable for two countries with large populations.

Because just as there are fault lines, so are there bonds that unite.

The first is trade. Indian imports from China ruffle a lot of feathers within India, and India is the eighth largest destination for Chinese exports. While there is a lot of chest-thumping, boycott speeches, in a world with few jobs, less trade makes sense for no one. But this is a potential card in India’s hand.

Chinese money is frantically searching for investments, and India’s infrastructure is crying out for investment. If only we could be friends, this could be a match made in heaven.

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Another bond is the warming climate. China and India both stand to be affected badly by a warming climate. Staying together, standing together strengthens the coalition for meaningful action to moderate climate change, especially when the US is playing truant. Moreover, the Indian market is an attractive one for Chinese green innovations. One such match is in the solar space — China has the solar panel capacity and India has the solar capacity goal. This is not a prize to let go off easily.

China does not like outsiders to advise it. Best to turn to two wise Chinese voices from the past.

First, let us visit the words of an erstwhile Chinese general and military strategist, Sun Tzu who said: “The wise warrior avoids the battle.”

Next, let us remember what Confucius, who provides the philosophical underpinning of Chinese society, says: Love thy neighbour as thyself... Do not to others what thou would not wish be done to thyself.

Good advice.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor, teacher and author of a forthcoming book on Climate Change and India. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at

Published Date: Jul 22, 2017 09:52 am | Updated Date: Jul 22, 2017 09:52 am

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