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Brahmaputra water issue: Is a India, China bilateral mechanism likely?

A view across the Brahmaputra near Sukleswar Ghat, Guwahati, Assam, India. (Image source: Wikipedia)

New Delhi : The continuing stand-off between India and China over the waters of the Brahmaputra River or the Yarlung Zangbo has led to some in the Indian establishment propose a bilateral mechanism on the likes of one that exists between India and Pakistan for the Indus River.

India is understood to have proposed to the Chinese side to come up with a bilateral mechanism to deal with the contentious water issue even as both countries have hardened their stands in the past few weeks.

Chinese media reported that the Government had given the go-ahead to the construction of three more dams on the river in Tibet with the Chinese Foreign Office saying that it had "fully considered" the impact of the dams and these will not affect water flows to downstream India.

India has also in last few days decided to hasten the pace to construct one of the biggest hydropower projects in the region - 800 MW Tawang 2 hydro project, besides a slew of small and large dams in the river basin in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Indian side has moved with speed to finally give approval for the Tawang hydropower project, which had got stuck for years. The idea is to mark the Indian stake in the River, a critical resource for the development of the country's northeastern areas.

But, at the same time, local news reports indicate that Indian officials have proposed that a permanent water commission be set up on the lines of the one that currently exists between India and Pakistan. An inter-governmental dialogue or a treaty to deal with the bilateral water issues has also been proposed just like the water treaties with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal on transboundary rivers.

What prompted quickening of the pace in India on this issue was China's announcement last month that it plans to build three dams -- Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu -- on the Brahmaputra. The dams and projects are part of the Chinese Government's plans to ensure provision of water and energy for the country.

"China has always been responsible regarding the utilisation and development of cross border rivers and adopts a policy that pays equal attention to development and protection", Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said recently.

"We fully considered the impact of the down stream region. The planned power stations you mentioned will not affect the flooding prevention and ecological environment of down stream areas", Hua said, adding, "China and India have maintained communication on cross border rivers", she said.

India is understood to have conveyed its "views and concerns" to the Chinese authorities, including at the highest levels.

Despite Chinese assurances for long that the dam projects will not affect water flow to India, many officials remain sceptical. But, experts have all along maintained that the issue would need to be resolved through a dialogue process.

Local news reports indicated that the issue of a bilateral mechanism was taken up during the visit of a senior Chinese Embassy official to the External Affairs Ministry recently. The Chinese official had apprised India of the construction proposal for the three dams.

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