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Why India Needs A Plan To Counter China’s Water Hegemony

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By Aakansha Bhawsar & Sudeep Shukla.

Recent skirmishes between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China and Indian troops in the Union Territory of Ladakh and strategic investments by the Chinese government in various hydro projects in the Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (POJK), raised an alarm for the water security in India. The Himalayan ecosystem is the home of all major rivers and hence the principal source of water in India and all other neighbouring countries.

The freshwater abode of Himalayas should be protected. Climate change has brought the subject beyond the scope of mere negotiations. At this critical junction, there is need of rethinking India’s sovereign water diplomatic policies and only with due diligence and conservation in mind, can the dispute about water distribution reach a just resolution and ensure the longevity of this natural resource.

Representational image.

Water Conflicts: India, China And Pakistan 

Water conflicts in South Asia among India, Pakistan and China reflects the historical burden of the colonial past of the Indian subcontinent. In the current geopolitical situation in which water disputes are major factors in diplomatic relations, there is a need to devise negotiation tactics for the settlement of trans-boundary water disputes.

Equivalent economic, military, scientific and engineering capabilities usually ensure mutual satisfaction for the negotiating parties. The solution to any water conflict results in treaties, conventions or the clearance for a specific project. However, the outcome of any resolution must be judged on the basis of optimal economical, ecological and social effects.

In the current geopolitical situation in which water disputes are major factors in diplomatic relations, there is a need to devise negotiation tactics for the settlement of trans-boundary water disputes.

India, the divine land, is blessed with aquatic, ecological and social diversity. It accounts for 18% of the world population but only about 4% of the world’s water resources that accounts for its categorization as a water-stressed country. India, in fact, is facing the worst-ever water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihood are under threat. With some 600 million people facing acute water shortage at present, the crisis will further worsen as demand is projected to be twice larger than the available supply by 2030.

The Himalayas are at the source of nineteen major rivers, out of which Brahmaputra and Indus are the largest rivers, having catchment basins in the mountains of about 100,000 square miles (260,000 square kms) in extent. However, the source of both these mighty rivers is the Tibetan Plateau. The Indus and Brahmaputra both originate at Lake Mansarovar. The Indus runs across Himalayan ranges, enters India in Ladakh and flows toward Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, then takes a southern direction into Pakistan before merging into the Arabian Sea.

The Brahmaputra after flowing along with Southern Tibet enters Arunachal Pradesh in India, thereafter flows Southwest along with Assam and South into Bangladesh. Both its branches meet with the Ganga river in Bangladesh, making the great delta of Ganga-Brahmaputra a highly fertile region ashore of the Bay of Bengal.

With the highest populations and going through rapid industrialization, India and China have rising water needs. That is why both countries are investing in big projects in the region to meet the energy demands and agricultural requirements. Chinese economic strength enables the state to build giant dams on these rivers.

The formation of the Ministry of Jal Shakti in May 2019, clearly indicates the priority which the present government grants to tackle the challenges of water security in future.

In January 2013, China approved mega-dam projects on the Brahmaputra River as part of its 12th Five-Year Plan. Dam projects such as Zangmu Dam (510 MW), on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper stream of Brahmaputra river near India-Bhutan border, the Lalho project in Xigazê (near Sikkim), undeclared under-construction Dagu, Jiacha and Jeixu dams pose a serious threat to the ecology of the eastern Himalayas. These large dams will control part of the flow of the mighty Brahmaputra and could turn into a seasonal river in India, affecting the livelihood of millions.

Although India has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China in 2002, for the sustainable sharing of hydrological information on the Brahmaputra River but during the Doklam standoff in 2017, China had refused to share the flood data with India. It is evident that in the absence of any signed treaty between China and India, China uses its upper riparian status for political leverage.

On the western front, this year, the Chinese state-run firm China Power and Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), a commercial arm of Pakistan’s powerful military, have signed a contract worth USD 5.8 Billion Dollar for the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam (4800 MW) on the Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) despite objection from India.

Prime Minister Modi’s government has already redefined India’s water diplomacy. Under his visionary leadership, India has successfully completed and commissioned various projects. The formation of the Ministry of Jal Shakti in May 2019, clearly indicates the priority which the present government grants to tackle the challenges of water security in future. The government is working on various fronts to provide hydropower energy and efficient use of water-ways.

Water Diplomacy And Act East Policy

The Mekong is a major trans-boundary river which after origination in Tibetan Plateau runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is a source of irrigation, fishery and navigation for lower riparian states. However, the construction by China of ten hydropower dams is a cause for alarm in the countries downstream.  In the absence of any international treaty between China and lower riparian states, China could use these dams to control the flow of Mekong. Huge fluctuation in downstream water flow has devastated the lives of millions in the region in the past and in present also such problems have already been reported near the Jinghong Dam.

It is high time to build a framework for river management agreements among the ASEAN and SAARC countries.

In this scenario these densely populated Southeast Asian countries have to rely on the goodwill of China, making them prone to Beijing’s water blackmail. Chinese leverage over these countries could be used to India’s benefit in this region. Sharing of the hydrological, engineering, economical, computational modelling and ecological knowledge could help these countries to successfully negotiate with China.

There is an urgent need to investigate the linkages of Chinese infrastructural plans in the region under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the hydrological and ecological imbalances it will cause in the region or in any country. Simultaneously, India needs to integrate water geopolitics in its diplomacy. India should group with other lower riparian states of the Brahmaputra Basin such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar to counterbalance the Chinese hydro-hegemonic attitude. On the other hand, India should reach out to countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam who are the prospective victims of the Mekong River Projects undertaken by China.

It is high time to build a framework for river management agreements among the ASEAN and SAARC countries. A regional water-sharing framework and treaty should be enacted with provisions addressing socio-economic, historical and environmental concerns of this part of the globe. With efficient water diplomacy, India can ensure a sustainable water future for its people and for the neighbourhood.

India needs to take the lead role in the establishment of a regional hydrological data centre to exchange data across the Himalayan region.

India needs to take the lead role in the establishment of a regional hydrological data centre to exchange data across the Himalayan region so that a comprehensive water management and harvesting policy may be formulated. India’s achievement in space technologies may pave the way for a regional exchange of satellite data acquisition, interpretation and decision making.

India and ASEAN countries could jointly establish meteorological and hydrological monitoring stations at strategic locations in the region. Exchange of meteorological and hydrological data not only helps to forecast natural flooding and drought conditions but also prevent hostile state actions in this domain. There is a critical need for an integrated action plan for water security including various stakeholders to counter China’s drive for water hegemony.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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