It’s all about power: the Brahmaputras’ in South Asia

This post is authored by Sumit Vij (Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, the Netherlands), and Anamika Barua (Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, India). Anamika is part of the Universities’ Partnership for Water Cooperation & Diplomacy launched at IHE Delft in January 2018.


There are many Brahmaputras’ in South Asia – Brahmaputra of India, Brahmaputra of China (called Yarlong Tsangpo), Brahmaputra of Bhutan and Brahmaputra of Bangladesh (called Jamuna). The count does not stop here, there is a Brahmaputra claimed by a farmer, supports a fisherman, enjoyed by a traveler and bemuses a researcher. We all depend and claim Brahmaputra River in one way or the other.


Fishermen at the banks of Brahmaputra

These contested Brahmaputras’ are separated by administrative boundaries and each country has different priorities and interests. To pursue their interests’ countries use their power and influence to get more out of the river. This power play between riparian countries has given rise to conflicts in the Brahmaputra Basin. Two key conflictual issues regarding the Brahmaputra basin are as follow.

Aerial view of Brahmaputra River

First is the data sharing for improved planning for flood forecasting and erosion, infrastructure building, and equitable water sharing. Data and information exchange in the basin is hindered by perceptions that such exchange may weaken the negotiating position of the riparian countries. The power asymmetry between the countries and the broader political context, which currently considers all hydrological data relating to international borders as classified, make the process of sharing data complex. Although flood control hydrological data is currently a field of cooperation, the data sharing mechanism strongly depends on the local political context and the national interests of the riparian countries. Though in a general transboundary context data sharing is considered a beginning and means to building trust between riparian countries, in the specific case of the Brahmaputra the lack of a data sharing procedure at the basin level has fostered mistrust between the riparian countries and hindered regional cooperation.

Second, the foreign policy approach of bilateralism followed by the hegemon countries of the basin. Bilateral approach of China and India has created a sense of unilateral control over the Brahmaputra basin. While there is some degree of cooperation between the riparian countries, in the form of Memorandum of Understandings’ (MoU) and agreements, for the sharing of hydrological data, it is essentially bilateral in nature. India and China prefer bilateral treaties in multilateral basins, because the expression of power as a strategic option in the hands of any country is best preserved, when bilateralism is retained. Further, the absence of a multilateral institution in the Brahmaputra basin has been a major hurdle to any multilateral cooperation between the riparian countries. Thus, the lack of an institutional mechanism is also a challenge, because it prevents the states from having a legitimate and effective practice of data sharing, negotiation and dispute resolution.

Brahmaputra River remains as one of the most dynamic river systems in the world. It has been a lifeline to millions in the basin, but has equally been responsible for catastrophe in the form of floods and erosion, especially during the monsoon season. Riparian countries have not been able to find a common ground to manage and share the resources provided by the river. Diplomatic engagement can bring basin hegemons to institutionalize multilateralism. It is important to bring in water diplomacy with high-ranking practitioners from the foreign and water policy communities. Such engagements will increase the dialogue between the countries and improve the trust for future deliberations for Brahmaputra basin.

Mystifying Brahmaputra during sunset at Saraighat bridge in Guwahati, India

For more information, please check our latest publication: Barua, A., Vij, S., & Rahman, M. Z. (2017). Powering or sharing water in the Brahmaputra River basin. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 1-15

Photo Credits: Sumit Vij

Cite this blog post
Sumit Vij (2018, April 6). It’s all about power: the Brahmaputras’ in South Asia. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Sumit Vij

Sumit is an Assistant Professor at the Sociology & Development Change Group at Wageningen University. His research focuses on questions of power and politics within the themes of transboundary waters and (peri)urban infrastructure in South Asia.

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