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The Brahmaputra River as a Transboundary Water Resource: Lessons from Costa Rica?

Costa Rica tried involving OAS in deciding Nicaragua’s encroachment in disputed territory in 2010, when the issue of Isla Calero island emerged. At the international level, ICJ was used as a mediator in this conflict resolution going by its mandate and competence in resolving many cases over disputes regarding territorial and maritime claims. The issue was resolved by ICJ in 2018.

The Brahmaputra River as a Transboundary Water Resource: Lessons from Costa Rica?
Picture of river Brahmaputra from space/ (Source: Thomas Pesquet)

By Sanchita Borah

“Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict. If all the world’s peoples work together, a secure and sustainable water future can be ours”, Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General.

In today’s world, the water crisis is the most significant environmental issue and an emerging security challenge. As referred to this, transboundary water resources pose a significant challenge to security between nations. Conflicts around these resources worldwide emanate from numerous facets including population explosion, rapid industrialization, urbanization, hydrological, water scarcity, and environmental deterioration.

These accelerate into water scarcity, steering a steady increase in international disputes over transboundary water resources. Water disputes have thus become a complex issue and an unanticipated threat to the international world order. Dispute resolution and agreement for transboundary water resources have confronted multiple challenges. One of the transboundary water disputes that have been aggravating in recent years is the India-China dispute over the River Brahmaputra.

The present article aims to delve into a comparative analysis of the India-China case with Costa Rica’s transboundary water dispute with Nicaragua over the San Juan River and the way of its resolution. Both India and Costa Rica’s nature in maintaining a balance in the world order through peaceful means is noteworthy. However, India is facing difficulties in reaching any mutually agreed solutions with China in the Brahmaputra case. Costa Rica’s example can be used as a lesson that resolved the San Juan River dispute with Nicaragua recently manifesting as a torch-bearer nation for others engulfed in water disputes.

The Mighty Brahmaputra: Race for Water Security

The Brahmaputra River/Yarlung Tsangpo is the provenance of existence for more than 130 million people in China, India, and Bangladesh. However, this has turned out to be a source of contention between the two Asian giants, India and China. There are multiple causes of the Brahmaputra river dispute. Historically, the relationship between India and China has not been optimistic. The 1962 Sino-Indian War, the Chola War of 1967, and the Sino-Indian skirmishes in the year 1987 portray the nations’ growing mistrust of each other.

The expansionist policy of China is a major concern for India’s Arunachal Pradesh over which China lays its claim. Moreover, the defamatory attacks on India by China’s controlled media and China-Pakistan’s close ties create a sense of leery for India. Under this scenario, a categorized and systematic hydro-power project and water diversion schemes in the Yarlung Tsangpo, along with an increasing threat to water security fosters a profound consequence in the foreign policies of both nations.

Many analysts have claimed that China has been using the Yarlung Tsangpo as a political weapon. The hydroelectric dams and diversion projects have raised an impending water security threat for India. The construction of dams in the Yarlung Tsangpo river by China would limit the water flow downstream posing environmental hazards for the people of North-East India and also Bangladesh which largely depend on water for agriculture.

Moreover, a major water diversion project has been proposed by China in the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river at the Great Bend. Another assumption suggests that the construction of a dam in the bend near Arunachal Pradesh would help China assert its claim over the state. Thus, India has been under perennial distress constituted by China.

Until recent times, the aim of China in the Himalayan region was distinctly engaged in sustaining a balanced power relation with India and a defensive approach towards Tibet. However, China has initiated crucial plans like the West-East Electricity Transfer projects (Xi Dian Dong Song) and the Western China Development Strategy (Xibu Da Kaifi). The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is positioning Tibet as the trading pivot in the Himalayan Region. ‘Opening up of the West’s campaign of China for extracting natural resources from Tibet would help boost the economic motor of eastern China and also vitalize ‘backward’ Tibet forward.

Also Read: Relooking India-China Water Relations: A Major Concern?

Nicaragua-Costa Rica’s San Juan River Dispute

The border between the two Central American Countries namely Nicaragua and Costa Rica has been demarcated by the River San Juan. The Cañas Jerez Treaty of 1858 set the San Juan River as the permanent border between the two nations. However, the treaty became the point of contention, as the sovereign power of the river was vested upon Nicaragua and at the same time, Costa Rica was given the right to navigation for commercial purposes.

The dispute is largely ascribed to nationalism lacking the analysis of historical, economic, social, and political factors involved. Nicaragua’s economic interest is portrayed since independence when it was keen on constructing a canal route to link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has used the sovereignty dispute over the river San Juan and the claim for dominion over Isla Calero Island to foster nationalistic sentiments among the people.

The northern frontier of Costa Rica has a scanty population, despite the fact of its difficult terrain and isolated location, Nicaraguan immigrants got easy access to Costa Rica through these frontiers to escape the instability of the state since the Nicaraguan Revolution in the 1970s. This is a social factor aggravating the dispute between the two nations. The dispute has been carefully nuanced, and the scholars claimed that it is between the governments rather than the people of the nations.

Also Read: Why is China’s water security a concern for lower riparian states?

Mitigating San Juan Dispute: Lessons from Costa Rica?

A historic confrontation changed to cooperation in 2002 when at the regional level, the Central American Integration System (SICA) decided to take concrete steps toward resolving the dispute between Nicaragua-Costa Rica. However, the Nicaraguan President routinely skipped the SICA meeting hosted by Costa Rica due to the ongoing dispute over the San Juan River, and thus it lacked concretization.

In 2007, the meeting between President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica reopened bilateral communication on the issues of migration and border disagreements which symbolized an attempt to restore peace. 8th Binational Commission of Costa Rica and Nicaragua which was a special commission of inquiry was to be held in November 2010, could not be convened because Foreign Relations Minister José Enrique Castillo Barrantes of Costa Rica said that unless the Nicaraguan military forces leave the Isla Calero island there could be no dialogue. Many bilateral meetings were initiated by both countries but lacked concretization.

The role of the Organization of American States (OAS) at the hemispheric level as a mediator is limited because looking at the overarching influence of the US within it, Nicaragua was keener to solve the San Juan River dispute by referring it to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, Costa Rica tried involving OAS in deciding Nicaragua’s encroachment in disputed territory in 2010, when the issue of Isla Calero island emerged. At the international level, ICJ was used as a mediator in this conflict resolution going by its mandate and competence in resolving many cases over disputes regarding territorial and maritime claims. The issue was resolved by ICJ in 2018.

After scrutinizing the above, it can be seen that Costa Rica was more of a pacifier and a stabilizing mechanism in the dispute. There are substantial reasons which portray the nation being a stabilizer. First, Costa Rica abolished its military in 1949, which led the country in following principles of civility in its political life and maintaining stable foreign relations with its neighbors and the world. Second, Costa Rica and Nicaragua initiated seven years of diplomatic discussion to settle the issue. Third, when diplomatic meetings and the discussion remained unfruitful, Costa Rica approached the OAS and ultimately filed a case against Nicaragua in the ICJ in 2005. Fourth, Costa Rica accepted the ICJ’s rulings in 2009, 2015, and 2018.

In the international scenario, India also can be portrayed as a pacifier, as it champions the policy of constructive engagement despite serious provocations. India believes that violent retaliation and encounters further embroil the situation. Moreover, the nation adheres to noble and benign policies of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. In a globalized world order, foreign policy affairs and foreign economic policy are intricately related.

The construction of an external environment conducive to inclusive growth in the country is one of the constitutive elements of India’s foreign policy. Utilization of every diplomatic skill and political leverage to impress upon the partners in the region towards a joint exploration of natural resources culminates in a win-win situation. Moreover, since 1950, India has skillfully tackled its strategy of non-prescriptive development assistance as soft power.

This shows how India and Costa Rica characterized by similar foreign policy affairs can lead toward resolving issues nurturing serendipity. Costa Rica is a small Central American country, with few natural resources, and relatively little strategic value has been admired by the international community because of its strategies of peace in handling human rights, human security, and foreign policy issues. Thus, India and countries of the world like Costa Rica facing transboundary water disputes can overcome the stagnancy with their constitutive elements and confidence-building measures toward a collaborative expedition of natural and transboundary resources.

Author is Ph.D. Research Scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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