China’s water choke

With China constructing a series of dams, many Indian rivers, including the Brahmaputra, could soon thirst for water

By   |  Amitava Mukherjee  |  Published: 17th Jan 2021  12:01 amUpdated: 18th Jan 2021  9:13 am

The name of Guo Kai, a Chinese technocrat, now arouses suspicion among Indian policymakers. Coming from a Chinese family of hydraulic engineers, he was the originator and chief designer of the Shuotian Canal in China, author, professor, economist, vice-director and secretary of the Shoutian Canal Preparatory Committee and chairman of the Beijing Shuotian Consulting Development Company. The name of such an accomplished person should evoke respect.

But in India, the case is just the opposite. It is because Guo Kai is the originator and chief proponent of the Grand Western Water Diversion Project (GWWDP), which aims to transfer huge amounts of water from several transboundary rivers, including the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) originating in Tibet. Although the idea is yet to be implemented and has generated a lot of debate and differing opinions among academics and security experts of China, it cannot be averred that Guo Kai’s brainchild has no takers in his country. On the contrary, Beijing has always maintained a pall of secrecy and evasiveness on its national water policy and what it wants to do with the Tibet origin rivers.

Tibet Rivers

There are eight important rivers in Tibet — Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Indus, Yangtse, Mekong, Salween, Yellow, Irrawaddy and Sutlej. Of them, the Brahmaputra has caught worldwide attention in recent times as China is slated to construct a series of dams on different reaches of the river for generating hydroelectricity. It has already commissioned the Zangmu dam and three more such dams will come up at Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha. But what has caused consternation in India is the report that Beijing may consider the construction of a giant hydroelectric dam near the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra, a place in the eastern Himalayas where the mighty river takes a massive U-turn for entering into India.

How does the construction of such hydropower dams affect India’s interests? Well, it has to be kept in mind that vast stretches of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are dependent on this river and its tributaries like the Dibang, Lohit, Subansiri, Manas and Sankosh. The vast Assam plains and the Ahom culture is a gift of the Brahmaputra. The river has great strategic value too. During the 1962 war with China, the Government of India had evacuated large tracts of land south of Bomdilla, including vast stretches of Assam’s tea belt, and prodded the population to cross the Brahmaputra and take shelter in districts like Nowgong, which lay beyond.

Revisiting Pasighat

These hydropower dams will give China a handy tool to starve the Brahmaputra and its tributaries of the much-needed water although Beijing has been repeatedly harping that the hydropower projects are all run-of-the-river type and hence hold no threat to India’s interests as a lower riparian country. We will come to this later. Meanwhile, let us recount what the people of Pasighat, a town in Arunachal Pradesh, experienced in 2012.

Its prelude though started long ago in 2000. On June 9 of that year, the Siang river (this is how the Brahmaputra is called at a certain stretch of Arunachal Pradesh) suddenly rose by 30 metres, which was quite an abnormal spectacle. The entire town of Pasighat, on the banks of the river, got submerged. Since then, the flowing pattern of the river showed something amiss. On March 1, 2012, the Brahmaputra dried up completely in the same place, as if by magic and in the afternoon, the flow of the river restored suddenly.

Has it ever happened with any river? Mind it, this was the time when China was going ahead with its Zangmu hydropower project. Though Beijing has always denied any intention of blocking the flows of transboundary rivers, the Pasighat incident can very well be taken as a pointer to China’s capability to block the Brahmaputra waters. The suspicion further gains ground from Chinese attitudes. Beijing denied the construction of the Zangmu dam for a long time and ultimately admitted to its conceptualisation and progress of construction as late as 2010, after consistent queries from not just India but some other nations as well.

Dams and Dams

But Zangmu is not the only instance. Conflicting opinions about the exact numbers of Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra are now flying in the air. A Canadian environmentalist puts the figure at 25 — five underconstruction cascade dams on the middle reaches of the river in Tibet and 20 at the drawing board stage. Another Assam-based NGO calculates the figure to be 35.

Whatever may be the exact number, the reported Chinese ambition of construction of a mammoth hydropower station near the deepest canyon of the world lying close to the river’s Great Bend has put the international community under consternation.

Run-of-the-river projects also need storage dams, which is sure to put a brake on the flow of rivers. Zangmu hydroelectric station has a 510-megawatt generation capacity and the projects at Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha will have generation targets close to that at Zangmu. That means siphoning off a large volume of waters to their dams. The reason behind the drying up of the Brahmaputra at Pasighat perhaps lies here. It is a matter of conjecture and a case of disaster for India if China goes ahead with its mega power project near the Great Bend as huge amounts of waters will be lifted and stored away in gigantic dams.

Thirst for Water

China is now in a Catch-22 situation, which is ominous for India. China needs electricity and water for its fast paced industrial development. Water scarcity in China has now reached an alarming proportion. Already 300 million people have no access to drinking water and around 400 of the 600 cities and towns are afflicted with water shortage. This is despite the fact that China has 2.8 trillion cubic metres of water reserves. But as the country is burdened with a huge population, per head water reserve stands at only 2,300 cubic metres. So Beijing’s thirst for water should not surprise anybody.

The northern portion of China has 44.3% of the country’s population and 59.6% of arable lands but it has only 4.5% of the country’s water resources. Most of the country’s industrial establishments are also here. The region’s per capita water reserve is very low – a mere 747 cubic metres. So both agriculture and industry are under severe strain.

The solution envisaged by the Chinese political leadership is the mammoth transfer of water from South to North. This has two sections. Under the first one, three sets of canals are envisaged. Through the eastern and central sector canals, water is being lifted from the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze river and then transported to areas like Beijing and Tianjin. The western canals, which are yet to take shape, will link up the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, take water from the former to the latter, and then transport it to other parts of the country. The second section, whose feasibility is still being debated within China, proposes to transfer 200 billion cubic metres of water from the Brahmaputra to the northern parts of China.

Exploiting Indus

So, China has no way out but to seek unconventional supply of water from its southern part to the northern portion. India too has no other way but to keep a constant vigil so that its Tibet origin rivers are not dried out.

Sometimes China uses rivers as security apparatuses as it did during the recent Indo-China clash at the Galwan valley when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempted to divert the course of the Galwan river, a part of the Indus river system, to sweep away India’s Darbuk-Daulat Beg Oldi Road. Had the PLA been successful in doing so, then Shyok, the next river lying in the vicinity and a tributary of the Indus, would have lost its connection with Galwan, resulting in a huge decrease of water in the Indus.

The Indus, actually a river system, originates in the Tibetan plateau in the vicinity of Lake Mansarovar. It runs through India’s Ladakh region towards Gilgit-Baltistan, then takes a southerly turn and runs the entire length of Pakistan before emptying into the Arabian Sea. The river and its eastern tributaries are the lifelines of the Indian Punjab plains.

However, China is reported to have built a giant hydroelectric dam on the Indus in the Ngari Prefecture of Tibet. This dam is just 80 km from Demchok, a village in Ladakh on the Sino-Indian border. Reports of Chinese constructions of human habitats near the banks of the Indus in Tibet are also available. This may be part of China’s attempts to take total control over the transboundary river’s waters.

Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier, has now exhorted his countrymen to explore all options for augmentation of the country’s water resources. This implies that China will look towards other rivers emanating from Tibet. Already, China is lifting water beyond reasonable quantity from the Mekong river and this is giving rise to bitterness between China and other Southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Similarly, China has built hydroelectric dams on the Sutlej in Tibet and has been putting away large volumes of water from it for storage.

Withholding Information

It is time for New Delhi to keep a close watch on Beijing’s water policy. China is there on the Indus river in Pakistan, where in cooperation with the Pakistan army it will construct a cascade of dams on the Indus although this is sure to bring disaster to Pakistan’s agriculture and environment. Beijing has surfaced in Bangladesh too where it will do river engineering works for augmentation of the Teesta river waters. In addition to dam building and water diversion, China has been taking recourse to a third option — suspected withholding of hydrological data from the lower riparian countries.

One of the rivers most affected by it is the Sutlej. A 50 feet high water wall of the river had once swept away 200 people in the Kinnaur and Shimla districts of Himachal Pradesh. This was caused by bursts of glacial lakes on the Tibetan side of the Sutlej. The Sutlej basin has 334 glaciers and a good number of them are either melting or sleeping down. But China is often withholding information on what has been brewing up in the mountains inside its territories. This has now become a handy tool for Beijing for browbeating India, the lower riparian entity.

China would do well to remember the needs of the lower riparian countries and refashion its fast-paced capitalist development model, which demands intense use of water. But given the way things work in China, the ‘water war’ is sure to aggravate in future.

China’s water choke

(The author is a senior journalist and commentator specialising in politics and international affairs)

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