China’s watery threat to India

Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra will significantly cut water to Assam and can inundate the Northeast

By Author Amitava Mukherjee   |   Published: 23rd Dec 2020   12:05 am Updated: 22nd Dec 2020   11:33 pm

China considering a proposal to build a major hydroelectric dam over the Brahmaputra river (locally called Yarlung Tsangpo) in the Medog County of Tibet is a vital strategic move by Beijing insofar as its India policy is concerned.

The proposed dam will be located approximately 30 km from the Sino-Indian border at Arunachal Pradesh and very near the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra where the mighty river, after originating from the Angsi Glacier near Mount Kailash and traversing nearly 1,790 km in southern Tibet, enters India near Mount Namcha Barwa after a great U-turn. This is called the Great Bend of the river. Here it experiences nearly a 2,000 metre fall through the deepest canyon in the world.

Guiding Policy

Geographically, the dam, proposed to be twice as big as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, will be something new and strategically, it will be an important step forward in China’s continued efforts towards controlling the water resources of Tibet which feed not only the Indian subcontinent but other countries of South and Southeast Asia.

China’s India policy is now being guided by two dominant considerations — safety and security of the road connecting Tibet with Xinjiang through Aksai Chin and keeping India under constant pressure in areas south of the McMahon Line by a spectre, real or unreal, of the blockade of Brahmaputra waters.

How many dams has China really built in Tibet on the Brahmaputra? There is a veil of secrecy and confusion over the issue. We know it for certain that Beijing has already commissioned a big hydropower dam at Zangmu in the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra and three more are coming up at Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha. These are all perhaps on the main stream of the river.

But Brahmaputra is a river system with many tributaries and perhaps some more dams are being built at different locations. Some recent media reports have quoted the number of such dams to be 11. However, some years ago Jana Jagriti, an Assam-based NGO, pointed out that 35 dams are coming up on the Brahmaputra in Tibet — eight on the main stream of the river and 27 more on the tributaries.

Causes for Concern

There are reasons for panic. China went ahead with conceptualisation and execution of the Zangmu dam. In the beginning, it continuously denied the existence of any such project but ultimately admitted to it in 2010 after persistent queries from not just India but several other countries. Then a disaster happened in 2012 when on March 1 of that year, the River Siang (this is how the Brahmaputra is known in Arunachal Pradesh) went completely dry at Pasighat where it used to be voluble and wide. Although the river picked up momentum later, it did not attain its former virility.

What may be the fallout of China’s design to construct dams on the Tibetan rivers, particularly the Brahmaputra? As a lower riparian country, India is hamstrung by the absence of any water-sharing treaty with China. Beijing is yet to open up its mouth in regard to the nature of the giant Medog hydroelectric project. But so far as the other dams on the Brahmaputra are concerned, its constant refrain is that these projects are run-of-the-river types and hence would in no way result in blockade of downstream waters. But an alarming portent lies elsewhere. After the deadly Galwan clash in Ladakh, Beijing has stopped sharing of river water data with India and New Delhi is not in the know of hydrological changes of the Brahmaputra in Tibet, if there is any.

But even if the hydropower projects are of run-of-the-river types, causes of worry remain for India as all the dams will be required to store huge amount of water and thus may deprive north-eastern India of the nutrient-rich silt of the Brahmaputra that makes the Assam plains so fertile.

watery threat
Source: Twitter

Disturbing Flow

As all the dams mentioned above will be situated in close proximity to each other, free flow of the Brahmaputra water is sure to be disturbed. As a result, Assam may get 64% less water during the monsoon and 85% less water in the rest of the year. Moreover, these dams would provide China another leverage. It can release less water during summer, if it wishes. Similarly, during the monsoon, it can arbitrarily open up the gates of the dams thus inundating large parts of the Northeast.

To call a spade a spade, Indian political leadership has been found to be unequal to fathom the massive danger that may lie ahead. Today, the Indian media is agog with the story of the Medog hydroelectric dam. But few noticed the construction of the Bome-Medog highway in southern Tibet in the first half of this decade, a sort of infrastructural upgradation which goes along the setting up of big projects.

Not only the proposed hydropower station near the Great Bend but also all the other dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet are situated in areas near the geological faultlines where the Indian Plate collides with the Eurasian Plate. Therefore, these giant plants and their dams will have to live under constant threats of earthquakes. In such an event, large parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh will go under water.

Beijing has said that it will take into account the interests of the upstream and downstream countries while formulating the plans for the proposed power plant. However, both China and India should keep in mind the interests of the Brahmaputra river as well and prevent a rat race for control of the river water as India is also considering a proposal for construction of a 10 gigawatt hydropower plant in Arunachal Pradesh.

Moreover, there are earlier proposals for the construction of more such projects on the rivers Lohit and Subansiri, two tributaries of the mighty river. They will entail construction of big dams and displacement of a large number of people. According to an Indian official, India is apprehending discharge of huge volumes of water from the Chinese dams in Tibet in the monsoon period.

But there is a third country – Bangladesh – whose fate is locked to the Brahmaputra. For the sake of ecology and humanity, Brahmaputra should have a free flow. Good sense should prevail in Beijing and New Delhi.

(The author is a senior journalist and commentator. He specialises in politics and international affairs)

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