China’s Tricky Brahmaputra plan


Research Assistant, Centre for Development & Peace Studies

Border dispute and bilateral trade may be the two hot topics holding priority at India–China talks, but the issue of shared water resources, particularly Chinese activities in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, is getting India increasingly concerned.

When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived New Delhi on May 19, 2013 to hold talks with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister persistently took up the water issue while seeking a joint mechanism with China for better transparency regarding 39 project sites that has been identified on tributaries of the Brahmaputra, including seven on the main river, by Indian intelligence and satellite imagery. In the absence of a river water–sharing treaty between the two countries, a joint mechanism will allow India to seek specific information about the upstream projects in China, their construction schedule, the likely impact on people, environment and downstream river flows. However, India could only get the Chinese Premier to announce the ‘renewal’ of an already existing pact between the two countries on sharing flood data during the monsoon season. At a joint press conference, Mr. Li said he was ready to share more information on hydrology and rivers but there was no official word on setting up a joint mechanism to address India’s concerns on dams coming up on the Brahmaputra on the Chinese side.

According to this flood data agreement pact, China will provide India with information on water level, discharge and rainfall at 8 am and 8 pm (Beijing time) twice a day from June 1 to October 15 every year at three hydrological stations including Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia, lying on the mainstream of Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river. It will also provide data if water levels exceed the mutually agreed levels during the non–flood season.

While the data may be helpful for better flood alerts in Assam, it does not address India’s core concern of possible Chinese plans to divert the Brahmaputra’s waters to its arid north–western provinces, a matter that has concerned India in recent years. The real worry for India, however, is not whether China will divert the Brahmaputra but when could it actually do so. China has already identified the point of diversion, the U–bend where the Brahmaputra forms the world’s longest and deepest canyon just before entering India. It is at this Great Bend that China plans to divert water, and also build hydro–electric power projects that could generate 40,000 megawatts of power.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed India’s concerns about the effect of “activities in the upper reaches of our shared rivers” on lower riparian states to Premier Li Keqiang, he was referring to the three hydropower projects coming up on the Chinese side of the Brahmaputra in addition to the Zangmu Dam.

A document titled ‘Plan for Energy Development during the Period of the Twelfth Five–year Plan’, which has been posted in China’s State Council website, mentions three dams to be built at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu over the river Brahmaputra. The document, listing projects to be completed in China’s 12th five year plan (2011–15), made a passing reference to the three dams without any details. The new projects were reportedly approved by China at the State Council or Cabinet meeting on January 23, 2013.

If China continues with its plan to build more dams on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, it would surely affect the downstream areas in Northeast India. As this region is primarily dependent on agriculture, such depletion in water resources due to dam building would have an adverse impact on the economy of the region. On February 3, 2013, an NGO in Guwahati alleged that China is building 26 hydro–power dams on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet. They further said that once China completes these projects, India will receive 64 per cent less water during the monsoon and 85 per cent less in the non–monsoon season. If these claims turn out to be true, it could seriously harm India’s interests.

To this, the Chinese Premier claimed that the new dams would not store water as they would be run of the river projects, and, therefore, wouldn’t have any impact on the flow of water to downstream areas in India. Beijing also reassured that the run–of–the–river hydropower projects on the river would not come in the way of the flood control and disaster reduction efforts in the lower reaches and would not disturb the ecological balance.

Although China kept away from mentioning anything regarding its plans of diverting the Brahmaputra during the talks, tell–tale signs like making the widened black–topped Bome–Medog highway operational in just three years, is what prompted India to watch out for possible river–diversion plans. This road, with a 3.3 km tunnel, 29 bridges and 227 culverts goes downstream of the Brahmaputra and into the easternmost Himalayas.

These were the sort of information sought by India which would have been available had China agreed on launching a joint mechanism as the Indian delegation suggested to the visiting Chinese Premier instead of just a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on “Provision of Hydrological Information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River in Flood Season by China to India”.

“It would be useful for the mandate of our expert level mechanism to be expanded to include information sharing on upstream development projects on these rivers,” Manmohan Singh said in a statement after the signing of eight agreements, including the MoU concerning the Brahmaputra. He also said it would be useful for India and China to collaborate on a better understanding of the “stresses on our shared Himalayan ecosystem”. This was indirectly urging China to recognise and act upon Indian concerns about the water crisis that could be aggravated because of Chinese projects on the Brahmaputra.

Indian ambassador to China, S. Jaishankar, remarked that the Chinese response was “sympathetic”. “I think they recognise that we have concerns. They pointed out that they were responsible, that they would not do something which would damage our interests,” he told reporters.

As China categorically avoided sharing crucial information with India about its activities and plans for the Brahmaputra, getting information on Chinese activity on the Brahmaputra would remain a top priority for the government. A committee of secretaries and an inter–ministerial expert group, led by the ministry of external affairs, were established to look into the matter. It was decided to monitor Chinese activity on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries on a continuous basis. “The logical step now is to expand (the mandate of the expert level mechanism). We want to know what is going on, we want more information,” said water resources secretary S.K. Sarkar, who signed the MoU with Wu Shulin, Chinese vice–minister for state general administration of press, publication, radio, film and television. Sarkar maintained that India would be worried about water supply in the lean season, despite Chinese assurances of being a responsible upper riparian state. In fact, a huge water storage project is being surveyed for feasibility in Arunachal Pradesh.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi thanked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for taking up the matter of construction of dams (especially the three additional dams) by China on the Brahmaputra with Li Keqiang. “The Prime Minister’s ‘bold stance’ on the dam issue would allay apprehensions in the minds of the people of the state in particular and the Northeast region as a whole”, Gogoi said.

(courtesy: The Sentinel,published on 3 August 2013,

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