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India needs to watch Beijing's moves on the Brahmaputra closely

POSTED ON 15 OCTOBER 2016

wasbir hussain
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CDPS

Last fortnight, there was a disturbing news for Assam and India as a whole, emanating from Beijing. The news was that China has blocked a tributary of the Brahmaputra river in Tibet as part of the construction of its “most expensive” hydro project. The Lalho project on Xiabuqu river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Tibet’s Xigaze (also called Shigatse), is being constructed at a cost of 4.95 billion yuan ($740 million), making it the most expensive project in China, the state-run news agency, Xinhua, said. The construction work on the project began in June 2014 and is scheduled to be completed in 2019.

New Delhi appears to have taken the reports seriously, but has come up with a predictable response. “We have conveyed to the Chinese side that they should be mindful of the interests of the lower riparian country while undertaking any projects on these rivers. The Chinese side has conveyed on several occasions that they are only undertaking run-of-the-river hydro power projects which do not involve diversion of the waters of the Brahmaputra...,” a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs has been quoted as saying.

The matter this time is serious because China has actually confirmed having blocked the Brahmaputra’s tributary. In fact, construction of the dam in question began in 2014 and the particular river must have been blocked on and off from then and now. The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, The Global Times, has said in an article that the tributary was blocked only ‘temporarily’ just for the construction of the dam. The article said relations between China and India should not be affected by an “imaginary water war”. It added: “It is easy to understand the anger of Indian people as they read recent news reports saying China had blocked a tributary of the Brahmaputra river, which is a trans-boundary river flowing from Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region into the northeastern Indian state of Assam and later into Bangladesh, serving as an important water source for the regions.”

New Delhi has for long been maintaining that it has a bilateral agreement with China to share information on cross-border rivers which include Brahmaputra and Sutlej, besides an expert level mechanism which meets regularly to discuss issues concerning cross-border rivers. Following reports of the recent blockade of the river in question, India has said the matter would be raised at the next expert-level meeting. Moreover, India often mentions the existence of a data sharing arrangement under which the Chinese side provides data during flood season on Brahmaputra and Sutlej. This arrangement, New Delhi maintains, has been useful in preventing damage during flood season, especially during landslides which create temporary dams.

During Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to China in June 2014, a MoU was signed in presence of his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao in which Beijing agreed to provide 15 days’ additional hydrological data—from May 15 to October 15 each year. But, viewed closely, the concerned MoU on the Brahmaputra flood data means nothing as additional 15 days hydrological information will not enable India to deal with the problem any differently. What India needs are inputs from the Chinese side on dams and other projects Beijing is pursuing or intends to pursue based on the waters of the Yarlung Zangbo. The 510 MW Zangmu dam built at the Gyaca County in the Shannan Prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region has already been commissioned. What must be noted is that Beijing has given clearance for construction of 27 other dams on the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra) river that flows 1625 km across China and 918 km through India in its downstream course.

Moreover, at the Great Bend when the river enters India, also known as the Shoumatan Point, China actually plans to divert water, and also build hydroelectric power projects that could generate 40,000 megawatts of power. The plan to divert the Brahmaputra is a reality because China wants to solve the water scarcity in its arid Northern areas. The diversion of the water is part of a larger hydro-engineering project, the South-North water diversion scheme, which involves three man-made rivers carrying water to its northern parts. If the water is diverted, the amount of water in the Brahmaputra will fall significantly, affecting India’s Northeast, including Bangladesh. Estimates suggest roughly 60 per cent of the total water flow will fall if China is successful in diverting the Brahmaputra. Besides, it will severely impact agriculture and fishing as the salinity of water will increase, as will silting in the downstream area.

With an unprecedented mandate and a demonstrated policy to improve ties with its neighbours, the new Narendra Modi Government can initiate setting up of something like a South Asia Shared Rivers Commission or Authority by bringing on board Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. The Commission can begin by formulating a framework agreement among the states having the shared rivers for their use, development, protection, conservation and management of the water and related resources and establish an institutional mechanism for cooperation among these states. Once such a Commission emerges and a cooperative framework on the shared rivers is agreed to by the concerned states, it can engage with China and try to bring Beijing on board. After all, eleven major rivers flow out of China to countries in its neighbourhood and there is enough commonality of interest. (courtesy: The Sentinel)