Unravelling the Mystery of Brahmaputra River Issue

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Brahmaputra River Issue

On 07 September 2012, our former President Late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam made a prophetic statement while speaking at St Thomas College, Pala saying, “Future wars will be over water”. While referring to this, one is not talking about the present Cauvery Water Crisis between Karnataka and Tamilnadu. There has been a lot of discomfort in the Indian strategic circles that China may choke the water of Brahmaputra, known as Yarlong Zangbo in China, either by constructing dams on it or by diverting her waters, thereby affecting the availability of water for the middle riparian state of India and the lower riparian state of Bangladesh. China has not signed a water sharing treaty with any country and that increases the uncertainties about her behaviour over water.

All strategists studying China know about her penchant for building her asymmetric capabilities. Colonel Qiao Liang and Colonel Wang Xiangsui, two Chinese Colonels who wrote a book titled ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ in which they described all types of asymmetric capabilities that China may use against her adversaries. They mention that modern technology can be employed to influence the natural state of rivers under the subject of Ecological Warfare. Such writings by Chinese themselves have added to the concerns about China’s intentions with respect to the dams that she is building on Brahmaputra.

For long, there has been an uneasy expectation that China will divert the waters of Brahmaputra from the Great Bend (that is created by the Yarlong Zangbo going around the massive Namcha Barwa Feature), to get water to the parched Northern parts of China (Refer Map1).

Northern parts of China map_1
Map 1.

More worrying than China’s construction of Hydro power dams on the Brahmaputra is the proposed northward diversion of its waters at the Great Bend. If this diversion takes place, it may result in a significant drop in the river’s water level as it enters India. Should that happen, then it will have a serious impact on agriculture and fishing in the downstream areas as the salinity of water will increase. Some analysts predict the extreme view that “water wars” could break out between India and China while a few others reject such predictions of a Sino-Indian war over the Brahmaputra.

However, Jiao Yong, the then Chinese Vice Minister for Water Resources is on record saying that, “The Yarlung Zangbo river flows across China’s Qinghai Tibet Plateau. Many Chinese citizens have been calling for greater usage of this river. However, considering the technical difficulties, actual need of diversion, possible impact on the environment and state-to-state relations, the Chinese government has no plans to conduct any diversification project in this river”. He said this in response to a query during a press conference in Beijing on 13 October 2011.

Many a time the Brahmaputra water diversion project is also confused with the three water diversion projects that China is undertaking (Refer Map 2).

Map 2
Map 2.

All these are part of the river linking projects that China thought of during Mao Zedong’s regime in the 1950s. The $62 billion South-North Water Transfer Project aims to divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water per year from the Yangtze River in Southern China to the Yellow River Basin in arid Northern China. The Eastern and Central Diversions are already functioning. The project suffers from cost over runs and environmental problems.

The problem of water issues gets compounded if it is taken in conjunction with the number of dams that China is constructing on the Yarlung Zangbo river. There have been divergent views on the dams on Brahmaputra. As per Romesh Bhattacharji, a former Indian bureaucrat “India has nothing to be worried about”. The Zangmu hydropower station is a run-of-the-river project and Brahmaputra’s waters will continue to flow to India as before. He also says, “Brahmaputra gets most of its waters after entering India.” Dr Jabin Jacob, Assistant Director of Institute of China Studies echoes his view. He says, “Brahmaputra gets most of its waters after entering India.” It is the Brahmaputra’s tributaries in India and the heavy rainfall here that provides roughly 70 percent of the water volume of the Brahmaputra River. However, some analysts warn that even though the Brahmaputra gathers the bulk of its volume in India, 30 percent of the river’s flow is a large enough component to have adverse effects and even as low as a 10 percent diversion could have serious consequences for downstream areas.

In October 2015, the Zangmu Hydroelectric Project was commissioned on the Yarlung Zangbo, which flows into India as the Siang River and then becomes the Brahmaputra. Zangmu is located approximately 250 Kms West of the Great Bend. Three more hydroelectric projects, Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha are being constructed on the Yarlung Zangbo (Refer Map3).

map 3 - Yarlung Zangbo
Map 3.

China’s Xinhua reported on 30 September 2016 that China has blocked the Xiabuqu river, a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo, at Xigatse in the Tibetan Autonomous Region to build the Lalho hydroelectric project. (Refer Map4) This project started in June 2014 and is expected to finish in 2019. Therefore, blocking of the this river for the project is not related to the present crisis with Pakistan. On 08 October 2016, China’s Foreign Ministry assured India that this dam will have no impact on down stream flows as it can hold only 0.02% of the rivers average run off. It further said that India is monitoring the volumes of the river and is provided the hydrological data from 15 May to 15 October every year.

map 4 - Hydrological data
Map 4.

The jury is still out on whether China will divert the Brahmaputra’s water to her parched North. Even when China was constructing the Three Gorges Dam and the Qinghai – Tibet Railway doubts were being raised about the technical problems that these projects would face. Not only did she overcome the technical problems but she also finished these projects one year ahead of time. Therefore, prudence demands that we plan that China may sometime in future go for diversion of water from Brahmaputra. Water and land issues are greatly influenced by emotions. Since China is an upper riparian state, we should make constant efforts to convince China that the negative results of the water diversion projects will far outweigh the advantages. As far as the run of the river projects are concerned, since they will not materially affect the flow of water on the Brahmaputra, one need not be very vociferous about them. It goes without saying that the areas of Great Bend and the areas where the dams are coming up need to be constantly monitored. The dam on the Xiabuqu River for the Lalho Hydro Electric Project is located on a tributary that drains into Yarlung Zangbo. How much it will affect the flow of water in Brahmaputra needs to studied and should it be significant, our concerns should be discussed with China. It should be understood that the Lalho Project is in China’s territory and she has no treaty obligation with us. Reasoning with China may or may not work. But it seems to be the better choice available with India because the other path of confrontation and conflict will not be fruitful to India till at least the middle of the next decade.

As a repartee, in a bid to exploit the enormous hydropower potential of the Brahmaputra, India is also planning the construction of a number of mega dams and micro hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh. (Refer Map 5)

map_5
Map 5.

In India also, the Interlinking of River (ILR) programme is of national importance and has been taken up on high Priority. Hon’ble Minister for Water Resources, RD & GR is monitoring the progress of ILR on weekly basis. The mission of this programme is to ensure greater equity in the distribution of water by enhancing the availability of water in drought prone and rain fed area. The National Perspective Plan (NPP) prepared by Ministry of Water Resources, has already identified 14 links under Himalayan Rivers Component and 16 links under Peninsular Rivers Component for inter basin transfer of water based on field surveys and investigation and detailed studies. Out of these, Feasibility Reports of 14 links under Peninsular Component and 2 links (Indian portion) under Himalayan Component have been prepared.

It is easily seen that countries like India and China carry out such projects based on the necessity. We need to see China’s handling of the Brahmaputra issue also in that light. There are lurking shadows in the Brahmaputra River Issue but India should be confident of herself in handling them with China.

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