Water Wars: Why China Wants Brahmaputra

China and India are emerging as superpowers and in this struggle of growth the two countries are increasingly facing water constraints. This problem only gets worse as much of India’s rivers originate in China

“Water will be more important than oil in this century.” Former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali rightly asserted this fact that in the future water will be more important than oil. And so far, it has been true. The tug of war for water between China and India is the best example for this.

China and India are emerging as superpowers and in this struggle of growth the two countries are increasingly facing water constraints. This problem only gets worse as much of India’s rivers originate in China. Of the rivers that cross the Sino-Indian border, the most important is the Brahmaputra. It is an important river to lower riparian countries like India and Bangladesh as it is a source of life and livelihood for millions along its route. But the Chinese have embarked upon a series of dam-building and water-diversion projects that have the potential to significantly alter the river’s course and flow, raising the specter of severe harm to those downstream.

It is a fact that China is the world’s most aggressive dam builder. In 1949, China had only 22 dams, but this figure escalated to 25,000 in 2011. At least 16 per cent of China’s electricity generation comes from hydropower. Around 16 million people were displaced as a result of construction of these dams. Chinese water projects have already been accused of causing environmental damage and forced displacement of people in neighboring downstream countries. To the country’s southeast, for instance, although the governments of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have been reluctant to directly confront their larger neighbour over water use, tensions continue to rise as dams on the Chinese portion of the Mekong River are seen to disrupt river flows and cause environmental damage.

To understand the water dispute between China and India, we first need to understand the geography of China. The country is a home to almost 20 per cent of the world population, but it suffers from an acute shortage of water as it has only about 7 per cent of water resources. China has three main sources of water: glaciers, surface water and ground water. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has also deemed a quarter of China’s river water so polluted that it can’t be used for drinking, agriculture, or even industrial use. As of now, China’s most pressing problem is not the volume of fresh water available but over-utilisation of water resources by industries, its huge population and mismanagement of resources. Though all of the country’s renewable freshwater supply originates within the country, there is an uneven distribution of surface water across China.

The country’s major chunks of freshwater resources are located in the south and southwest regions, leaves the major part of North China and its dry. Against this backdrop, China has prepared two major water diversion projects: the South-North Water Diversion Project and the Great Western Route Diversion Project. The idea of a South-North water diversion was first introduced by Mao Zedong in 1952 and is estimated to be completed by 2050. This project is supposed to transfer nearly 44.8 million cubic meters of Southern waters from the Yangtze River to Beijing and Tianjin in the dry North through a series of tunnels, aqueducts and canals.

However, the issue of controversy surrounds the Great Western Route Diversion Project which will have huge ramifications for the lower riparian states of India and Bangladesh. It involves building a dam on the ‘Great Bend’ of the Brahmaputra, known as the Shuomatan Point —where the river does a u-turn and starts flowing east to India—into Arunachal Pradesh and then crossing the plains of Assam, eventually flowing into Bangladesh. This is a major concern for India as the river is a lifeline for the Northeastern part of it and with Chinese elusive strategy, India is only becoming helpless.

Jonathan Holslag, a research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies, says: “Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that China continues to study its options for funnelling water away from the Himalayas to the economic centers along the coast and the vast arid tracts of land in the west. In 2002, the state council approved the South-North Water Diversion Project. One part of this project concerns the upgrading of the Grand Canal between Hangzhou and Beijing. The second route connects the Yangtze river to Beijing. The third is expected to divert water from rivers in Tibet and Yunnan to the Yellow River. But in the western route, the diversion of the Brahmaputra has been the subject of most debate. Initial plans were developed in the late eighties, supported mainly by the military establishment. The military in turn managed to mobilize the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s supreme political advisory body. In 1997, He Zuoxiu, a scientist and member of the Consultative Conference, claimed that the western route could increase China’s arable land by an estimated 133 million hectares, which would resolve China’s agricultural problems and provide employment for 160 million people. ‘All in all, implementing this project would end unemployment in China and provide enough food for every Chinese,’ he stated.

“The first option for the western route is to build a dam on the Great Bend of the Yarlung near Longbai, 30 kilometers from Arunachal Pradesh. At the Great Bend the river flows through a gorge between two mountains and then descends almost 2,500 meters as it makes its bend. Damming the Yarlung at the Great Bend would generate power half the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. The Great Bend is also the starting point of the corridor proposed by water nationalists such as Guo Kai and Li Ning. The water from the Yarlung could be collected into a large reservoir near the Lajia Gorge and subsequently channelled to the Yellow River or the Qinghai Lake. From the Qinghai Lake, water would be supplied to Gaxan Nur in Inner Mongolia, Urumqi in Xinjiang, and the Tarim Desert. This is referred to as the Shuotian canal project. The entire project, with water corridors running to the Qinghai Lake and the Yellow River, would have a capacity of 50 to 200 billion cubic meters of water per year, or up to 6,000 cubic meters per second, which is as much as one-third of the Brahmaputra’s total average annual discharge. With an estimated cost of $25 billion, the Shuotian canal is a project of superlatives, involving the construction of a dam of 300 meters high, tunnels 56 kilometers long and dikes extending for hundreds of kilometers,” Holslag said.

The overall effects of large-scale dam construction are well understood by everyone as it includes decreased volume of water available for downstream use; disruption of natural flooding cycles; the holding back of nutrient-rich sediment; and changes to riparian, marine, and fishery ecology and economy. In future years, climate change may well exacerbate these effects, particularly in glacier-fed rivers like the Brahmaputra. Higher temperatures are likely to increase the rate at which glaciers melt, leading to increased river flows in the short run but decrease in long-term. If China moves ahead with its dam building, the result will be controlled by Beijing over an ever larger percentage of a constantly shrinking river, which will be disastrous for India.


Brahmaputra Origin


The Brahmaputra begins from its source in the Kailas range of the Himalayas and flows 2,300 miles before emptying into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. Its course takes it through China, India, and Bangladesh, and its watershed also falls within parts of Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma. Reflecting the diversity of people and geography along its course, the river goes by many names, including the Yarlung Tsangpo (also spelled Zangbo) in Tibet, the Brahmaputra in India, and the Jamuna in Bangladesh.

Beginning in the Tibetan Plateau’s Angshi Glacier, the river flows eastward for nearly 700 miles between the main range of the Himalayas to its south and the Kailas Range to its north, gaining strength from tributaries along the way. The river’s journey through Tibet takes place at an average altitude of more than 12,000 feet, making it the world’s highest-flowing river system.

After passing the city of Pei in Tibet, the river turns northeast and makes its so-called Great Bend in Tibet’s Nyangtri Prefecture. Here the river runs through narrow gorges in a series of rapids and cascades before turning south and southwest to flow through the Grand Canyon of the Tsangpo, the longest, steepest, and one of the deepest canyons on earth. The canyon’s overall average depth is about 7,440 feet, and at its deepest reaches 19,714 feet, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. During its journey through the canyon, the Brahmaputra has the largest slope deflection of any river surface in the world at 75.35 per cent. The geology creates the potential for immense hydropower generation if the river is tamed.

After leaving the Tibet Autonomous Region, the river then passes through the territory of Arunachal Pradesh, whose control remains disputed by China and India. This 56,000-square-mile area is currently controlled by India but was captured by China during their 1962 border war. Although Beijing subsequently withdrew voluntarily to the current effective line of demarcation, it still refuses to recognize India’s control over the region. The resulting border conflict, along with similar conflicts over other disputed segments of the border, remains one of the most significant potential flashpoints affecting Sino-Indian relations.

The river next enters Assam, where it is fed by other Himalayan tributaries to become the Brahmaputra. It is a powerful river even in the dry season, and during the rains its banks are more than six miles apart at points.

The river runs for several hundred miles through India before crossing the border into Bangladesh, where it follows a 150-mile course as the Jamuna. It then joins with the Ganges, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra is a huge river system, with more people living in its basin than in all of Western Europe and North America combined. The river system’s average discharge is the third largest in the world, behind only the Amazon and the Congo. At its terminus, more than 1,000,000 cubic feet per second of water flow into the ocean, approximately 700,000 of which are supplied by the Brahmaputra.         (RP)



Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India and the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers

October 23, 2013

                The Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India and the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China (hereafter referred to as the”parties”),

                Recalling the Working Regulations of the Expert Level Mechanism on Transborder Rivers between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India of April 2008, the MOU between the Ministry of Water Resources, the

People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India upon Provision of Hydrological Information of the Langqen Zangbo/Sutlej River in

Flood Season by China to India of December 2010, the

MOU between the Ministry of Water Resources, the

People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India upon Provision of Hydrological Information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River in Flood Season by China to India of May 2013, and the Joint Statement between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India of May 2013.

Have reached the following understanding

  • The two sides recognized that trans-border rivers and related natural resources and the environment are assets of immense value to the socioeconomic development of all riparian countries.
  • Both sides agreed that cooperation on trans-border rivers will further enhance mutual strategic trust and communication as well as strengthen the strategic and cooperative partnership. The two sides appreciated the role and importance of the Expert Level Mechanism on Trans-border Rivers between China and India.
  • The Indian side expressed appreciation to China for providing flood season hydrological data and the assistance in emergency management.
  • The Chinese side agreed to extend the data provision period of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River, which was agreed upon in the MOU between the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Water Resources, the Republic of India upon Provision of Hydrological Information of the Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River in Flood Season by China to India of May 2013 from 2014, that is to start from May 15th instead of June 1st to October 15th of the relevant year. The two sides shall implement this in accordance with related Implementation Plan. The ndian side expressed appreciation to the Chinese side in this regard.
  • The two sides agreed to further strengthen cooperation on transborder rivers, cooperate through the existing Expert Level Mechanism on provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest.

This Memorandum of Understanding will enter into force upon signature and can be amended and modified with mutual agreement.

Done in Beijing on this 23rd day of October 2013, in two originals each in Hindi, English and Chinese, languages, all texts being equally authentic. In case of any divergence in interpretation, the English text shall prevail. For the Ministry of Water Resources, Government of the Republic of India

For the Ministry of Water Resources, the People’s Republic of China.


      By Rohan Pal

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