Saturday, October 8th, 2022 03:18:09

What Will Happen To The Brahmaputra?

Updated: April 4, 2015 4:40 pm

Water scarcity in China has now reached an alarming proportion. Already 300 million people have no access to drinking water and around 400 out of 600 cities and towns are afflicted with water shortage

A new area of conflict between China and India is developing with the former already commissioning the first unit of the 510 megawatt hydro-electric project over the Brahmaputra (called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) at Zangmu in the Tibet Autonomous region and announcing its decision to build three more such plants at Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha. All the projects mentioned above are in the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra river and involve construction of big dams. Recently Michael Buckley, a Canadian environmentalist, has averred that China has been constructing a five dam cascade on the mid reaches of the Brahmaputra and twenty more dams have been planned for the mighty river and its tributaries. Calculation by Jana Jagriti, an Assam-based NGO, points out that thirty five dams are now coming up in Tibet over the Brahmaputra river—eight on the mainstream of the river and twenty seven more on its tributaries.

But the irony lies in the fact that India too has cast its covetous eye on the Brahmaputra and may contribute its mite towards destruction of the eco system.

There is now an existential threat to the mighty river and both India and Bangladesh will be affected. The Government of India should be aware about it but it has been exhibiting strange pusillanimity each time the issue crops up. Quite sometimes back the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured the nation that there was nothing to be worried about as the Chinese dams are run-of-the-river type. Still in February, 2014, Salman Khurshid, the then Indian External Affairs Minister, had asked his own government’s Ministry of Water Resources to verify whether these dams are really run-of-the-river type or are storage dams. It was also decided by the previous UPA government that the ministries of Defence, External Affairs and the Department of Space would take up the matter jointly with China. Has the succeeding government of Narendra Modi decided to follow the same course? Nothing is clearly known.

There are reasons for panic. On March 1, 2012 the river Siang (this is how the Brahmaputra is known in Arunachal Pradesh) had run completely dry at a place called Pasighat where it used to be really voluble and wide. Although the river picked up momentum later on yet it has not attained its former virility.

Perhaps the Indian government has never been satisfied with Chinese explanations. After all Beijing denied the construction of the already commissioned Zangmu dam for a long time and ultimately admitted the conceptualisation and progress of the project in as late as 2010 after consistent queries from not just India but some other nations also. Moreover, even if the dams are of run-of-the-river types, they are required to store huge amount of water and thus may deprive the north-eastern India of the nutrient rich silt of the Brahmaputra that makes the Assam plains so fertile. All the dams mentioned above will be quite close to each other and this may pose extra hindrance to free flow of the Brahmaputra water. There is a possibility that due to the coming up of such a good number of hydro-electric dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet, Assam will get 64 per cent less water during the monsoon season and 85 per cent less water in the rest of the year.

The problem has been compounded by the absence of any water sharing treaty between India and China. Therefore, the proposed dams would give China leverage. During the lean season it will be able to deprive India of the much needed Brahmaputra water, if it wishes. Similarly, during the monsoon it can arbitrarily release water from these dams causing widespread floods in the north-eastern India.

While India is still dithering, Bangladesh has woken up to the threat in a more befitting manner. It has already sent a letter of protest to Beijing and forwarded copies of it to New Delhi. There may be bigger threats to India’s and Bangladesh’s interests if China goes ahead with the widely speculated giant hydro-electric project at a place called Medog, near the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra river. It may be pertinent to note here that the Brahmaputra originates from the Angsi glacier near Mount Kailash and after traversing nearly 1790 kilometres in southern Tibet it 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 2000 metres fall through the deepest canyon in the world.

Now there are indications that China is serious about the Medog project. It has recently built the Bome-Medog highway in south-eastern Tibet, a sort of infrastructural upgradation which goes along with construction of projects. After all, fast-paced capitalist development has necessitated more and more exploitation of energy and water resources in China and in consonance with this China had fixed a generation target of 120 million kilowatts of electricity during its twelfth five year plan period spanning from 2011-2015.

China has a penchant for giant engineering projects and the one near the Great bend of the Brahmaputra, if it materialises, will be twice as big as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, the largest of its kind in the world. It alone will generate 38-49 gigawatts of electricity while India’s total installed hydropower capacity is only 33 gigawatts.

But geology is not on China’s side and this is a potential danger for India too as all the hydropower projects mentioned above are situated in an area which is very close to the geological fault line where the Indian Plate collides with the Eurasian Plate. Therefore these giant plants and their dams will have to live under constant threats of earthquake like the one (7.9 on Richter Scale) which had devastated the Three Gorges Dam in 2008 resulting in loss of many lives and properties. If such a thing happens again then large parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh will be flooded.

In December, 2014 China successfully diverted water from the Yangtze river to its arid north which includes the capital city of Beijing too. This is sufficient to open another floodgate of fear in India. Will Brahmaputra be the next target? After all the Chinese political leadership—from Mao Tse Tung to the current crop of leaders- has been toying with the idea of transferring water from the surplus south to the deficient north. In 1999, Jiang Jemin, the then Chinese President, had announced the Great Western Extraction Plan which would transfer huge volumes of water from Tibet to the Yellow river. In 2008, Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister of India, had raised the matter with the Chinese leadership. But then again Wen Ziabao, the Chinese Premiere, had bluntly replied that water diversion was imperative for China as the country is running short of water.

This is true but China must remember the needs of the lower riparian countries and if necessary, refashion its fast-paced capitalist developmental model which entails intense use of water. However, weather has not been uniformly kind to China. While the South of the country receives around 80 inches of annual rainfall the North gets anything ranging between 8-16 inches. But the country has allowed growth of large urban centres in the North like Beijing with more than 20 million population and Tianjin with around 12 million people. The result is destructive utilisation of ground water. Since 1999, ground water level of Beijing has subsided by 2.9 metres. If the calculation is stretched as far back as 1959 then the rate of subsidence is a staggering 59 metres.

Water scarcity in China has now reached an alarming proportion. Already 300 million people have no access to drinking water and around 400 out of 600 cities and towns are afflicted with water shortage. This is in spite of the fact that China has 2.8 trillion cubic metres of water reserves. But as the country is still burdened with a huge population per head water reserve stands at only 2300 cubic metres. So Beijing’s hunger for water should not surprise anybody and different South Asian nations should remain prepared for geostrategic tensions over this issue in the days to come. The northern portion of China has 44.3 percent of the country’s population and 59.6 percent of the arable land but it has only 4.5 percent of the country’s water resources. The region’s per capita water reserve is very low—only 747 cubic metres. So both agriculture and industry here are under severe strain.

The solution envisaged by the Chinese leadership is mammoth transfer of water from South to North. This has two sections. The first one involves transfer of 45 billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze river to the north and west of the country. The first part of it has become operational. The second plan aims to lift 50 billion cubic metres of water from the Brahmaputra and then pump it into the Yellow river.

There is, however, a controversy among the Chinese policy-makers about the technical feasibility of the Brahmaputra plan with one group of experts holding the view that it would be impossible to execute the project given the adverse geological and topographical conditions of the terrain. However, the other group firmly advocating execution of such projects holds much more clout in Chinese power structure and this gives enough discomfort in the other lower riparian countries.

Under such circumstances China should exhibit restraint and sagacity as the Himalayan river basins support more than 1.3 billion people of China, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Situation is grim as annual per capita water availability in all these basins will decrease by 13-35 per cent in the next two decades. Moreover, the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group has calculated that almost 70 per cent of the Himalayan glaciers on which 10-20 per cent of the Himalayan rivers solely depend on their water supply will melt in the next 100 years.

A rat race between India and China may soon commence over control of the Brahmaputra waters. New Delhi has already sanctioned an 800 megawatt hydro-electric project on the Brahmaputra and an expert group constituted by the previous UPA government has suggested more such projects on the rivers Lohit and Subansiri, two tributaries of the mighty river. Interestingly, the experts have suggested that these projects may be constructed at sites which are close to India’s border with China. Obviously, the motive is to throw a challenge to China and increase the bargaining power. But this may spell doom for the Brahmaputra.

Pathetic will be the condition of Bangladesh if India and China starts competing with each other over this issue. In spite of being a rain fed country, Bangladesh is largely dependent on external sources i.e. trans-national rivers for its water supply. It receives 1106 cubic kilometres of water per year from external sources out of which 600 cubic kilometres come from the Brahmaputra alone. Bangladesh’s own internal generation is only 105 cubic kilometers. So what will it do if the overwhelming majority of the Brahmaputra water is blocked and utilised at the upper reaches?

 

By Amitava Mukherjee

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