China and India: River Wars in the Himalayas
April 1, 2014
Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s admission in February that the Indian government has asked its Ministry of Water Resources to clarify whether the Chinese dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (called Brahmaputra in India) are run-of-the-river type or storage dams proves conclusively that New Delhi has so far taken all Chinese assurances in this regard with a pinch of salt. It appears that diplomatic nicety, rather than carefully analyzed facts, had earlier induced not only the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but some other responsible government ministers to accept Beijing’s stand that the proposed hydro-electric projects on the Brahmaputra in Tibet are all run-of-the-river types and hence pose no threat to India’s downstream interests. But beneath diplomatic compulsions, doubts about the Chinese river training activities on the Brahmaputra persist in Indian minds and therefore New Delhi has been raising the issue again and again with Beijing. Very recently an inter-departmental committee with representatives from the ministries of external affairs, defence and the Department of Space has decided to take up the matter with Beijing.
China is currently building a hydro-electric power plant at a place called Zangmu in the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet. It has also announced its decision to construct three more such plants on the same river at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu. Although India previously accepted the Chinese explanation of the abovementioned projects being run-of-the-river type, the latest statement from the country’s external affairs minister reveals that skepticism over Chinese intentions remains. Although Indian allegations about Chinese dam-building activities on the Brahmaputra date back more than a decade, Beijing admitted to the construction of the Zangmu dam as late as 2010 and only after a series of denials. Moreover, run-of-the-river projects can be seen as a necessary step to lower water levels and potentially reroute the main river course. In this sense, any dam in a geologically unstable area like Tibet could turn out to be ruinous.
The Chinese decision has created panic in northeastern India, where the Brahmaputra is a lifeline and widely regarded as an important part of the region’s cultural heritage. There is still a confusion about the exact number of dams China intends to build on the Brahmaputra. Jana Jagriti, a non-governmental organization (NGO), has averred that China would construct twenty six hydro-electric projects in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra. One may dispute the number but the fact remains that China has targeted a capacity of 120 million kilowatts of hydro-electricity in its 12th five year plan period from 2011-2015.
The Chinese government has a penchant for grandiose projects and there are reports that it may construct a giant hydro-electric project at a place called Medog near the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra. This project might just be at the drawing board stage now but Beijing has been upgrading the Bome-Medog road in Tibet, an indication of the kind of infrastructure development that generally precedes a big project. This power station, if constructed, will be twice as big as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the world’s largest hydro power plant. It would have a generation capacity of 38-49 gigawatts which is more than India’s current total installed hydro power capacity of 33 gigawatts.
Any gigantic project near the Great Bend of the river is sufficient cause for concern for the people of northeastern India and the Assam plains in particular. The Brahmaputra River originates from the Angsi Glacier near Mount Kailash, and after traversing more than 1,790 kilometers in southern Tibet, it enters India near Mount Namcha Barwa after a great U-turn. Here the river experiences a near 2,000 meter fall through the deepest canyon in the world and has great water volume and momentum.
If the four abovementioned hydro power plants, the one that’s under construction at Zangmu, and the three others that were recently announced are all run-of-the-river type, they pose a threat to the Assam plains. Due to these projects, Brahmaputra may lose much of the silt which makes the soil of northeastern India fertile. Secondly, using these hydro-electric dams, China can easily deprive India of much-needed water during the lean season as India and China are yet to sign any river water sharing treaty. In fact according to calculations made by Jana Jagriti, after the completion of the Chinese river training projects, India will receive 64 percent less Brahmaputra water during the monsoon season and 85 percent less water the rest of the year. Moreover, there may be floods in the northeast if China decides to release water from these dams arbitrarily.
There is yet another grave threat. All of the hydro power stations mentioned above, particularly the area surrounding the Great Bend, are situated in an earthquake prone region and very close to the geological fault line where the Indian Plate collides with the Eurasian Plate. In 2008 the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River gave way under stress of an earthquake (7.9 on the Richter scale) in the eastern rim of Tibet, resulting in the loss of many lives. It raised questions over gigantic Chinese projects in geologically unstable areas, leading some experts to point their fingers at the high Zipingpu dam. Their opinion was that the earthquake might have been caused by the stupendous weight of the water of this dam, which was just five kilometers away from the epicenter of the quake and half a kilometer away from the seismic fault line.
It’s true that New Delhi is far behind Beijing so far in terms of utilizing the Brahmaputra’s water. India’s total hydro power potential is 84,044 megawatts, of which 31,857 megawatts can be accessed in the northeastern part of the country. However, only three percent of it is now being utilized. The Indian government has only recently sanctioned an 800 megawatt hydro-electric project on the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh. According to international law, the existing water usage of any river is to be taken as the parameter for its sharing. However, neither India nor China is signatory to any relevant treaty. Therefore, the only reasonable solution lies in the signing of a bilateral river water sharing treaty; a solution that China has been dexterously avoiding.
Amitava Mukherjee is a contributor to the Geopoliticalmonitor.com