Chinese Dam Diplomacy on Brahmaputra River

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Author: Dr. Sahana Bose*

Date: May 8, 2013

The ongoing controversy regarding damming River Brahmaputra (known as Tsangpo in China) has many a time featured in the bilateral talks between India and China at various levels. However the most recent assurance from the Chinese authority came in Durban, last month on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit. The Chinese President Xi Jinping assuaged the worries of the Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh regarding the consequences of damming the river. China sought to assure India that the proposed dams are run-of-the-river hydro-electric projects and it will neither store water nor adversely affect its downstream flow to India. In spite of this, it has led to much conjecture among environmentalist and civil societies in India, even as there has been a striking paucity of information on Chinese intension in damming Brahmaputra River.

India and China do not have any water-sharing agreements, but instead have instituted a mechanism to exchange data on trans-border rivers through a working group including information on the measurement of flows. India is pressing China to have either a water commission or an inter-governmental dialogue or a treaty to deal with water issues between the two countries. China is unwilling to consider the proposal, but more importantly is also not keen to share much hydrological data with New Delhi. China is building three dams namely Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu over Brahmaputra in its territory to provide energy and water needs for its 1.34 billion people. This may create water conflicts among the lower riparian countries that the river during its journey cuts across many international boundaries this could lead to serious water mismanagement.

China’s Geographical Advantage over Dam Construction

The Brahmaputra River starts from Angsi Glacier, near Lake Mansarovar in Tibet. The river falls from an average altitude of 4000 metres, providing excellent potential of hydroelectricity generation. The river after running 1790 kilometres leaves Tibetan plateau near Namche Barwa and tumbles down into the plains of India forming a massive U bend in Arunachal Pradesh called as Dihang. It is then joined by Teesta and Padma Rivers in Bangladesh, before falling into Bay of Bengal. The massive U bend of the river Brahmaputra is very crucial in a sense that it is here, the river picks up huge amounts of water and momentum. This is where the three dams are being constructed just 550 kilometers away from Indian border near to the U bend area.

In constructing dams, the Chinese follows the principle of “Prior Appropriation”. It means that when a nation has the source of the river within its territory, it has the absolute right to access the water resources for its domestic use without any external interference. The River Brahmaputra sets the perfect example for China. Once the construction of dam is complete, the control on the water of Brahmaputra will be in the hands of China who can divert maximum discharge of the river water before it comes to India. Many analysts feel that other dams are likely to come up at the site of Lengda, Zhongda, Langzhen within a couple of years. They are also of the opinion that Dagu and Jiexu are likely to witness industrial development, so these dams later on may be converted into multipurpose projects.

Constant up gradation of the Bome-Medog Road that passes through the U bend areas has also been noted in order to facilitate connectivity with the area. More over the drought of 2011 affected the wheat production in eight provinces, in northeastern part of China and the Chinese fear that similar story may affect rest of the country. Therefore the interest of country’s economy can be safeguarded if a dam is constructed well in advance. It will not only prove as a useful mechanism in controlling floods and drought but also serve the waterway navigational purposes of the country.

Impact on Downstream Nation

Fifty percent of the catchment areas of the Brahmaputra River lie within Indian Territory. Deforestation in Brahmaputra Watershed Area has already resulted in increased siltation levels, flash floods and soil erosion. Flood control measures taken by Water Resources Department and Brahmaputra Board have not yielded its result and floods remain a perennial problem. Global climate is warming the Tibetan Plateau, causing more glaciers to melt and this could make Brahmaputra a seasonal river. Chinese policy in damming middle reaches of Brahmaputra to harness hydro-power and divert water to mainland China may cause drought in the north-eastern part of India and Bangladesh. Again if China discharges more waters during monsoon season it could create massive floods in the area. As the river reaches the delta and loses the momentum, sea water is likely to intrude causing greater ground water salinity. If China switches off the flow of the river completely, it has more to do with strategic imperatives than hydrological bias. The sharing of hydrological data needs more transparency between both the countries as absence of water sharing agreement leaves India with few options besides raising the issue in regular bilateral talks.

Past Experiences from Lower Riparian Countries

China’s neighbours have in the past voiced concern at the lack of information on new projects. The Chinese dam in far western Xinjiang has evoked concerns in Kazakhstan, where the water levels in the Irtysh and Ili rivers, crucial to the country’s water security have fallen. This experience has also created panic among Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia after China has dammed its major rivers. The countries of the Mekong River commission (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam) have accused China of retaining excessive water causing water levels downstream to fall to a lower level, leaving the consequences of river fragmentation, natural disasters degrade fragile ecologies and divert vital water supplies. Chinese construction of Tibet Three Gorges Dam on the Pondo Water Control Project since 2008 which is expected to be completed in 2014 has already raised serious environmental and risk concerns for its downstream South Asian Countries.

Future Consequences on India

There is an urgent need to replace Brahmaputra Board by Brahmaputra River Valley Authority and to collect more data on the lean flow of Brahmaputra River. India’s water sharing agreement with Bangladesh on Teesta River is still hanging and India should respond to it immediately to work together with Bangladesh to raise concern on Chinese dam making project. Water sharing agreement between India-China-Bangladesh and Bhutan is also required for comprehensive solutions to the problems of flood, erosion and water management in the north-eastern states. China does not have any water sharing agreement with the lower riparian countries of South and Southeast Asia. China’s geography gives it a strategic leverage over rest of the lower riparian countries on dam building as it has the largest water reservoirs of Asia and is technologically the most advanced countries amongst these riparian states.

The unilateral and non-cooperative decision of China is definitely a sign of exercising power over South Asian region. Though it should not be any difficult for India to detect change in dam construction works along the upper and middle reaches of Brahmaputra, what is required is more transparency in data sharing and establishment of an equitable water sharing agreement with China and among all other riparian states to avoid floods and droughts in Asia. Any alteration in the flow of the river Brahmaputra during summer or monsoon may create floods or droughts throughout Northeast India and Bangladesh. Just as the border issue is unlikely to be settled in near future, this limited cooperation on water is likely to create geopolitical tensions amongst the riparian countries of South Asia.

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(*The author is an Associate Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy or National Maritime Foundation. She can be reached at sahanadona_bose@yahoo.com.)