Monday, October 17, 2016

Damming The Brahmaputra: Is Beijing Sending A Message To New Delhi?

A view across the Brahmaputra near Sukhleswar Ghat, Guwahati, India. Photo by Deepraj, Wikipedia Commons

For India, disturbing news has come from the Himalayas. China has announced that it would block the water of the river Xiabuku, a tributary of the Brahmaputra River (called Yarlung Tsangpo in China) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in order to construct a dam which will be a part and parcel of the Lalho hydro-electric project at a place called Xigaze, very near to Sikkim.

There are two causes of worry for India. First, the already commissioned Zangmu hydro power plant and three other proposed such projects in Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha, all in the TAR, may not be run-of-the-river type as declared by China and believed to be true by India. Secondly, China’s policy declarations in regard to Tibetan rivers show signs of constant shifts and so the possibility of Beijing one day declaring its resolve to divert the Brahmaputra waters from Tibet to northern parts of China may not be discounted.

The Chinese announcement has come at a time when India has carried out surgical military strikes into Pakistan and there are broad hints from government circles that India may revisit the Indus Water Treaty which ensures supply of Indus waters to Pakistan. Beijing is perhaps sending a message across that a large part of northeastern India is dependent on Chinese mercy so far as Brahmaputra waters are concerned.

For a long time, China denied construction of the Zangmu hydro power dam but ultimately admitted its conceptualization and progress of construction in as late as 2010 after consistent queries from not just India but some other nations also. Moreover all the dams mentioned above are quite close to each other, in some cases within 20 miles, in the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra and are bound to obstruct free flow of the river water. Moreover even if the projects at Zangmu, Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha are 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.

A more serious cause of worry is the actual number of hydro-electric dams being built over the Brahmaputra in TAR. Jana Jagriti, an Assam based non-governmental organization, avers that China is building up thirty five dams on the Brahmaputra- eight on the mainstream river and twenty seven on the tributaries- while Michael Buckley, a Canadian environmentalist, thinks that a five dam cascade will soon come up in the mid reaches of the Brahmaputra and twenty more dams are in the pipeline.

But China has no other way but to exploit more and more its energy and water resources in order to keep its fast paced capitalist development going. In its just concluded twelfth five year plan Beijing had fixed a target of 120 million kilowatt of electricity generation, a staggering amount by any standard. For achieving this it has no other way but to fall back on hydro electricity.

This raises the all-important question: will China go ahead with the Medog hydro power plant? This project alone aims to generate anything between 38-49 gigawatts of hydro-electricity while India’s total installed capacity is 33 gigawatts only. This project will be located near the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra where the mighty river enters India after a great U turn and a 2000 metres fall through the deepest canyon in the world near Mount Namcha Barwa.

Medog hydro power plant will give India sleepless night. It will be situated close to Arunachal Pradesh and is expected to suck a great amount of the Brahmaputra water before it enters India. Secondly, it entails destruction of vast pristine forests. Thirdly all the hydro power projects mentioned above are situated in geologically unstable areas which are prone to earthquakes. So if an earthquake visits any one of these hydro power dams, like the one under whose impact the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River had given away in 2008, there will be large scale flood and loss of lives in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The threat is real and close at hand. 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 several kilometers wide. Although the river picked up momentum later on yet it is still a pale shadow of its former self.

But there is no dearth of naiveté on the part of the Indian government. Manmohan Singh, the previous UPA prime minister, had assured the nation that there was no need to worry as the Chinese dams are run-of-the-river type. But well after this assurance Salman Khurshid, a previous external affairs minister, admitted the government of India’s insufficient knowledge about the exact nature of these Chinese projects. A decision was made to constitute an inter-departmental committee – comprising of representatives from defence, external affairs and the department of space – for taking up the matter with China.

To all intents and purposes, the initiative stopped there. Now, will the Narendra Modi government revive it? Or does it have a different plan?

*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator


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