China’s Zangmu Hydropower Station has become fully operational. Built on the River Yarlung Tsangpo (known as Brahmaputra in India) some 140 km from Lhasa in Tibet, the US$1.52 billion hydropower project is expected to produce 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.
It has evoked some anxiety in India and Bangladesh, the lower riparian countries. There is concern there that China’s damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo – China plans to build several dams on this river, Zangmu being the first – will reduce water flow into India’s Northeast and Bangladesh.
Moreover, China is reportedly planning a water diversion project, which envisages diverting the waters of its southern rivers to the arid and densely populated north. This would see the Yarlung Tsangpo’s waters being diverted too.
China has said that the proposed dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo will not affect water flow into India as these are run-of-the-river projects. Moreover, the dams on the upper and middle reaches of this river will not have much impact on downstream flows.
It is only after the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India that its volume swells. It is monsoon rains and waters of tributaries like the Subanasiri that transform the Yarlung Tsangpo into the mighty Brahmaputra in India.
As for the water diversion projects, hydrological experts believe that it is not feasible given its enormous cost and technological challenges. Hence, the water diversion may not happen as planned.
Besides, as Chinese scholars point, “given the potential negative impact” that such diversion will have on “relations with its lower riparian neighbors, particularly India, it is even more unlikely that the Chinese government will seriously consider” the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan.
Chinese hydrologists maintain that India’s apprehensions over China’s damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo are excessive. This may be true. Still Beijing cannot escape responsibility for the anxiety its dam activity has generated in the Brahmaputra Valley.
It has been very opaque on projects it is planning on the Yarlung Tsangpo. Till recently, the China flatly denied allegations that a dam was under construction at Zangmu, even dismissing satellite images of such activity presented to them by Indian officials. This lack of transparency and reluctance to consult the lower riparian counties underlies Indian apprehensions vis-à-vis China.
Such a non-consultative approach is untenable with regard to Transboundary Rivers.
China appears to be shedding slowly its opacity on its plans for the Yarlung Tsangpo. In 2013, it agreed to not only allow Indian officials on field visits to monitor the flow of the river in Tibet but also to provide hydrological data during the flood season.
Meanwhile, India is steaming ahead with its own plans for damming the Brahmaputra. Around 150 mega and micro-hydel projects are being planned in the Northeast especially in Arunachal Pradesh.
These dams will “significantly change” the volume of water flow in the Brahmaputra, Parag Jyoti Saikia, who researches hydropower construction in Northeast India at the Centre for Studies on Social Sciences in Kolkata, told this writer.
Since the terrain through which the Brahmaputra runs is forested, it will have “disastrous impact on the rich bio-diversity, environment, ecology and livelihood of the people living here,” he pointed out.
Anti-dam activists point out that the Indian government has not consulted either local communities or the lower riparian country, Bangladesh. Protests against the dams are gathering momentum.
Even if India and China do not go to war over water, it could become a source of tension. Such tension could be prevented by reaching agreement on water sharing. The Brahmaputra’s three riparian states, China, India and Bangladesh need to begin talking on the issue. A tripartite treaty on sharing the Brahmaputra’s waters is urgently needed.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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