Brahmaputra river in Tibet. Photo: iStock
Brahmaputra river in Tibet. Photo: iStock

The bilateral relationship between India and China has often been called a mix of cooperation and conflict. However, in the recent past, it has been weighing in heavily in favor of the conflict side of that equation.

As if ongoing boundary disputes were not enough, newer elements of conflict ranging from trade imbalance to data sharing on the Brahmaputra River to standoffs between the two countries’ militaries as seen last year on the Doklam Plateau have been added to the conundrum. And yet another thread of discontent lies in China’s plans to create artificial rain over the Tibetan Plateau.

Last month, the South China Morning Post ran a report on Beijing’s plans to create a rainmaking network in Tibet, which is roughly “three times the size of Spain.”

The project is the most ambitious cloud-seeding program in the world so far. The system involves a gigantic network of fuel-burning chambers installed in the Tibetan mountains. Thousands of chambers are to be built over the Tibetan Plateau, which will burn solid fuel to produce silver iodide for cloud seeding. As moist monsoon winds from South Asia hit the mountains, they will produce an upward draft to sweep the particles into the cloud and induce rain and snow.

Tibet is known as Asia’s water tower, and is the source of most of the biggest rivers in the continent, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Brahmaputra rivers. Flowing though China, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal and India, these rivers are lifelines to about half of the world’s population.

In the context of Sino-Indian relations, it is to be noted that the Brahmaputra River, known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, causes massive disasters due to flooding every year. Last year, according to government estimates, scores of people in Assam died because of flooding, and hundreds of hectares of land were destroyed. According to Assam state disaster-management authorities, in the past five years, flooding has killed 500 people.

Given the gravity of the situation, India and China have a mechanism to share data on the river to predict flooding in the northeastern states of India. However, data were not shared last year by China when ties between the two were strained because of the Doklam standoff.

As for the plan to create artificial rain over the Tibetan Plateau, the threat that emerges is of increased water content in the river, which could add more devastation to the lower riparian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in India. In addition to this, as pointed out by Faye McNeill, a chemical engineer at Columbia University in New York who studies atmospheric aerosols, “Once the silver iodide enters the groundwater, as rain, it is not expected to be in a very toxic form, but it may disrupt the aquatic ecosystem.”

China’s rainwater-harvesting projects are not new. In fact since 2008, as seen during the Summer Olympics, China has been using them on a relatively large scale. However, the point of concern in the latest project is the fact that the intended area is a shared ecological frontier, and any mechanism that will have an impact on the fragile Himalayan ecosystem is worrisome. Anthropogenic changes in Tibet will have implications for not just China but for India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal as well as for several Southeast Asian countries.

The project also has military concerns for India. As stated by the report in the Post, the chambers burning the solid fuel will be guided by highly precise real-time data, collected from a network of 30 small weather satellites monitoring monsoon activities over the Indian Ocean. The prospect of having satellites hovering over a stretch of territory from the Tibetan Plateau to the Indian Ocean is definitely worrisome for India.

Second, triggering natural disasters such as floods, droughts and tornadoes to weaken enemies in the event of severe conflict is not something new. Between 1967 and 1972 during the Vietnam War, the Americans spent roughly US$3 million each year on weather-modification campaigns to create muddy, difficult situations for enemy fighters. Known as Operation Popeye (in addition to being known as Operation Motorpool and Operation Intermediary-Compatriot), the purpose was to increase rainfall during the monsoon season to disrupt Vietnamese logistics.

If such tactics could be replicated in the Sino-Indian context, the outcome would not be a pleasant one for India. Despite the mutual withdrawal of troops from Doklam last year, relations between the two countries have not been smooth.

The secrecy around the Tibet project adds another layer of concern. Tsinghua University’s Tianhe or Sky River Project would be integrated by the current weather-modification project designed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

The Sky River project was proposed by researchers in 2016 to increase water supply in China’s arid northern regions by manipulating the climate. However, the contents of the agreement between China Aerospace and Tsinghua University are being kept confidential as it contains sensitive information that the authorities have deemed unsuitable to be revealed.

In addition to this is the fact that apart from the SCMP, few media have reported the Tibet plan. While several websites have rerun the Post’s story, in both English and Chinese, the primary source remains the story in that Hong Kong daily. There is a cloud of secrecy that shrouds the entire project.

Recognizing the environmental and the strategic implications of the project, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the finance minister of Assam state, has urged India’s central government to take up the issue during talks with the Chinese side. However, any such discussion between the two countries is yet to take place.

The challenges from this project are multifaceted, and it would be in India’s interest to prepare responses to those challenges as they emerge.

Sriparna Pathak

Dr Sriparna Pathak is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, Nowgong College, Assam. Prior to this, she was an assistant professor at the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Gauhati University. She is also a Fellow at the South Asia Democratic Forum, Brussels. Previously she was a consultant in the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. She received her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has spent two...

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