Is China muddying Brahmaputra waters?
Sporadic reports on China’s water diversion plans on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper stream of the Brahmaputra river, are invariably met with sustained overreactions in India. Late last month, reports of China planning a 1,000km-long tunnel system to divert these waters to arid Xinjiang were followed by thick black soot coming from the Siang tributary of the Brahmaputra. It led to Ninong Ering, member of Parliament (MP) from East Arunachal Pradesh, writing a letter to the prime minister. This was followed by visual, online and print media, as also the MP, doing their bit in highlighting this as yet another example of the dragon’s evil designs. The chief minister of Assam and the Congress state committee took it from there until Union minister Arjun Meghwal clarified that preliminary findings of the Central Water Commission suggested this was caused by the earthquake that hit Tibet on 17 November.
What does this episode tell us?
First and foremost, it takes an MP over a week to make the relevant authorities take notice of the thick black soot in Siang which, of course, continues to destroy the aquatic life, birds, flora and fauna and even the livelihood of thousands in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as the water remains unusable. Its long-term ecological and environmental impact will also reach lower riparian Bangladesh. Whether its trigger was man-made or natural does not alter the intensity of its impact.
Second, India’s snail-paced response in providing even a preliminary assessment, and inaction in providing relief from this contamination, is now leading to calls for setting up hydrological labs across the region. However, there is not much hope that this will be implemented any time soon. Remember, it’s been decades since India has been unsuccessfully trying to clean the river Ganga. This track record makes pressing all panic buttons our first response to seek attention.
Third, of course, is China’s continued disregard of even agreed norms and the overall tenor of India-China relations, which surely leads policy experts to begin with no less than the worst-case scenario.
Even a cursory check tells us how, despite China having 50% spatial share of this 3,000km-long water system, low precipitation and desert conditions mean that Tibet generates only 25% of its total basin discharge, while India, with 34% of the basin, contributes to 39% of the total discharge. So, it is not China’s water diversions, but intentional flooding or contamination that should be a major concern for India. Is India working on preparing itself to tackle such eventualities?
China has been building at least five hydropower projects in addition to the 510-megawatt one at Zangmu that was commissioned in October 2015. These are claimed to be run-of-the-river projects, but can also facilitate storage if required. Given the seismically sensitive and geologically evolving Himalayas, such storages can unleash man-made or natural disasters. Unlike Tibet, the Indian side has scores of population centres on the banks of these river systems. To recall, the entire debate on India-China ‘water wars’ was triggered in 2000 by the sudden burst of one such dam, causing flash floods that resulted in 25 deaths and damage to property and livestock. This is what perturbed India when China began building its Zangmu hydropower project in 2008 and this high-pitch rhetoric over water continues to linger.
There is no denying that China has been reticent, allowing no more than a snail-paced incremental increase in its cooperation. Starting from their 2002 memorandum of understanding (MoU) for exchange of data on water levels, discharge and rainfall during the monsoon season, China and India had set up an expert-level mechanism for the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers in 2006. In their follow-up MoUs of 2013 and 2015, China agreed to supply data between 15 May and 15 October every year, with India agreeing to pay for these services. However, the last meeting of this mechanism was held in April 2016 and India has received no data for this year. First in the name of the Doklam standoff and then on the pretext of ongoing upgrade and renovation of data-collection stations in Tibet, China has refused to share hydrological data with India. But these excuses fall flat as Bangladesh continues to receive the same data.
How can India enhance its leverage against China?
There is a need to refrain from populist high-octane China bashing, which has been counterproductive so far. India must build its own capabilities to redress and withstand such disasters. It is only from such a position of sanity and strength that India can get China to regularize existing mechanisms and expand them beyond just data exchange on water flows, levels, rainfall, etc. These need to expand to cover quality of water and mutual inspections by joint or third-country observers.
The plans for gigantic diversions seem formidable, if not fanciful. These have been floated occasionally over the past two decades but repeatedly faced serious financial and technical impediments. The impact on India, if ever, would depend on factors like wherefrom and how much of Yarlung Tsangpo water can be diverted. Undertaking such a project in the seismically sensitive virgin high Himalayas carries deadly ecological and environmental implications for China. The impact on India would follow later and will be marginal.
Swaran Singh is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org