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Diversion of the Brahmaputra: Myth or Reality?

Hari Bansh Jha was ICCR Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 09, 2011

    The Brahmaputra river, which is called Yarlung Tsangpo by the Tibetans and Tsan-Po by the Chinese, is the soul of India. It is the lifeline for those living in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Assam. People in this region largely depend on the river for irrigation, fishing and transportation of goods.
    As is well known, the river originates from a glacier around Mt. Kailash/Mansarovar and flows at an average altitude of 4,000 metres in Tibet. It is considered to be the highest river on earth. It flows eastwards over 2,057 km in Tibet before entering the Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. From Arunachal Pradesh, it moves to Assam and Meghalaya and finally enters Bangladesh at Bahadurabad Ghat. In Bangladesh, the width of the river varies from 2 to 12 km. In total, the length of the river from its place of origin in Tibet to the sea is about 2,840 km.

    According to media reports, on November 12, 2010 China initiated construction work along the Brahmaputra river at Medog, Tibet, which is only 30 kilometres north of the Indian border. There are also reports that China is planning to divert 200 billion cubic metres of the waters of the Brahmaputra from south to north to feed the Yellow River 1 since 600 to 800 cities in north China have been experiencing water shortage, particularly Shaanxi, Hebel, Beijing and Tianjin. There are also reports that China has been using the manpower earlier involved in the Lhasa-Beijing railway for the construction of a $1.2 billion hydro-power/diversion project on the Brahmaputra. 2 Estimates are that the project would generate 40,000 megawatts of power 3 and would be completed in a five to seven year time period.

    With the initiation of the diversion cum hydro-power production work on the Brahmaputra river, both India and Bangladesh have begun to face problems with respect to water-resources. Even more worrisome is the news that after 2014 China might build additional dams and divert water from all important rivers originating in the Tibetan plateau and which flow to neighbouring countries in South Asia, including Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

    India has expressed its serious concerns over China’s projects on the Brahmaputra. Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister of Assam, recently stated that China’s attempt to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra river would bring about an environmental disaster and that it would have a negative impact on the economy of the state. Voices have also been raised in Arunachal Pradesh against the damming of the Brahmaputra river, since it is likely to have a disastrous effect on the environment and economy of the Northeast.
    Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs expert at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, is even more apprehensive of this development, since he believes that China is likely to use the Brahmaputra waters as a leverage to arm twist its riparian neighbours. Prakash Javadekar, spokesperson of India’s Bharatiya Janta Party, has said that the Chinese plan to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra river is a matter of serious concern for India.

    S.M. Krishna, India’s external affairs minister, is under pressure from various quarters in India to do something to avert the crisis that would follow from the water diversion project on the Brahmaputra river. As such, the Indian government has asked its mission in Beijing to present a report on the issue so that due diplomatic efforts could be initiated to address the challenge.

    Perhaps, Bangladesh would lose more if the Brahmaputra diversion project were to be completed, since the river is the virtual lifeline of the country. As such, sometimes voices are raised in that country to exert pressure on the Chinese against the project.

    The United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigation Uses of International Watercourses does not allow any country to bar the natural flow of water of an international river. Unfortunately, however, China is not a signatory to this Convention.

    More than anything else, the diversion project along the Brahmaputra river is likely to lead to a reduction in the nutrient-rich sediments in the basin. Experts believe that the flooding in the basin could become worse due to relentless silting. Both India and Bangladesh are likely to be seriously affected by the diversion project as their agriculture and inland water transportation are heavily dependent on the Brahmaputra river.

    The construction activities as part of the Brahmaputra water diversion project will also pollute the water and thereby lead to many environmental, social and geological risks in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, India and Bangladesh. This would threaten livelihoods, deplete fish species and destroy farmland, which is likely to lead to natural disasters and further degrade the fragile ecology of the region. All this might also cause conflict in the region – no matter whether the nature of such conflict is of high, medium or low intensity.

    China is, however, giving assurances that it would do nothing to affect the flow of the water from the rivers in Tibet to South Asia. There was a plan during the Cultural Revolution to divert the Brahmaputra water towards the north. But later China gave up this plan following the disasters at the Three Gorges dam on the Yangzi River. In fact, the Three Georges dam has created severe geological, human and ecological problems. The growing siltation problem in the reservoir basin of the dam badly exposed the weaknesses of the Chinese system of damming the river.

    Estimates are that the cost involved in diverting Brahmaputra’s water would be higher than the alternative of desalination of sea water. As such, many people believe that China would not commit another blunder by diverting the Brahmaputra water since it is now guided by considerations like rationality and cost-effectiveness rather than ideology. Wang Shucheng, China’s minister for water resources, makes the point that the proposal to divert the Brahmaputra waters is unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific. 4

    But few people buy these Chinese assurances. According to the National Remote Sensing Centre in Hyderabad, satellite pictures show Chinese construction on 28 run-of the river power stations at the Great Bend and downstream. This is where the river makes its journey into India. From the satellite pictures, it is perceived that China is merely building dams and not attempting to divert the waters. Of course, both damming and diversion have a bearing on the flow of river waters, although diversion is more serious in nature than damming. Damming only reduces the flow of the river water, whereas diversion would mean altering the normal flow of the river in another direction. The latter course adversely affects the environment and the lifeline of the recipient country/countries.

    However, suspicion has been mounting since China did not bother to have any prior consultation with the lower riparian countries such as India and Bangladesh before initiating construction work on the Brahmaputra river. It is some relief that for the time being China is currently focused more on damming the Brahmaputra for the generation of hydro-power in Tibet than on diverting its waters.

    It is suggested that China as a responsible power should not divert or even dam the rivers originating in Tibet and flowing to South Asian countries such as Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. And that it should accord top priority to the interests of all the lower riparian nations and avoid conflict by ensuring the uninterrupted flow of the rivers. At the same time, it is also important for the lower riparian countries to develop sound strategies to bring China to the negotiating table with a view to stopping it from further damming or diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra or any other river originating in Tibet and flowing into South Asia. Cooperation among the stakeholders would ensure better understanding and add to the prosperity of the region.

    • 1. The Asian Age, June 14, 2011.
    • 2. The Tribune, June 14, 2011.
    • 3. The Asian Age, note 1.
    • 4. The Statesman (Editorial), June 27, 2011.