No Dams On The Brahmaputra, Pleads Northeast

With reports that China plans to build at least 21 dams on the Yarlung Tsanpo and several others on its tributaries, the fear is that Assam and Arunachal Pradesh would be badly affected. Indian engineers have raised apprehensions that China might have plans to divert the 78 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water to its arid southern part. This is the volume of water that the river brings into the Northeast and further flows down to the vast plains of Bangladesh. This would leave the Northeast and Bangladesh high and dry. For Bangladesh, Brahmaputra brings fresh water and fertile silt for farming. Added to it are issues related to safety of construction of huge dams on an earthquake-prone zone. A solution being advocated is institutionalising water-related negotiations with China. While Arunachal wants speedy establishment of user rights on the rivers, Assam wants concrete step – a water-sharing treaty between the two countries. Experts point out that the river balances the entire ecological landscape of the region. It’s not only China that plans to dam the river, India is also aggressive on harnessing the hydropower generation capacity of the river and its tributaries. Since there is no water-sharing treaty, it is bound to come up as a major trans-boundary issue between New Delhi and Beijing.

Earlier this month, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao tried to tone down concerns over China’s aggressive projects of building mega dams on the Brahmaputra river, known as Yarlung Tsanpo on the Chinese side. “China has assured us that the projects on Brahmaputra are on the run-of-the-river projects and are not meant for storing or diverting water. We look forward to working closely with China in the critical area of environmental and livelihood security” was how Rao tried to explain the situation at a seminar. Every time the Centre has been asked about this sensitive issue, the same record has been played for the past year or so.

To ease tension further, an internal ministry group has gone on to say that it has found no evidence yet that China was planning to divert the waters from Brahmaputra. But it is not clear if New Delhi has any detailed information on China’s plan of action.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational uses of International Watercourses was adopted in 1997 and is still to be ratified. China has opposed the convention during voting and India chose to abstain. “This just goes to show how much level of legality both the countries give to international guidelines on water sharing,” says noted environmental activist Neeraj Vagholikar. “Moreover, the UN convention will only be a soft law, it will not be enforceable either in courts or tribunals. The best way out possibly is to engage China in a dialogue on the Brahmaputra.”

What India has had in its kitty since 2007 is an Expert Level Mechanism (ELM) to share data and discuss trans-boundary issues. There is a strong political demand of establishing our user rights by building dams on the Siang river in Arunachal. But in doing so, New Delhi will also have to address to the massive protest voiced by the people of Assam and Arunachal to the mega dams that India wants to build on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. While eyebrows have been raised at Beijing’s plan to construct the mother of all dams at the great bend just before the river enters India, New Delhi has to ensure that power generation does not destabilise the ecologic balance. Thus voices against damming the Brahmaputra are growing.

“People from all over India have joined hands to raise concerns on this issue. We will now possibly look forward to people-to-people exchanges with China. We are sure there are people in the neighboring countries who are opposed to such projects that also threat the ecosystem” says KJ Roy of the Pune-based Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management.

Any adverse impact of the Chinese dam would be beyond ecology and livelihood: the river has nurtured a whole civilisation. “Dams have several impacts on people’s lives. The dams will not only change the character of the river, the social impact of the projects are huge, particularly in the catchments area,” was the insight offered by former water resources secretary Ramaswamy R Iyer at a seminar held in Guwahati on the issue. Reports from Beijing suggest that the Zangmu dam project is one of the costliest in the world at $1.2 billion. The other dam, the Jiacha project, is in its initial phase. A consortium of five large Chinese power companies are involved in damming the Yarlung Tsangpo. If China later plans to divert water, its flow would be depleted by nearly 85 percent during spring and winter and the aftereffects might turn disastrous.

What New Delhi has to realise that even a run-of-the-river project like Zangmu can lead to severe downstream effect. Issues like possibility of alteration in the natural flow of the river, total quantity of flow after the construction of the dams needs to be clarified with the Chinese. For winning the contest over Brahmaputra waters, India will perhaps need to pull the ace out of the pack very fast.


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