Govt's assurance against Chinese dam plan not convincing

By: Shubham Ghosh
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The Indian government recently confirmed that there were no signs of any Chinese effort to divert water from the Brahmaputra River, the lifeline of the country's northeast and country like Bangladesh. Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said in the Rajya Sabha that they did not notice any alarming activity from the Chinese side and that the neigbouring country has always assured India about taking responsible action.

It is also learnt that various agencies of the Indian government, including the National Remote Sensing Centre and National Technical Research Organisation, are constantly monitoring tributaries on the Chinese side. Bansal said the Chinese have plans to take up various river projetcs but they are mostly based on the tributaries of Brahmaputra.

Brahmaputra River

Few months back, the Minister of State for Water Resources, Vincent H Pala also said that there was no evidence of the Brahmaputra dying up in the Arunachal Pradesh owing to any Chinese designs.

The Indian ministers' words might be a temporary relief, but New Delhi knows very well that the gigantic northern neighbour is not an easy customer to handle. India has mostly been at the receiving end whenever it made any dealings with China and the fear psychosis is here to stay.

As per the media reports, the Chinese government started construction along the river at Medog in Tibet, just about 30 kilometres north of the Indian border. Reports also said that China was aiming to divert 200 billion cubic metres of water from the river from south to north to quench thirst of several of its cities in the region, including Shaanxi, Beijing, Hebel and Tianjin.

It was speculated that China was working on a hydro-power project worth $80 billion, which would generate 40,000 megawatts of power. It would also build additional dams to divert water from several rivers originating in the Tibetan plateau and feed various south Asian countries.

India's worry was further increased when in February this year, the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reported that the dam would be partially completed in 2012 and water supply would start next year.

A water official at Shandog, where much of the eastern route of the project is based, said that the whole route would start functioning in 2013 while more water supply units be made effective by 2014-15. The project saw displacement of nearly five lakh people and the figure would shoot up further. Work on the western route was still to begin.

Chinese authorities, however, rubbished the idea of diverting water from the Brahmaputra. The Vice Minister of Water of the country had said last year that they were aware about the technical difficulties, environmental consequences and bilateral relations and hence would not do anything which proves harmful for other nations.

This, however, is in sharp contradiction to China's contemplating a plan in June last year to divert water from the Brahmaputra to feed its arid parts.

Soon after the Chinese revealed their plan, India's Foreign Minister S M Krishna said China was indeed eresting a dam at Zangmu, in the middle reaches of Yarlung Tsango (as Brahmaputra is known in Tibet) but it is a 'run of the river' project and would not affect India's interest (China completed work on the 510 MW hydro-power station project on the Brahmaputra). He also advised Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to harness the water of Brahmaputra to the maximum.

Krishna's words, however, allayed the fears little. Leaders in northeastern states have voiced concern against building the dam, saying it would be disastrous for the environment and economy for the entire region. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too, had reiterated Krishna's claims that there was no threat from China.

The Arunachal Pradesh government claimed in March that flow of the Brahmaputra was suddenly found to have almost dried up in one of the age-old towns in the state.

South Asia, in recent years, has evolved into a major centre of water rivalry, thanks to abundant supply of the crucial resource. We see not only nations lock horns time and again over sharing of water, but even two states within a nation emerging party to major water disputes.

In case of water conflict, geography is a major deciding factor. For, states which are located in upstream areas, have the 'capacity' to disrupt water flow to the downstream and hence, choke the rival. When it comes to Pakistan (read Indus) or Bangladesh (read Teesta), it is India's turn to call the shots mostly but when the opposition is China, the game reverses. India also has disputes with Nepal over the Mahakali River.

From the above, we can thus arrive at a more strategic question. In an era when resources are fast turning scarce, competition for alternative sources is intensifying. China today badly needs secure water resource to meet its huge demand. It is one of the reason, some say, that China has adopted a strict and stubborn policy vis-a-vis Tibet, where a number of Asian rivers originate.

Demand for hydro-power as an alternative to exhaustible resources has also pushed the Chinese to race for more and more water resources. The water dispute issue has added to the innumerable other bilateral problems that plague south Asia, including territorial dispute, migration problem, and others.

The Brahmaputra river water diverting plan of the Chinese can prove disastrous for India and Bangladesh. Besides environmental problems, the plan can affect India's own river-linking project plan by which it aims to reduce domestic water scarcity problem.

Professor Brahma Chellany, according to whom China has acted as a 'hydro-hegemon', said the country cares little for environment-friendly use of rivers and institutional water-sharing mechanism and instead prefers unilateral settlement of the issues.

It is the country which has built the most number of dams in history and often locked horns with its neighbours over water-sharing problems. Even it has had problems with its political allies like North Korea and Pakistan over water.

Besides, politicisation of the Brahmaputra issue can even affect the Arunachal Pradesh issue, a thorn in the India-China relations.

China never divulges details of its plan and its assurances, hence, are not convincing. It had even denied setting up the Zangmu project before finally admitting it last year.

It is necessary for India to pressurise Beijing for regular hydrological data sharing and providing satellite imaging. India and China can also opt for a water-sharing mechanism to settle the Brahmaputra water issue. In fact, the issue can not just be confined to a bilateral one. All states affected by the issue must join hands and arrive at a unanimous decision on water management or otherwise, it will not be sustainable.

Just issuing periodical statements pacifying domestic apprehensions that China will choke the northeastern region to death, it is necessary for India to come out with a complete picture on the matter, before it gets too late.

China will care little for others if it really aspires to complete the dam on time , but India must be ready with a Plan B. Diplomatic channels can be utilised more to reach a formal settlement for as, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi once rightly commented on the matter, “Situation keep changing and we have to be careful.”

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