India must use the upswing in ties with China to secure a legal agreement.
China has caused some confusion in India over its Brahmaputra (Yarlung-Tsangpo) diversion plan. Recently, Water Resource Minister Harish Rawat allayed fears about Chinese projects affecting India’s water usage. Yet an inter-ministerial panel report asked the government to closely monitor China’s plan for a series of cascading run-of-river projects in the middle reaches of the river. It also cautioned that China might replicate the same sort of project at the Great Bend at Shuomatan Point. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposed a joint mechanism for verification at Durban last month, Xi Jinping gave no clear answer except reiterating that China would bear in mind its responsibilities and the interests of riparian states.
India’s heightened edginess stems from China’s opaque position. The latter’s official organs deny the diversion project but its hydro power lobby is pressing for a mega project at the Great Bend that would meet China’s water woes. So far, there is no evidence of diversion except for China’s plan to build a series of run-of-river projects at Zangmu, Dagu, Jiacha, Jiexu, Zongda, Lengda, and Langzhen. But the issue needs to be analysed in a broader perspective.
China is entitled to take up these projects, so long as the existing flow of 79 billion cubic metres (BCM) water into India remains unimpeded. Most of the Brahmaputra’s catchment area, providing over 600 BCM average runoff, falls within Arunachal Pradesh. The volume becomes 10 times higher during the monsoon. Allowing China to divert a constant volume of water during that period could help mitigate floods in India and Bangladesh. Non-consumptive exploiting of water by China for power generation may also be beneficial for India, as the flow is expected to increase by 10-20 per cent during the dry season. China selling surplus electricity to India may not be a bad idea.
But a Chinese plan to build a 40,000 MW dam at the Great Bend could have a perilous downstream impact. The Great Bend is at a geologically fragile knick-zone with very rapid bedrock exhumation rates. In case of an earthquake, there could be ominous consequences for millions living in downstream areas.
The problem lies in China’s growing domestic water crisis, arising from the industrial upsurge. It is said to be a potential catalyst for domestic turmoil. The need to exploit trans-border rivers is therefore gaining new currency. The original idea of shuo-tian (reverse flow) and xibu da kaifa (great western extraction), supported by 118 PLA generals, was aimed at building a dam to generate 40,000 MW of hydro power and to divert 200 BCM water annually to the north. The diversion project was part of China’s $60-billion South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP), aimed at sending 40 BCM of water annually from the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers to the arid north. The first phase of the SNWTP was completed in March 2013. The middle route will feed water to the north by 2014. The third stage involves the Tsangpo’s diversion. For China, the stakes are huge. It could turn millions of arid hectares into arable land.
China is not known for consulting riparian states before building dams. Until 2005, India was unaware about the Zada dam on the Sutlej basin and even appeared clueless when the Chinese announced they were building dams at Dagu, Jiacha, and Jiexu. Little is known about the Shiquanhe project on the Singe-Tsangpo (Indus River). Locals have observed the Singe-Tsangpo too has been tapering over the years. Beijing is said to be reluctant to exchange data with India, despite a treaty that has been in place since 2006. In the absence of legal arrangements, other riparian states too are worried about China’s plans. The Xiaowan dam on the Mekong has been stirring up passions across Southeast Asia. Latest to join the chorus is Myanmar, vehemently opposing China building the Myitsone mega-dam on the upper Irrawaddy. The project could potentially rupture China’s longstanding bonhomie with Myanmar.
But, should the diversion at the Great Bend become a reality, the fear is that China will inevitably leverage Tibetan water as a tool for coercive diplomacy and may even link the water issue to a border settlement. Both China and India will be water stressed, given the rising demand for food security and clean drinking water. China is beginning to treat water as a strategic commodity and building huge infrastructure in Tibet to secure it. But in India, the current debate over water security isn’t as politically nuanced as it ought to be.
The current upswing in relations should be used to resolve the issue with a binding legal agreement. Water scarcity has historically worked in favour of cooperation between states. Both should treat water as a catalyst for cooperation and not conflict. While the demand for Tsangpo’s diversion may get louder, growing environmental disasters are also fuelling mass protests in China against mega projects. In fact, the greater resentment to manipulating the Shuomatan Point could emanate from China. India should evolve a comprehensive strategic plan, which cannot be handled by the water resources ministry alone.
The writer is a former ambassador