India quakes over China's water plan
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Even as India and China are yet to resolve their decades-old
territorial dispute, another conflict is looming. China's diversion of the
waters of a river originating in Tibet to its water-scarce areas could leave
India's northeast parched. This is expected to trigger new tensions in the
already difficult relations between the two Asian giants.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is reported during his recent Beijing visit to
have raised the issue of international rivers flowing out of Tibet. Chinese
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has said that water scarcity threatened the very
"survival of the Chinese nation".
The river in question is the Brahmaputra, which begins in southwestern Tibet
where it is known as the Yalong Tsangpo
River. It flows eastwards through southern Tibet for a distance of about 1,600
kilometers and at its easternmost point makes a spectacular U-turn, known as
the Shuomatan Point, or the “Great Bend”. This is just before the river enters
India, where it is joined by two other major rivers; from this point of
confluence it is known as the Brahmaputra. It then snakes into Bangladesh,
where it is joined by the Ganges River to create the world's largest delta
before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
It is at the Great Bend that China plans to divert water, in addition to its
hydroelectric power project that is expected to generate 40,000 megawatts of
power. The diversion of the waters is part of a larger hydro-engineering
project, the South-North water diversion scheme, which involves three man-made
rivers carrying water from the icy Tibetan plateau to the arid north.
This water diversion scheme will draw from the waters of the Yalong, Dadu and
Jinsha rivers, which rise in the Tibetan plateau, and channel them to the
Yellow River. The aim of the project is to provide water for human use,
including farming and industry in China's water-scarce areas in the north and
northwest. This water diversion project involves three diversion routes - the
eastern, central and western routes. The diversion of the Yalong Tsangpo at the
Great Bend is the western route of the project - the most technologically
challenging and controversial of the three routes.
For Beijing, the argument in favor of the water diversion project is simple.
More than a quarter of China is classified as desert. Its north and northwest
areas are water scarce. Increasing consumption of water, rapid
industrialization and pollution have rendered the waters of many of China's
rivers unusable. Besides, sections of the Yellow River run dry. In contrast,
rivers that rise in the Tibetan plateau's glaciers have much water. Once
completed, the water diversion scheme is expected to transfer over 40 billion
cubic meters of water annually to China's water scarce areas, relieving China's
thirst to a significant extent.
It is true the Tibetan plateau is a source of much water. It is Asia's
principal watershed and the source of 10 of its major rivers, including the
Yalong Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Indus. China, India, Bangladesh,
Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, indeed 47% of
the world's population, are dependent on water rising in the Tibetan plateau.
But while rivers with sources in the icy Tibetan plateau are rich in water,
critics of the water diversion project say they are not inexhaustible, as
Chinese officials claim. The Tibetan plateau is ice-covered but it is an arid
desert with very little rainfall. The source of much of its water bodies and
rivers is glaciers, which are melting due to global warming. If, alongside the
impact of rising temperatures on glaciers, China diverts water from its natural
course, Tibet will be a water-scarce region in a few decades. Critics also
point to the environmental and ecological destruction it is likely to cause.
The water diversion project at the Great Bend spells disaster not only for the
Tibetan plateau but also for the lower riparian countries - India and
Bangladesh. These countries view the project with some concern as it represents
a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people living
With the Yalong Tsangpo's waters being diverted, the amount of water in the
Brahmaputra will fall significantly, affecting India's northeast and
Bangladesh. It will severely impact agriculture and fishing there as the
salinity of water will increase, as will silting in the downstream area.
A shortage of water in the Ganges has already affected the lives and
livelihoods of millions in Bangladesh, pushing them to migrate to India,
especially to its northeast. This migration of Bangladeshis has changed the
demographic composition of vast tracts in the northeast (especially in Assam)
and triggered serious ethnic conflicts there. A shortage of water in the
Brahmaputra will accentuate these problems to dangerous levels.
There is concern too that with the water diversion project taking off, China
will acquire great power and leverage over India, worsening tensions between
these two countries.
Analysts have drawn attention to incidents in the past to show how vulnerable
downstream areas are to what takes place upstream in Tibet. In June 2000, for
instance, the breach of a dam in Tibet led to floods and left over 100 people
dead or missing in Arunachal Pradesh. In August that year, swollen lakes in
Tibet caused severe flooding of the River Sutlej in the northern Indian state
of Himachal Pradesh, sweeping away around 100 bridges and killing scores of
people. If floods upstream have a serious impact on downstream areas, the
diversion of waters will have “even more devastating consequences”, an
India-China watcher in India, Claude Arpi, warned.
Underscoring the implications of the project, Arpi said that issues of concern
“not only pertain to the environment but also to national and international
security. If Beijing goes ahead with the Tsangpo project it would practically
mean a declaration of war against South Asia.”
India is watching the water diversion project with concern. It does not have a
water sharing treaty with China, so it is at Beijing's mercy with regard to the
Brahmaputra's waters. China's reluctance to pay heed to concerns of lower
riparian countries is evident from the fact that it is unwilling to share even
hydrological data on flood waters with India; this despite the fact that it is
obliged under an agreement with India to do so, with regard to flood waters of
the Sutlej. The two countries had also agreed to set up a joint expert-level
mechanism on interstate river waters, but it has not showed any enthusiasm
about moving forward on that either.
It seems that India can only watch helplessly as China steams ahead with its
water diversion ambitions.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in