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Crossing the Rubicon

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Crossing the Brahmaputra

News stories of diversion of Brahmaputra waters by China have rung alarm bells in India. The Kolkata Telegraph quotes the foreign ministry, which feels that there is not much substance to the reports:

Concerns over the alleged diversion of the Brahmaputra by China today prompted Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi to ask the Centre about what Beijing may be planning with Assam’s lifeline.

“We are concerned about it but I cannot take any steps directly. We have already raised the issue here and we will take it up with the external affairs minister,” he told reporters after a meeting with Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

“I believe there is no cause for immediate alarm,” external affairs minister S.M. Krishna said today. “We have ascertained from our own sources that this is a hydro-electric project, which does not store water and will not adversely impact the downstream areas in India,” he said.

He said recent reports about Chinese plans to construct a dam on the Brahmaputra and possibly divert the river waters to Northern China are not new but based on previously known facts.

It is a fact that China is constructing a dam at Zangmu in the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo (as the Brahmaputra is called in Tibet), Krishna said.

Brahmaputra region map

TOI takes a more alarmist line:

What is making matters worse for India is that China rejects the very notion of any water-sharing arrangement or treaty, like Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, with any riparian neighbour. “The terms — water sharing, shared water resources, treaty and common norms and rules — are anathema to it. China is one of the only three countries that voted against the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This international convention lays down norms and rules which China rejects,” Chellaney said.

Chinese experts, led by Chinese Academy of Sciences academician Wang Guangqian, have come up with a proposal to divert water from the upper reaches towards Xinjiang. The proposal seems to have originated in 2001 but could not be acted upon apparently because of the heavy costs involved. According to a report by the Beijing based China Dialogue, Wang Guangqian’s team is understood to be working with government’s South-North Water Transfer office to organise a feasibility study for their proposal.

While India has water sharing treaties with upstream neighbours like Nepal and Bhutan, there is no such treaty with China which, as the dominant riparian power in the region, refuses to enter into formal water sharing deals with any of its neighbours. India also has water sharing treaties with its downstream neighbours like Bangladesh and Pakistan. Nearly all important international rivers in China originate in ethnic-minority homelands which, as Chellaney said, were forcibly seized after the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949.

19 June, 2011

VOA reported:

India’s government says it is not concerned that China will divert or reduce the flow from a major river it shares with India. That assessment comes in large part from Indian surveillance satellites deployed over Chinese territory, which are said to have world-class capabilities.

Indian government sources say “extremely high caliber” satellite technology is able to produce “superb” imagery of what China is doing just over its northeastern border. Primarily for that reason, the sources said New Delhi has no concerns whatsoever at this time that China is seeking to curb the flow of a major river that flows into India from Chinese-controlled Tibet.

China and India describe the Chinese dam as a run-of-the-river hydroelectric project that does not actually block the river’s flow, but instead uses the natural flow of the river to generate energy.

[Assam Chief Minister] Gogoi emerged from his meeting with Krishna apparently reassured. “I am convinced there is no shortage of water… since there is no diversion of water, there is no cause for worry,” said Gogoi.

No formal agreement exists between India and China for the sharing of water from the Brahmaputra river. However, Indian government sources say the two countries, in their words, “discuss what we need to discuss” via working groups on water that meet frequently.

21 June, 2011

India Today rakes up a further controversy:

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna claims that China’s Zangmu Dam on the Brahmaputra river is no cause of concern to India as it is a “run off the river” dam.

However, Headlines Today has accessed latest intelligence report that belies the minister’s claim. The report clearly states that India has reasons to be alarmed as the dam will severely restrict water flow downstream.

The intelligence report was prepared by the Beijing station of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). The top secret report was presented to the Cabinet Secretariat on June 13.

The report says China has no plans to reduce the height of the dam, a demand that India has been making for a long time. This contradicts Krishna’s assurance to Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi just four days ago that the dam will not affect water flow to India.

The current height has been fixed at 3,370 feet. According to the intelligence report, at this height the flow of water downstream will be severely affected.

The Zangmu Dam is being built on the eastern side of the Tibetan plateau where the river has a steep drop. The report says this will also affect the Himalayan ecosystem on the Indian side in the long run.

The report says China has no plans to reduce the height of the dam, a demand that India has been making for a long time. This contradicts Krishna’s assurance to Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi just four days ago that the dam will not affect water flow to India.

The current height has been fixed at 3,370 feet. According to the intelligence report, at this height the flow of water downstream will be severely affected.

The Zangmu Dam is being built on the eastern side of the Tibetan plateau where the river has a steep drop. The report says this will also affect the Himalayan ecosystem on the Indian side in the long run.

It seems the external affairs minister repeatedly downplayed China’s plans to continue with the construction of the Zangmu Dam.

Krishna had assured Gogoi on June 16 that China has heeded to India’s requests on the dam. He also claimed that ISRO satellite maps showed no construction, the very same map that the intelligence report is quoting showing construction.

The government, however, continues to be in denial mode. According to government sources, “India has no reason to fear”. “Media reports are sensational. They do not adhere to the actual position,” the sources added.

What is even more alarming is that in addition to the existing project, China intends to construct four more smaller dams on the tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo river between Jiacha and Sangro Provinces. This will have a further impact on the downstream flow of water of Brahmputra into India.

Members of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh have raised concern about China’s dam and its impact on Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and even Bangladesh.

The Ministry of External Affairs sources told Headlines Today, “We will not comment on the veracity of the report. We have not discussed the height or any specifications of a dam with the Chinese. We will not make any comment officially.”

National Security Advisory Board’s member Dr Alka Acharya told Headlines Today, “There is no need for confusion that certain activities are happening on the river. However, we are still debating the issues. We need to push a mechanism (to sort this out).”

“China will also be in a spot if the South Asia region is going to be affected. Intelligence report is one thing and assessment by experts is another,” Acharya added.

With shrill conspiracy theories abounding, one has to step back and look at the substantive issue. Fortunately the Hindu already ran such an article almost two weeks back, and no media source has added any hard facts since then:

In November 2010, China began damming the Yarlung Tsangpo for the first major hydropower project in Tibet, at Zangmu. The first set of generators at the 510-MW project will come into operation in 2014.

Zangmu is the only one of at least 28 proposed dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo that has been approved. “We put in place a dam in Zangmu because Tibet is in dire need of energy,” said Mr. Zhang. “But this project is an exception. We do not yet have in place a comprehensive plan for the development of other dams on the river.”

Mr. Zhang expressed confidence that in spite of opposition from some non-governmental organisations, it was only a matter of time before more hydropower projects were approved in light of the growing power crisis.

Power shortages have been particularly evident this year as a result of the drought across the Yangtze river delta. The State Grid, China’s national electricity distribution company, has estimated this summer’s electricity deficit at 40 Gigawatts, the highest since 2004.

China’s hydropower companies say one single dam on the Brahmaputra — at its “Great Bend”, where it begins its journey towards India — could bridge that gap. Sinohydro, a state-owned hydropower company, has detailed on its website a proposal for a 38-gigawatt plant at Motuo.

Mr. Zhang said the dam on the great bend could save up to 100 million tonnes of coal. But considering the difficult terrain, and the more than 1,000-metre fall of the river, he said the project would pose technological barriers.

However, other dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo’s upper reaches were feasible. “The technology is sufficient, except in the U-turn of the Yarlung Tsangpo where it is difficult to put in equipment,” he said.

Mr. Zhang ruled out any diversion of the water, stressing that India would not be affected by the run-of-the-river power generation projects.

“Countries in the lower reaches will feel anxieties, but there will be no negative impact downstream,” he said. “I believe that India can benefit from our development of the Yarlung Tsangpo. The key thing is how we can cooperate on using the water.”

Is the government complacent about China? There is no evidence that it is. In fact, if anything, the government takes Chinese competition very seriously. The Kakodkar report, for example, clearly identifies competition with China as a major driver of policy. Similar governmental attitudes may be seen in other spheres of potential tension.

Then why the continual media assertion that the ministry is selling out to China? One possibility is that this is party-politics playing out. In spite of its shabby record on security, the BJP has always tried to project itself as “strong on defence” and tried to contrast its approach to the more nuanced one of the UPA. While the hidden hand of party politics can never be totally ruled out, it seems unlikely in this case, since not a single BJP politician has made any statement on the issue.

The whole affair cries out for a Freakonomic analysis. The media has, of course, an interest in creating and stoking controversies, that is what creates viewership (or circulation) and generates ad revenues. When the public perception of a deeply inimical China exists, the media can tune its approach to every new story to create a controversy.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

June 16, 2011 at 9:48 am

One Response

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  1. This article means so much to me. I live in Assam and if China succeeds to build this dam, it will be havoc.

    greenerpasturesind

    July 26, 2011 at 7:35 pm


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