More than one year ago, China announced plans to build a series of dams in Tibet, including a hydel power generation plant at Zangmu on the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra. The plan was part of a larger initiative by Beijing to tap Himalayan rivers for hydropower. Tibet’s rivers have remained largely untapped because of the difficult terrain, but with improvements in technology in the past decade, China’s leaders have embarked on a damming spree in the mountains of Tibet and Yunnan in the southwest.

The plans will have an impact on the lives of millions in seven countries that lie downstream of these rivers — India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The dams on the Salween river in Yunnan, by some reports, have already resulted in flooding in the Mekong region downstream. How concerned should India, which lies downstream on the Brahmaputra, be? Work on the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung-Tsangpo as it is known in Tibet, is still in the early stages. China’s projects on this river are of two kinds — one, for hydel power generation, and the more ambitious kind, still in the works, a massive diversion project that envisages diverting the river’s waters to the arid north.

The Zangmu project, which has been in the news in India recently, was publicly announced a year ago, and the contract awarded this March. Some reports have alleged that Beijing was going back on its commitment to India to not divert the Brahmaputra. The Zangmu site is essentially a hydel power project — a ‘run of the river’ power generation project, which experts say is no cause for alarm as it will have little impact on the course of the river downstream.

The real worry for India, experts and officials say, is when China embarks on its diversion plan. The mammoth $62 billion “South-to-North Water Diversion” project, currently embroiled in debates and delays in Beijing, is the centrepiece of the Chinese government’s plans to address its northern water crisis. The spreading water crisis, which already affects more than half of the country’s 660 cities, is largely sourced in its strikingly uneven distribution of water resources. The arid north and northwest, home to 35 per cent of the population, has only 7 per cent of the country’s water resources.

The diversion project, first mooted by Mao Zedong in the 1950s, involves diverting water from the south to the north along three routes. The central and middle routes, which have no impact on India, will divert water from the Yangtze river to Beijing and Tianjin in the north. The western route, from the Brahmaputra, is the most ambitious and is of huge consequence to India and Bangladesh. It involves building a dam on the ‘great bend’ of the Brahmaputra — the spot where the river does a u-turn of sorts and begins its journey east to India.

Work has begun on the central and eastern routes. It is four years behind schedule because of increasing costs and problems with relocating millions of people along the routes. The eastern route will be completed by 2012, but has also been plagued with environmental problems. Officials said last week the government has begun to relocate 330,000 people along the central route, which also runs from the Yangtze.

The delays and costs of the first two routes have resulted in growing opposition to the western route, which is also the most technically complicated. Its fate is undecided. According to Wang Shucheng, former water resources Minister, Beijing is even considering abandoning the project. Technical feasibility studies are still under way. Mr. Wang argues that it is “unnecessary” and “infeasible” to include the Brahmaputra in the diversion project, and that the Yangtze was large enough to deal with the northern shortages. He has cautioned that the speed of the flow of the river, which is the world’s highest and fastest-flowing, would damage dams and embankments. The ‘bend’ is also an earthquake-prone zone.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised India’s concerns about the western route when he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing in 2008. National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan told The Hindu in a recent interview India was following a “trust but verify” approach on the diversion project. “Our information is, and satellite pictures also show, that there is no work which has taken place,” he said. “As of now, we have not seen any evidence of them doing the great bend so to say.”

Kenneth Pomeranz, an expert on China’s water issues at the University of California Irvine, says it is “hard to get a handle on” on the Chinese’s government’s views on the western route. There is clear dissent within the Ministry of Water Resources, with Mr. Wang leading the arguments against the project. But others among China’s leaders, including President Hu (a hydraulic engineer by training) and the influential former President Jiang Zemin, are thought to back the project. “A lot of people in government see it as a risky project, and kind of hope other things come along that make it unnecessary,” he says. But avoiding the project, according to him, would require massive improvements in water conservation in the arid north, the equivalent of “fixing a million leaky taps.”

The problem for India, Mr. Pomeranz says, is China has all the leverage in the issue, with weak international laws and no robust water-sharing arrangements between the two countries. The pressing concern for New Delhi, experts say, is to begin to actively engage with Beijing on water sharing issues. India needs to institutionalise a sharing mechanism before it is too late, and before Beijing presents New Delhi with a fait accompli about its dams.

“There is no ‘water-sharing’ arrangement between India and China,” Ramaswamy Iyer, former Water Resources Secretary of the Government of India, said in an email message. “Water has not figured in the India-China talks. It is now included in the agenda.” But Mr. Iyer argues the issue needs to be given more attention, and made as important a part of the agenda as the border issue. From India’s point of view the point to consider, according to him, is the “quantum of possible diversion and the impact it would have on the flows to India.” Hydel projects would not affect India “if the waters are returned to the river after they pass through the turbines”, but the Indian government needed to “keep questioning China constantly on their plans.”

“The issue for India and China is that there is no understanding, no agreement, on international rivers,” says Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Between India and Pakistan, we have a treaty which provides for third party arbitration and defines what the rules and no-go areas are. But between India and China, there is a huge vacuum which is not good for stability and water security.”

“The run of the river projects [such as Zangmu] are of lesser concern to India,” he added. “I’m surprised at seeing the news reports now, as it is not a new issue… China has every right to use water resources for energy. International norms allow any country upstream to do so. The Indus river water treaty allows India to do the same.” But even hydel projects could have potentially disastrous effects, he said, if there are many dams that are large enough to decrease flow, which is not the case at present. In Yunnan, China built four hydel power dams along the Salween, which many experts say resulted in flooding downstream in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Mr. Chellaney says the first requirement for India is “discuss and define what the no-go areas are, and arrive at basic rules,” something the two countries have not done. Officials have so far had three meetings through a working group mechanism that has been set up, but it does not have the mandate to come up with such a robust agreement. “As long as there are no institutional arrangements,” he observes, “India’s position depends on China basically coming to an agreement by doing us a favour. And that is not a position India should be in.”

( With inputs from Siddharth Varadarajan in New Delhi.)

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