Chinese reticence about projects on its stretch of the Brahmaputra do not assuage Indian fears about diversion of the river’s waters

By raising the Brahmaputra dams construction issue during his first meeting with the new Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was following a two-pronged strategy.

On the one hand, Dr. Singh wanted to bring India’s unease with Chinese construction on Brahmaputra’s main channel to the world’s notice. On the other, by saying publicly that most Chinese projects might not store water, he was trying to ensure that any ensuing debate in the country does not snowball into one more round of panic-stricken news reports.

The Chinese government has been reticent about dams being constructed on transborder rivers. India is not alone in seeking these details. Many lower riparian South East Asian countries and even Kazakhstan in Central Asia want China to be more forthcoming about plans to build dams or divert water from transborder rivers.

Even though some of the dams India is concerned about have recently figured in the Chinese government’s plan documents, for a long time open source literature, satellite reconnaissance and source reports were unable to confirm their actual impact on river flows, thus raising anxiety levels here.

During a press conference on his way back from Durban where he met the Chinese President and sought a joint mechanism, Dr. Singh was careful to add a caveat. While confirming that he had asked for greater transparency from China, the Prime Minister added that the projects on the main channel of the Brahmaputra appeared to be run-of-the-river, that is, they would not have significant storage.

Perhaps he was keen to avoid the alarm of media reports on China’s plans to divert 40 billion cubic metres of water from the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlong Tsangpo in China) in 2003. The Chinese have put the brakes on the project or perhaps shelved it, but India’s apprehensions found another outlet when, a few years later, a massive landslip blocked portions of the river at an area known as the Great Bend. The misgivings were quelled after water cut a course through the blockade and flows returned to normal.

In both cases, the Chinese shared little information about the developments. India kept hoping that its diplomatic notes and media exposure of Beijing’s aversion to sharing details would make the problem go away. It was only a couple of years back that China agreed with the Indian request (and separately to that of some Asean states) to share hydrological data.

But another concern had arisen by then. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first raised it with then Chinese President Hu Jintao in March, 2012. The Chinese were already aware of India’s concerns as then Foreign Ministers S.M. Krishna and Yang Jiechi had discussed it in their preparatory meeting before Mr. Hu’s visit.

When Dr. Singh and Mr. Krishna spoke about dams on the main channel of the Brahmaputra, only one was at the active-construction stage and information was still coming in about the others. Since then, India has got a firmer fix on a series of three dams on the main channel of the Brahmaputra.

The three dams — Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha — are within 25 km of each other. More ominously for strategic experts fixated on the China threat, they are 550 km from the Indian border. But the first one, Jiexu, has been independently confirmed to be a run-of-the-river project which will not impound water in a large reservoir. Construction on the second in the series, Zangmu, began in 2010 and Indian authorities are not sure if this will be a pure RoR variety. The third, a 320 MW dam, will be built at Jiacha, about a dozen km downstream of Zangmu, and even this is more or less confirmed to be run-of-the-river.

These are not the only ones about which India has not been adequately informed. A dam near Zhongda and another near Phudo Zong, as well as 30 other projects were planned and executed with Beijing disclosing little to India.

India’s fears about diversion of waters of the Brahmaputra have not been completely assuaged. It deploys high-end technology and spends considerable money on keeping a keen eye on water conductor systems and basins adjacent to Brahmaputra for clues on constructions of canals to take the water away to China’s north-western provinces.

Added worry

The dams have added another area of worry, more so because there was an increase of eight sites in August last year since the previous assessment was made in 2011. Mr. Xi’s reply was a near copy of the answer given by his predecessor three years back. Both had assured all projects were of the run-of-the-river variety. By adding that Beijing would examine the proposal, Mr. Xi has given hope for movement on a joint mechanism to share information about construction activities on the Brahmaputra.

Due to the low level of political trust, it has been tough for countries of the region to be forthcoming about their plans for hydroelectric projects. The India-Pakistan skirmishing over dams in north Kashmir is well known. Two cases went for international arbitration. Experts are still sorting out what a recent award means for the viability of a dam being built by India.

With Bangladesh, India was coy for years about parting with information. Things changed after Sheikh Hasina set about quelling India’s security related fears by extraditing militants from North Eastern outfits and discouraging anti-India activity by third-country intelligence agencies. Today India has offered Bangladesh an equity stake in the Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur. It was lack of information on this dam that earlier led to a public agitation in Bangladesh and for a time made the High Commissioner the most unpopular Indian in Dhaka. Bangladesh has now sought joint participation in nine more projects.

China would be wary of conceding the demand for a joint mechanism precisely to avoid just such an escalation of demands by India. On the other hand, as the border issue is unlikely to be settled in the near future, this limited cooperation on water — without prejudice to the upper riparian state on any further demands — would be an easy way to increase political capital between the two countries.

Till then, Dr. Singh’s second prong — of not raising unnecessary alarm that may spill over to other areas of discord — must be put in operation. The first step would be to accept the Brahmaputra Inter Ministerial Expert Group’s recommendation for an informed public debate to ensure that discussions veer to the possibility of joint management of river basins common to several countries.

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