ON Tuesday China operationalised its Zangmu hydropower station, the largest in Tibet, built on the Brahmaputra river, promising that it will take into consideration India’s concerns and will remain in contact with New Delhi on this. The Brahmaputra flows through Tibet, India and Bangladesh. Of the river’s total length of 2,880 km, 1,625 km is in Tibet, 918 km in India, and 337 km in Bangladesh. China had put a ban on building dams over the Brahmaputra in Tibet in 2004 after the then prime minister Wen Jiabao agreed with the environmentalists that dam building on the river could be disastrous for Tibet. However, with the change of leadership, the dam lobby prevailed over the Chinese government to lift the ban. The dam lobby comprised state-owned power companies and local governments that argued that potential safety risks and social consequences from dams was plain hogwash as hydropower was cleaner than coal-based power.
China is telling India not to worry as Zangmu is a relatively small dam (540 MW) which will “not much disturb the environment”. Besides, it is a ‘run-of-the-river’ project – meaning it uses the flow of the river, rather than storing water in a large reservoir – and hence not going to cause any radical change in the flow of the river downstream. The Chinese also maintain that any major diversion of the Brahmaputra waters is not possible as the landscape requires lifting of water to more than 1000 metres which was too complex, expensive and dangerous, what with frequent geological disasters, such as landslides and earthquakes. The Chinese government, India is being assured, never planned diversion nor found it feasible. So, says China, they are not going to build any mega dams. They will however make hydropower stations. There are some more hydropower stations coming up after Zangmu.
Should India continue to believe that China’s development of upstream areas will never harm downstream interests? The Brahmaputra is the lifeline to Assam and other northeastern states. If upstream projects cause change in the flow of water, projects on the Brahmaputra, particularly the Upper Siang and Lower Suhansri projects in Arunachal Pradesh, may get adversely affected. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to raise the issue of dams on the Brahmaputra with Beijing, “to ensure that the flow of water in the river is not altered in any manner detrimental to Assam.” Experts have warned that any diversion of water from the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra would have devastating consequences for the way the river flows for downstream areas. Reservoirs along the river could reduce the flow of water into India. It is true that Zangmu and other hydropower stations China is building are of the run-of-the-river type, yet it also remains a fact that China is building more and more reservoirs which are going to store more and more water which could be diverted to the northern parts of China.
India has failed to fight its case strongly with China. One of the reasons is the smug perception among Indian policymakers that precipitation in China contributes only 7% to the total Brahmaputra river flow. It is the Brahmaputra’s tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh, along with the rains in India that contribute to the rest of the river’s water supply. In short, the argument is that since the water available to upper streams in Tibet is scanty, building of hydropower stations in the region by China would not much affect the flow of the river in India. It could be true that China’s dam building has not much affected the river flow yet, but by building dams, China is gaining advantage. Under international law, a country’s right over natural resources it shares with other nations becomes stronger if is already putting these resources to use. China has already begun first use of the Brahmaputra waters. Unless India too starts building projects rapidly to use more and more of Brahmaputra waters, it might be a loser in any arbitration of river water sharing dispute with China. The central government has started showing keenness for building river water use projects in the northeastern states, including Arunachal Pradesh. However, the government also needs to take care that issues of acquisition of land, compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement do not cause social and political unrest in Arunachal Pradesh, with or without the environmental groups opposed to building projects along the Brahmaputra playing any role. China, which makes a claim over parts of Arunachal Pradesh, might fan the fire and weaken India’s case for legitimate share of the Brahmaputra waters.