The Parechu Lake Incident: A Preliminary Analysis

30 Nov, 2004    ·   1569

Col P K Gautam offers the prescription of 'prevention is better than cure' on the issue of the Parechu lake incident that occurred early this year


In early November 2004, the Ministry of External Affairs informed the Himachal Pradesh government to scale down the three month long high alert across the Sutlej valley. Briefly to recall, in the beginning of August 2004, 35 kilometres from the Himachal Pradesh border, a huge artificial lake began to be formed on Parechu, a tributary of the river in Tibet, China. The lake formation (called Karak lake by the Chinese) of about 230 hectares, according to the Chinese, was caused due to the blockage of the river by a sudden landslide at an inaccessible and high altitude site.

Unlike the devastating flash floods of a similar nature in the year 2000 in Kinnaur which came without any warning from China, this time early warning was provided on time by the Chinese. Mercifully the lake did not burst. It was visualised that if the fast swelling lake had burst a surge of water wall could have caused havoc. The period August to October 2004 was the worst time for the downstream dwellers who had to be evacuated from close to the river as a precautionary step to prevent disaster.

This single episode has brought out extremely important and practical aspects of Sino-Indian relations as also water sharing in a climate of peace and cooperation in South Asia.

The Media Debates

The print and electronic media had a number of articles by experts. Broadly two view points emerged. One view was that this was a deliberate effort in an artificial lake formation. The lake was a liquid bomb in the hand of the Chinese who could devastate downstream India by breaching it at will. This school of thought also contemplated that this was an experiment for directional blasting techniques to construct rock fill dams. If perfected and experimented successfully the procedure could be used to divert the Brahmaputra at the U bend before it enters Arunachal Pradesh north to China at a later date. Chinese secrecy and their underlying role as an adversary to confront India were emphasised.

The second broad view was that this was a natural phenomenon. The Chinese also had indicated that it was technically not possible to breach the lake in the embryonic phase. Even if the lake had burst the meandering nature of the tributary would have absorbed and slowed the impact of the water surge. Technical arguments were also given that water would in any case be needed to fill the Bhakra Nangal dam which was nearly empty due to low rainfall in the catchments of Sutlej river. Early warning and exchange of information was forthcoming though the Chinese did not permit an Indian team to visit the site. The issues debated were mostly technical with ways and means to solve the problem. In October 2004 the Chinese had given information that the depth of lake had reduced to 26 metres from 40 metres as also the water level and inflow had declined. To further reduce the impounded water there is a need to create a channel for sufficient discharge.


The following points merit consideration:

  • The Chinese are not a signatory to the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile use of Environment Modification Technique (ENMOD). It is important that we communicate this fear of a lake bomb to them and engage and motivate them to sign and ratify the treaty.

  • In November 2003, the Ministry of Water Resources requested the Ministry of External Affairs to seek details about reports of China's plans to divert rivers in Tibet including the Brahmaputra northwards to China. The outcome of this query is not available in the public domain. This needs to be expedited.

  • India is a down stream country and thus is vulnerable to a fear of an upper riparian tinkering with the headwaters. Similarly Bangladesh and Pakistan may harbour unwarranted fears of India's design in water diversion or an imaginary strategy of control on the water sources. Some in India fear dams in Nepal as water bombs ready to be breached to flood India. This water narrative breeds a complex web of distrust among neighbours. China can show the way by inviting Indian experts to study the rivers in Tibet.

  • China's transparency and willingness to ally fears may inspire India to share Himalayan river data with Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh and southern Asian water information grid can be worked out. This would lead to a better climate of management of water resources in an integrated manner.


The 194 hectares lake has since frozen. After winter, as spring sets in March 2005, the people in vulnerable areas in Himachal Pradesh would again be forced to evacuate their homes and another flood would be awaited as the ice melts. Disaster may or may not happen, but one thing this periodic episode indicates is for the countries to cooperate over issues of water resources for peace and prosperity.