Looking East

India-China: Securitising Water

01 Dec, 2014    ·   4760

Wasbir Hussain looks at the worrying aspects of Chinese plans to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow

A day after China commissioned the biggest hydro-power plant in Tibet on 23 November 2014, India named National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval as its Special Representative on the boundary talks with Beijing. This means the boundary dialogue between the two Asian giants is set to resume. But today, very few would tend to believe that India and China could go to another war over issues like the boundary. Economic ties or compulsions are perhaps far too big for China to embark on another military adventure or misadventure against India. Therefore, a war over the border dispute may look remote, but that cannot be said about escalation of tensions over the securitisation of water.

The operationalisation of the first generating unit of the USD 1.5 billion Zangmu plant, located 3,300 metres above sea level, before the scheduled 2015 start date, indicates that Beijing means business in tapping the resources of the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is called in China. Five other generating units of the plant will be operational by next year.

The event was celebrated by China with the official news agency Xinhua reporting the commissioning in detail. “The huge project, which straddles the middle reaches of the roaring Yarlung Tsangpo, will have a total installed capacity of 510,000 KW upon completion. It is designed to generate 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually.”

New Delhi, so far, does not seem to be unduly perturbed by the development because it appears to believe Beijing’s assurance that the Zangmu dam is a run-of-the-river project that will not involve either diversion of the river's waters nor have a major impact on downstream flows. What needs to be factored in, however, is China’s approval to the building of 27 other dams on the river.

Beijing last year cleared the construction of three new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo. A 640 MW dam, obviously bigger than the Zangmu project, is to come up at Dagu, around 20 km upstream of Zangmu. Two smaller dams are on the cards at Jiacha and Jiexu, also on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo. China has made it clear it would "vigorously" push hydropower projects in Tibet in its current Five Year Plan (2011-15) to reduce the energy shortfall in the region.

China’s massive plan to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo has raised serious concerns in India, particularly in the Northeast, besides other lower riparian states like Bangladesh. Green groups at home are already demanding intervention by the Indian Government to prevent building of more dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo by China. They fear reduction in the water flow on the Brahmaputra and other disasters like massive siltation.

But the absence of a water treaty between the two nations will make New Delhi’s task all the more difficult in dealing with the issue. The only agreement that the two nations have on the subject is over hydrological data sharing. One of the agreements India and China signed during the Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari’s five-day visit to Beijing concerned the sharing of hydrological data of Brahmaputra River during monsoons. There had been a similar agreement but in the new one signed on 30 June - in the presence of Indian Vice President Ansari and his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao - Beijing agreed to provide 15 days’ additional hydrological data - from 15 May to 15 October each year.

Bluntly put, the latest MoU on the Brahmaputra flood data means nothing as an additional 15 days worth of hydrological information will not enable India to deal with the flood problem any differently. What India needs is input from the Chinese side on dams and other projects Beijing is pursuing or intends to pursue based on the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Even a commitment on that is not forthcoming thus far from the Chinese side.

With an unprecedented mandate and a demonstrated policy to improve ties with its neighbours, the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi can initiate the setting up of something like a South Asia Shared Rivers Commission or Authority by bringing Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal on board. Once such a commission emerges and a cooperative framework on the shared rivers is agreed upon by the concerned states, it can engage with China and try to bring Beijing on board to adopt a reasonable approach on its mega dam projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo and allay apprehensions in the lower riparian areas, including Bangladesh.

There is added concern because China also apparently has plans to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo at the Great Bend, located just before where the river enters India, also known as the Shoumatan Point, to provide water to its arid northern areas. The diversion plan is part of a larger hydro-engineering project, the South-North water diversion scheme, which involves three man-made rivers carrying water to its northern parts. If the water is diverted, the water levels of the Brahmaputra will drop significantly, affecting India's Northeastern region and Bangladesh. Estimates suggest that the total water flow will fall by roughly 60 per cent if China successfully diverts the Brahmaputra. Besides, it will severely impact agriculture and fishing as the salinity of water will increase, as will silting in the downstream area.

India’s response on the subject is awaited, and until then, speculations about the impact of the Chinese dams on the river will continue to haunt everyone in Northeast India and Bangladesh.