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Escalating tension between India and China

Publication Date : 22-10-2012

 

Travellers to the northeast get their first glimpse of the river Brahmaputra, the “son” of the mythical Hindu Lord, Brahma, when they cross the Saraighat bridge across the river to enter Guwahati.

Amidst the greenery of the surrounding hills, one gets a feeling of grandeur, awe and admiration. This river is possibly one of the least polluted in the country and is endowed with enormous water resources that have played a critical role in the development of agriculture, transport, industry, even music in the northeast.

Tragically, however, this riverine development will become a thing of the past if China’s plan to construct dams on the Brahmaputra materialises. And one of these dams may be ready very shortly. This will not only disrupt the lives of millions in the region, but might also turn out to be the worst environmental disaster on planet earth.

The river Brahmaputra or Yarlung Tsangpo, as it is known in China, originated in the lake, Manas Sarobar near Mount Kailash in the southern Tibet plateau. It meanders eastwards for more than 2,000 kilometres before entering Siang in Arunachal Pradesh after taking a spectacular and abrupt U-turn--famously known as the Great Bend--and merges eventually in the Bay of Bengal after traversing southwards through Assam and Bangladesh.

Without this U-turn of more than 90 degrees, the river would possibly have continued its eastward journey and ultimately gone to the China Sea. But  Nature apparently had some other design for the people of the subcontinent. This curious turn of the river and its subsequent impact on the lives of Indians  has accorded the Brahmaputra a unique place in the history of Indian civilisation. In terms of importance, therefore, it is as important as the Indus and the Ganga.

But certain ominous trends are noticeable. China has undertaken a number of projects to trap water resources in the vicinity of the Great Bend. The first of a series of six dams on the Brahmaputra is called the Zangmu hydropower project, situated to the south-east of Lhasa.

The people of the northeast and environmentalists throughout the world have taken a serious view of this construction.

China is known for its secrecy. Its government is driven by the compulsion to meet the energy needs of industry, irrigation, and domestic consumption. And most importantly, it has the responsibility to feed more than one billion and a quarter of its people. As a sovereign country, it is free to manage its rivers to meet its needs. But these actions should not be taken at the expense of the survival of other nations, people, and their environment and ecosystems.

Since the 90s, China has denied the construction of any dam on its side of the Brahmaputra. It was only in 2010 that it admitted that several water-related projects on the Brahmaputra are on its agenda, including the one at Zangmy which may be ready by 2014-15.

Beijing has assured India that these dams are hydropower projects and will not affect the lower riparian states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Furthermore, it claims that there is no plan to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra to the arid north China or to construct reservoirs as reported in the media time and again.

The government of India has appealed to the northeastern states not to panic. In the absence of a water treaty between India and China, one has to depend on Beijing’s assurance and the available satellite and intelligence data as collected by India from time to time.

The important question at this juncture is the extent to which China is willing to compromise on its grand design on water and energy management involving the Brahmaputra. There has been considerable opposition to its plan from the lower riparian countries such as India.

Admittedly, China is facing a major crisis in terms of  water resources. Or will it pursue  its projects to meet its requirement, with scant regard for the opposition and concern articulated by others?

An urgent imperative is a water treaty between the two great powers of Asia to ensure that sharing of information can lead to a better understanding of the uses of water resources. This will ensure transparency and develop trust between the peoples of the two countries.

Diplomatic channels and bilateral agreements may be allowed to fructify in due course of time. The people of the northeast can fervently hope that the pristine beauty of their land is preserved and that the green and fertile country is not reduced to a sterile desert by the diversion of the great and mighty Brahmaputra.

In studying the damming of the Brahmaputra, an analyst of international affairs observed: “Current efforts on behalf of China to divert the water resources of the Brahmaputra river away from India will compound a situation that has remained tenuous since the 1962 India-China War”. However, nobody talks of war these days, although relations between the two countries have soured over the issue of dams.  

Fifty years after the India-China war, the conflict of interests is palpable enough, if a news item circulated in June this year is authentic. It states that the Chinese Government has announced its plan to increase tourism and create a national park in Tibet near the Brahmaputra river, rather than pursue the construction of a massive and controversial dam. This ignores the demands of hydropower proponents and lobbyists in that country.

While the common people in India may be inclined  to believe this nice story, the authorities in the government would surely do well to examine the veracity of this development. And also initiate adequate checks and balances at all levels regarding the issue so as not to be caught off guard.

 

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