China’s recent operationalisation of the Zangmu hydropower station on the Yarlung Tsangpo (the Tibet part of the Brahmaputra), the largest such station in Tibet, is an occasion to reconsider the ‘water problem’ in India-China relations. Unsurprisingly, mainstream Indian reactions have been kneejerk and paranoid. The downstream impact of this must be balanced against the fact that most of the water that contributes to the volume of the Brahmaputra beginning in Assam comes from rainfall and tributary flows on the Indian side in Arunachal Pradesh. The more important issue in India is the lack of management of river water resources.
There is also the issue of trust and transparency that the Tibetan dams represent. More than once, India has had to show China proof from satellite imagery to get the Chinese to admit to dam construction on their side. Actually, this might not perhaps be so much a case of deliberate Chinese intent or malice as much as a rigid defence of its sovereignty that suggests activities China carries out within its borders are not anyone else’s business. This data issue is, however, something that is likely to be largely resolved either through increased Indian technological capability or through a stronger India-China agreement.
And there are grounds to believe that such agreements are possible. One, there is in China today a burgeoning consciousness on environmental issues. The Chinese authorities are far more willing to tolerate protests on issues related to the environment than before. Beijing’s smog, soil pollution and unusable water in many areas have led the authorities to tighten regulations. This has led to the reassessment of such legacy projects as the South-North water diversion.
Two, the technocratic elite, which promoted the big dams and infrastructure construction projects in China in the past, have mostly passed from the scene. This generation tended to view such projects in much the same terms as Jawaharlal Nehru did, that is, as ‘temples’ of development. Their successors today are more likely to be worried about political stability issues arising out of the hundreds of thousands that might have to be rehabilitated as a result of such projects.
Three, there are other technological options China is trying out including promoting desalination projects in coastal cities, water conservation strategies and recycling. In addition, the western leg of the water transfer projects involving the Yarlung Tsangpo is seen as posing huge technical challenges, in addition to massive costs without necessarily providing commensurate benefits. In fact, it has been reported that much of the water being transferred in the South-North project is not being used because of the high pollution in the water by the time it reaches its final destinations or because local governments along the way did not have the money to build the necessary infrastructure to exploit the water.
Fourth, mega infrastructure projects are a major source of corruption in China. With the current anti-corruption crackdown in China, there will be more careful thought given to commissioning these massive projects.
All told, Chinese dam construction activity on the Yarlung Tsangpo is likely to be limited and water diversion from the river is an expensive and environmentally unsustainable proposition that might never take place.
Jabin T Jacob is assistant director, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.