China’s announcement on September 30 that it has blocked the Xiabuqu river, an important tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, at Xigase in the Tibetan Autonomous Region to build the Lalho hydroelectric project, has led to concerns and apprehensions in downstream India and Bangladesh. In October 2015, the Zangmu Hydroelectric Project was commissioned on the main channel of the Yarlung Tsangpo (also called Yarlung Zangbo), which flows into India as the Siang and then becomes the Brahmaputra, and is known as the Jamuna in Bangladesh. Three more hydroelectric projects, Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha are on the works on the Yarlung Tsangpo as well.
These developments must be seen in context of the larger series of interventions on rivers traversing the Himalayas that both China and India have committed to in the past decade. Every single water-related event on any of the frontier rivers in the Himalayan region is met with an ever-increasing sense of caution, more so by the downstream basin countries. This is true of the South Asian rivers as well as the Southeast Asian rivers, all originating from Tibet in China. The lack of a treaty-based framework on trans-border rivers in the region further accentuates the sense of fear, hysteria and knee-jerk reactions that we witness to such water-related events.
The Yarlung Zangbo-Brahmaputra is truly a frontier river in many aspects, it traverses frontier regions of China and India, it is under-researched, and a trans-border river which has seen little conversation or dialogue among its co-riparian countries. The meanders of the Brahmaputra have sculpted the natural and human landscape of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, the young and fragile ecology of the Eastern Himalayas and the rich diversity of tribes and languages in this frontier space. Riparian communities have learnt to live in harmony and move along the meanders of the river over centuries, knowing well that the Brahmaputra has a mind of its own.
The imagination of this frontier river and the spaces that it sustains has been re-shaped by the respective national development agendas of both China and India. The 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project for instance, which is on an important tributary of the Brahmaputra, the Subansiri, was also blocked by India to help facilitate the dam building. This project has been stalled ever since 2013, after protests by local communities in Assam. China and India keep stressing on the run-of-the-river nature of their respective dam projects, without any impact on the downstream flow of water, but it does have severe ecological implications.
The way forward is to bring about a larger understanding of rivers in this frontier space through joint research and monitoring, and generate a trans-Himalayan consensus on utilising shared rivers in the region — and this will require a riparian leadership role by both China and India. Lower riparian anxieties can only be allayed through a framework of engagement and cooperation and India must push for more than the current Expert Level Mechanism with China. The reductionist understanding of these shared rivers only in terms of hydropower generation and water diversion will only lead to further ecological damage to the fragile Himalayan region.
At a time when rivers are likened to mere “taps” by nation states, which they imply can be turned on and turned off, across borders to fulfil strategic political, military and economic objectives, we need to think about the larger ecology of the source of such trans-border rivers. The ability to negotiate successful trans-border arrangements for mutual benefit depends on how we integrate our core national development interests with a measure of ecological sense. China and India need to engage in sustained dialogue, and the Trans-Himalayan Development Forum can be a good platform for multilateral engagement of nations sharing Himalayan rivers.
Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman is senior research fellow, IIT Guwahati, Assam
The views expressed are personal