Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has flagged Indian concerns on China’s plans for damming and diverting the waters of common rivers like the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra to his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. That it has figured at the summit level is a major step forward, as, till now, only a small circle of scholars have raised the issue.
The proposed dams and irrigation and hydro-electric projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known in its higher reaches in Tibet, and reports of diversion to other parts of China, have been a controversial issue here.
The joint statement referring to trans-boundary rivers as ‘assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries’ is significant as it would enable India and Bangladesh to demand greater transparency on issues relating to dams and water sharing.
The controversy over river diversion began about 20 years ago when, the journal, Scientific American, carried an account of the Chinese supposedly planning a huge diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo, purportedly by tunnelling through the Himalayas and moving the waters to the country’s water-strapped centre and north.
China has asserted its right to develop water resources falling on its side of the border — a way to assert its control over Tibet. There is little debate on the issue in China as few are prepared to challenge the State with regard to Tibet or its claims to Arunachal Pradesh.
The border dispute with India and Beijing’s consistent rejection of the McMahon Line is unchallenged in China. Chinese activists are prepared to face off with their government on the Three Gorges Dam, corruption and favouritism. But they will not touch sovereignty issues.
The Chinese do propose a diversion on the Brahmaputra, but it is southward through a series of giant steps, so that they connect it to the Tsangpo’s lower course in Tibet before it moves into India.
The project under preparation is stunningly audacious — purportedly starting a decade from now, it would cut across the Tibetan Plateau, before the great Namcha Barwa bend, with 11 dams including nine cascades, generating power, but releasing the water at every level.
These would be cascade dams with reservoirs in the first and last, over a drop of 2,000 metres and would generate not less than 40,000 MW of electricity. Will this plan be affected by the new Manmohan-Li code on transparency? It would be a fit case to test the waters.
Powerful business and political interests in China converge here. Beijing can brush off Indian protests by saying it would be protecting our rights by ensuring the level of water flows. None of this information has been made available by Indian officials or made public.
But with the agreement on exchanging ‘data on other issues of mutual interests’ on the rivers, there is finally a window of opportunity to demand transparency from China — which in turn will also demand openness from India for dams proposed and being built in Arunachal Pradesh. The dice falls both ways.
Sanjoy Hazarika is founder-director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal