CHINA MAY be controlling the flow of the Sutlej into India — making no noise, breaking no treaty. For the past few years, Chinese authorities have been building a barrage on the river in a remote part of west Tibet. Located across the Zada (Tsamda) gorge, an important crossing point, the barrage is probably intended to generate power for Zada town.
Satellite images of the gorge, which is also the access point to the ancient Toling monastery and Tsaparang (capital of the ancient Guge kingdom), show the barrage distinctly. Though the images suggest work on the barrage has been completed, it could not be confirmed. China has not sought publicity for it — as it did for the Three Gorges Dam.
Whatever be the stage of construction, the idea of a barrage over the Sutlej — which enters India near Shipki La in Himachal Pradesh — is bad news for the country. Given the wide body of evidence showing the drying up of lakes, streams and rivers on the northern side of the Himalayas, the barrage raises concern that China may finally be controlling and regulating flow of water into India.
Such constructions could also lead to disasters. In 2004, an artificial lake on the Parichu stream (a tributary of the Spiti in Tibet) caused floods after a landslide, leading to heavy loss of life in the Sutlej and Spiti valleys. In 2005, flash floods in the Sutlej Valley at Kinnaur again turned the attention towards the artificial lake.
The construction of the barrage at the Zada gorge forms a much larger reservoir on the river, and a possible breach has potential for massive damage. Several large tributaries feed the Sutlej with melted glacial waters above the point where the barrage is being built.
Officials at the Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment on the existence of the barrage. Not that India can do much about it. India cannot even accuse China of breaking a formal water-sharing treaty — because none exists between the two countries. This is partly because the actual border between the two remains to be determined.
A proposal for joint hydrographic studies on the Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh was mooted during the visit of Chinese premier Zhu Rongji in January 2002, along the lines of the information-sharing mechanism for the Brahmaputra.
An MoU was signed on April 11, 2005, during the visit of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, for sharing of hydrological information of the Sutlej/Langqen Tsangbo (the Chinese name for the river) in flood season by China to India.
The arrangement entails building of a hydrological station by the Chinese on the Sutlej. But this construction on the Zada gorge was in existence before that — in 2002.
The construction had aroused the interest of several tourists when they visited the region back in 2002. They were denied permission to photograph the construction, though they took snaps of the bridge across the river close to the site.
One of the tourists, Manosi Lahiri, who has a doctorate in Urban Geography, went on to record her observations in a book, 'Here Be Yaks'. A fellow traveller, Indu Lal, and another senior official, also confirmed the existence of the barrage construction.
China is wary of granting visas to expeditions by scientists who wish to visit the region. Everest hero and adventure traveller Major (retd) M.S. Ahluwalia, who traversed the Silk Route, has been seeking permission for a joint expedition to trace the origins of the Sutlej, for three years now.