By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Even as India and China are yet to resolve their decades-old territorial dispute, another conflict is looming. China's diversion of the waters of a river originating in Tibet to its water-scarce areas could leave India's northeast parched. This is expected to trigger new tensions in the already difficult relations between the two Asian giants.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is reported during his recent Beijing visit to have raised the issue of international rivers flowing out of Tibet. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has said that water scarcity threatened the very "survival of the Chinese nation".
The river in question is the Brahmaputra, which begins in southwestern Tibet where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo River. It flows eastwards through southern Tibet for a distance of about 1,600 kilometers and at its easternmost point makes a spectacular U-turn, known as the Shuomatan Point, or the “Great Bend”. This is just before the river enters India, where it is joined by two other major rivers; from this point of confluence it is known as the Brahmaputra. It then snakes into Bangladesh, where it is joined by the Ganges River to create the world's largest delta before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
It is at the Great Bend that China plans to divert water, in addition to its hydroelectric power project that is expected to generate 40,000 megawatts of power. The diversion of the waters is part of a larger hydro-engineering project, the South-North water diversion scheme, which involves three man-made rivers carrying water from the icy Tibetan plateau to the arid north.
This water diversion scheme will draw from the waters of the Yarlung, Dadu and Jinsha rivers, which rise in the Tibetan plateau, and channel them to the Yellow River. The aim of the project is to provide water for human use, including farming and industry in China's water-scarce areas in the north and northwest. This water diversion project involves three diversion routes - the eastern, central and western routes. The diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo at the Great Bend is the western route of the project - the most technologically challenging and controversial of the three routes.
For Beijing, the argument in favor of the water diversion project is simple. More than a quarter of China is classified as desert. Its north and northwest areas are water scarce. Increasing consumption of water, rapid industrialization and pollution have rendered the waters of many of China's rivers unusable. Besides, sections of the Yellow River run dry. In contrast, rivers that rise in the Tibetan plateau's glaciers have much water. Once completed, the water diversion scheme is expected to transfer over 40 billion cubic meters of water annually to China's water scarce areas, relieving China's thirst to a significant extent.
It is true the Tibetan plateau is a source of much water. It is Asia's principal watershed and the source of 10 of its major rivers, including the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Indus. China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, indeed 47% of the world's population, are dependent on water rising in the Tibetan plateau.
But while rivers with sources in the icy Tibetan plateau are rich in water, critics of the water diversion project say they are not inexhaustible, as Chinese officials claim. The Tibetan plateau is ice-covered but it is an arid desert with very little rainfall. The source of much of its water bodies and rivers is glaciers, which are melting due to global warming. If, alongside the impact of rising temperatures on glaciers, China diverts water from its natural course, Tibet will be a water-scarce region in a few decades. Critics also point to the environmental and ecological destruction it is likely to cause.
The water diversion project at the Great Bend spells disaster not only for the Tibetan plateau but also for the lower riparian countries - India and Bangladesh. These countries view the project with some concern as it represents a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people living downstream.
With the Yarlung Tsangpo's waters being diverted, the amount of water in the Brahmaputra will fall significantly, affecting India's northeast and Bangladesh. It will severely impact agriculture and fishing there as the salinity of water will increase, as will silting in the downstream area.
A shortage of water in the Ganges has already affected the lives and livelihoods of millions in Bangladesh, pushing them to migrate to India, especially to its northeast. This migration of Bangladeshis has changed the demographic composition of vast tracts in the northeast (especially in Assam) and triggered serious ethnic conflicts there. A shortage of water in the Brahmaputra will accentuate these problems to dangerous levels.
There is concern too that with the water diversion project taking off, China will acquire great power and leverage over India, worsening tensions between these two countries.
Analysts have drawn attention to incidents in the past to show how vulnerable downstream areas are to what takes place upstream in Tibet. In June 2000, for instance, the breach of a dam in Tibet led to floods and left over 100 people dead or missing in Arunachal Pradesh. In August that year, swollen lakes in Tibet caused severe flooding of the River Sutlej in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, sweeping away around 100 bridges and killing scores of people. If floods upstream have a serious impact on downstream areas, the diversion of waters will have “even more devastating consequences”, an India-China watcher in India, Claude Arpi, warned.
Underscoring the implications of the project, Arpi said that issues of concern “not only pertain to the environment but also to national and international security. If Beijing goes ahead with the Tsangpo project it would practically mean a declaration of war against South Asia.”
India is watching the water diversion project with concern. It does not have a water sharing treaty with China, so it is at Beijing's mercy with regard to the Brahmaputra's waters. China's reluctance to pay heed to concerns of lower riparian countries is evident from the fact that it is unwilling to share even hydrological data on flood waters with India; this despite the fact that it is obliged under an agreement with India to do so, with regard to flood waters of the Sutlej. The two countries had also agreed to set up a joint expert-level mechanism on interstate river waters, but it has not showed any enthusiasm about moving forward on that either.
It seems that India can only watch helplessly as China steams ahead with its water diversion ambitions.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.