China’s grand plans to harness the waters of the Brahmaputra River* have set off ripples of anxiety in the two lower riparian states: India and Bangladesh. China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is not only expected to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream; it could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relations.
The 2,880 km-long Brahmaputra originates in Tibet, where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo. It flows eastwards through southern Tibet for a distance of 1,625 kilometers and at its easternmost point it swings around to make a spectacular U-turn at the Shuomatan Point or Great Bend before it enters India’s easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh. Here it is known as the Siang River. After gathering the waters of several rivers it announces itself as the Brahmaputra in the state of Assam. The river snakes lazily through Assam to then enter Bangladesh, where it is known as the Jamuna. In Bangladesh it is joined by the Ganges (known as the Padma in Bangladesh) and Meghna and together these rivers form the world’s largest delta before emptying their waters into the Bay of Bengal.
As with other rivers originating in the icy Tibetan plateau, Beijing’s plans for the Brahmaputra include two kinds of projects. The first involves the construction of hydro-electric power projects on the river and the other, more ambitious project, envisages the diversion of its waters to the arid north.
The lack of communication on the issue is deepening suspicion and tension. This underscores the need for dialogue that includes all the riparian countries. China must share data with India and Bangladesh on its dam construction and other plans for the Brahmaputra.
Meanwhile in a bid to exploit the immense hydropower potential of the Brahmaputra and importantly, to establish prior use rights, the Indian government is on a massive dam building spree – including mega dams as well micro-hydel projects – in Arunachal Pradesh. Environmental and other norms are being flouted in the construction of these projects. These could worsen the water flow for the people further downstream in Assam and Bangladesh, deepening existing problems and triggering new conflicts.
Some have suggested that a joint India-Bangladesh effort on the question of China’s damming of the Brahmaputra may be effective. This is unlikely given China’s preference for bilateral approaches to dispute resolution.
Picture: Nguyen Thanh Long (Flickr: Sunset in the Gange River) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons