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Chi diverts Yangtze water, is Brahmaputra next target?

DATELINE  Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain

On a Friday, 12 December 2014, Chi successfully diverted water from its longest river, the Yangtze, to the country’s arid northern areas, including capital Beijing. It did so through a series of cals and pipelines stretching over 1,400 kilometers through eastern, middle and western routes. Part of the mega south–to–north water diversion project, with an estimated cost of 500 billion yuan (about 81.4 billion U.S. dollars), construction had started just 12 years ago, in 2002.

The new waterway will see water continuously supplied through the middle route of the south–to–north water diversion project. It can supply 9.5 billion cubic meters of water per year on average for some 100 million people in the dry northern regions, including Beijing and Tianjin cities, as well as Hen and Hebei provinces. The project is an engineering marvel and has come a long way since the Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Cal, the world’s longest man–made river, was launched in the 13th century as a main waterway for grain transport between the south and north in ancient Chi.

The matter that is of immense interest to India and Assam in particular is Chi’s plan on diverting water from the Brahmaputra. The question has become all the more important because Beijing has already demonstrated that it means business and has actually diverted water of the Yangtze as part of the overall plan. The Brahmaputra diversion is obviously next on its agenda. Chi has an ambitious strategy aimed at diverting 50 billion cubic meters of water from the Brahmaputra to the Yellow River. According to experts, the energy generated from the proposed hydro–electric projects on the Brahmaputra might be utilized in pushing up river waters through difficult mountainous terrains.

The Chinese plans have raised tremendous concern in the region. On March 1, 2012 residents of Pasighat, a town on the bank of the Siang in Aruchal Pradesh, as the Brahmaputra is known in the State, witnessed something unusual. That day, the Siang – normally around several kilometers wide – ran completely dry. The phenomenon has raised serious doubts in the minds of the people about what the Chinese must be doing with the river.

The Chinese, too, are apparently divided over the issue of diverting water from the Brahmaputra. In 2006, Wang Schucheng, the then Minister for Water Resources, described the plan as unnecessary, unfeasible, and unscientific.  An authority on the subject, Wang Guangqian, who has a lot of clout within the Chinese establishment, however, is in favour of the Brahmaputra diversion.

India is aware of the possibilities and the dangers and has just about started raising the water issue with the Chinese. But in the absence of any water sharing treaty between the two tions, regulating or keeping tab on the use of the resources of the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Brahmaputra by Beijing has become almost impossible. India has to depend on the assurances by Beijing that Chi would do nothing against the interest of the lower riparian states and that their dams are or would be run–of–the–river projects with no great ecological or other dangers.

In order to generate hydel power and also lay claim to the resources of the Brahmaputra, India, too, has come up with plans to build dams on the river. But, due to intense pressure against big dams by environmental and other anti–dam groups, the Government has been uble to push ahead with their construction. New Delhi has also decided to speed up studies on the basins of the rivers Subansiri, Lohit, and Siang for their strategic utilization.

As India fine tunes its strategy to grapple with the situation, it would be interesting to look at the following timeline: In October 1952, the idea of diverting water from the resource–abundant south to the north was first envisioned by Chi’s late chairman Mao Zedong; on June 5, 2000, after decades of research and discussion, the South–to–North water diversion project was set to include three routes — the eastern, the middle and the western — to take water from the Yangtze River. And, we need to note that within three days of the project’s approval on December 23, 2002, construction began on the water diversion scheme.

Chi can do that because of the form of its Government. We can’t because we are a democracy and have to listen to divergent views. But, we need to act now if we are to foil the Chinese designs.

About the author

Ankur Kalita

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