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Brahmaputra: Can We Trust Chi?

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  17 Dec 2017 12:00 AM GMT

By Bikash Sarmah

This is the fifth and fil segment of the series on Chi’s dam-building and water diversion projects in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet (where the river is called Yarlung Tsangpo) that I have penned in this column over the past few weeks. At the time of writing this, there is a report of Assam Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal informing the media in Delhi on December 13 that the Centre has taken up the matter of pollution of the river, especially in the Siang in Aruchal Pradesh (AP) which becomes the Brahmaputra after mingling with the Lohit and the Dibang flowing through AP, with Chi. He informed newsmen that the Centre had taken the matter “seriously” and the Union Exterl Affairs Ministry had raised the issue with the neighbour. On the other hand, and quite expectedly, Chi, on the same day, denied that there was any tunnel being dug through the Himalayas to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra to feed its parched northwestern part. In a written response to a question on reports of blackened waters with mud and sledge in the Siang that could be due to a tunnel construction in Tibet to divert the river, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that “Chi’s position on eastern side of the Chi-India border is consistent and clear”. As he said, “I have never heard of the project mentioned by the Indian side. It is hoped that the Indian side will not conduct unfounded speculation and reports.”

There is nothing new in what the Chinese Foreign Ministry has said in relation to the many reports and research papers published by eminent strategic affairs experts, including environmental scientists of the likes of global eminence such as Vaclav Smil (the intertiolly acclaimed Czech-Cadian environmental scientist), about Chi’s ambitious dam-building enterprise at the Great Bend where the Brahmaputra makes a sharp U-turn before coursing in to AP to form the Siang. Every time India has raised its concerns over the Brahmaputra in Tibet, Chi has only added to the lower-riparian state’s wounds by denying such reports and revelations outright and by rather accusing the latter of basing its allegations on ‘unfounded speculation’. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has expediently chosen to gloss over the fact that the influential book Tibet’s Waters Will Save Chi by Li Ling published in 2005, which was widely circulated among the Chinese policy and hydroengineering circles (with Ling spending nearly 10 years on the book), gives a detail about what can be done to divert the Brahmaputra in Tibet to feed its water-scarce northwest. Does Chi need now be reminded of how that book revived official interest in the Great Western Route project whose chief objective is diversion of the Brahmaputra in Tibet to the Yellow River?

At this juncture, a quick point must be made. Have the Indian diplomatic circles gone through the book by Li Ling? If they have not, it is time they picked it up. If they have, what sense have they made out of it? Is it not a fact that the book is a holy one from the hydroengineering point of view in the Chinese official policy paradigm vis-à-vis what they call their Yarlung Tsangpo? Our diplomats, on whom the political component of the Exterl Affairs Ministry is heavily dependent (Exterl Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj should hear this out), should merely have to lay their hands on Brahma Chellaney’s classic, world-famous and award-winning book Water: Asia’s New Battleground, if they have no access to Ling’s book, to understand the grandiose plan. Says Chellaney in the book’s Chapter 4 titled “Exploiting the Riparian Advantage” thus: “Although the Chinese government has identified the Great Bend as holding the greatest untapped water reserves, Li’s plan has sought to overcome the obstacles posed by tall mountains and the world’s longest, steepest canyon there by moving the main diversion point farther upstream (emphasis added). By rerouting the Brahmaputra at the 3,588-meter high Shoumatan (Suma Tan) site – near the Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage centre of Tsethang, famous for its eighth-century Tantric meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche – Li’s plan seeks to reduce the need to pump water uphill, thereby ensuring that the construction of the 1,239-kilometer route to the Yellow River does not openly defy the laws of physics. Shoumatan, located next to the sacred valleys in the shadows of two cult peaks, Lhamo Latso and Lha Gyari, is several hundred kilometres to the west of the Great Bend… It was actually at the first intertiol conference of the Global Infrastructure Fund, held in July 1986 in Anchorage, that the idea to reroute the Brahmaputra was openly discussed at a venue outside Chi…”

So, the story is a long one, beginning 1986 when the ambitious Chinese plan at the Great Bend was openly discussed outside Chi. The Indian government, especially its well-paid, armchair diplomatic bogey, was blissfully sleeping at that point of time. It has woken up only now, but no one knows the seriousness and erudition of this awakening. Much water has flowed down the Brahmaputra since 1986. And now its waters are muddy and contamited, not fit for drinking, with aquatic life endangered heavily, and worse, with livelihoods of a huge population dependent on the Siang in AP and the Brahmaputra in Assam (including of course in Bangladesh too, where, as strategic affairs veterans point out, the threat is far more serious) at the mercy of the Chinese hydroengineering dream that cannot have anything to do with such population. Remember, Chi has its own huge water-scarce population to take care of, including in its very capital, Beijing. Why should the people of Aruchal Pradesh, Assam and Bangladesh matter at all in that scheme? Let us understand this very clearly. And after the understanding is done, we need to go in for a pragmatic response mechanism, not the routine one like ‘raising our concerns’ that only invites heavy Chinese rebuttal.

What might such mechanism be? We need to first inform ourselves of the fact that Chi, as a water-receiving country from Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, India and Vietm, has a dependency ratio of a mere 0.9 per cent, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United tions. This rate is the lowest in the world. On the other hand, it is a huge water exporter – to Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Laos, India and Nepal. In fact, to quote Chellaney, “with its territorial size at a historical zenith, Chi today likes to pride itself as a major ‘exporter’ of water to many neighbours”. Just think of the sheer volume of water that the Brahmaputra carries from Tibet! Therefore, with such a neighbour around, coupled with the fact of its economic and military surge that even the lone superpower, the US, has now to sit up and take notice (Dold Trump or no Dold Trump), India, devoid of any intertiolly recognized and mutually agreed transboundary water treaty with Chi, has no option but to choose anyone of the following or both:

(1) It should evolve an institutiol mechanism with the neighbour based on shared interests and concerns, with both sides agreeing on certain norms founded on humanitarian aspects and centred on the moral principle that the waters of the Brahmaputra would not be used by both sides to the detriment of either side. It is here that Chi, being the upper-riparian state, needs to take the moral ground and show statesmanship as it surges ahead as a key global economic and geostrategic power. But, then, is it not too much to expect?

(2) It should go in for a well-thought-out, all-encompassing, integrated plan at all levels – from tiol to local – to work out action formulae pertaining to water efficiency and conservation, rainwater harnessing, water recycling, and environmental safeguards at large. This is doubtless more pragmatic.

Even so, despite as Point No. 2 above calls for, and despite the fact that Chi and India are staunch competitors in many ways, how about reducing the political mistrust between the two countries, including the strategic dimension of border disputes, so that the trust chasm is abridged and both sides begin to look forward to a way of growing together despite huge differences in political ideologies and the festering sores of the past beginning the 1962 war (India was the victim despite the Panchsheel euphoria engendered by Jawaharlal Nehru)? It is here that Indian diplomacy needs to take the lead and prove its mettle on the ground (unlike when they merely cleared the UPSC civil services exams to find berth in the prestigious Indian Foreign Service). Help can come in from a galaxy of strategic visiories of the likes of Chellaney. This joint discourse can then begin with the Chinese counterpart – where of course the Chinese hydroengineering world cannot be overlooked. Even further, how about a Track II diplomacy between both the Asian giants as India and Pakistan are so fervently engaged in, even if meaningful results are yet to come?

Time will tell. At the moment, Chi has a much greater upper hand, including legal. But in the existing paradigm of our diplomacy, it is virtually impossible to trust Chi.

(Bikash Sarmah, a freelance jourlist, is specializing in strategic affairs pertaining to Chi, Northeast India and Southeast Asia. He may be reached at

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