The Central government has officially informed Parliament that Chi has blocked a tributary of the Brahmaputra, and that India has conveyed its concerns to Chinese authorities at the highest levels. Minister of State for Exterl Affairs VK Singh, replying to a question in Lok Sabha posed by four MPs including Ramen Deka and Gaurav Gogoi, said that ‘Chi has been urged to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas in Tibet’. The tributary Xiabuqu blocked at Xigaze at its confluence with the Brahmaputra as part of the Lalho multiple hydro project — will have two power stations with combined capacity of 42 MW. The dam, expected to be completed by 2019, will store up to 295 million cubic metre water and also irrigate about 30,000 hectares of farmland. Chinese authorities had in fact made the announcement in September last, though the dam has been under construction since June 2014. Beijing has been seeking to allay New Delhi’s apprehensions that the project is ‘run of river’ type, not designed to hold water. It has further claimed that the Xiabuqu’s mean discharge volume barely constitutes 0.02 per cent of the Brahmaputra’s average annual trans- boundary discharge. Be as it may, Chi’s grand design to harness the rivers in Tibet worries India, given the shroud of secrecy under which the Chinese leadership operates. The trust deficit continues to fester with the two neighbors nowhere near to having any comprehensive water treaty. What they have is just a memorandum of understanding signed in 2013 to ‘strengthen cooperation on trans-border rivers’ under which Chi provides data on water flows of Brahmaputra and Sutlej to India. In 2010, when Chi built its first dam at Zangmu on the main upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, it came to light that it had plans to build three more such dams; and last year, it operationlized the Zam hydropower station, the largest hydel project on the Brahamputra in Tibet. The feeling has grown in the country, particularly in Aruchal and Assam, that Beijing keeps taking unilateral decisions to pursue its water strategy, presenting lower riparian states one fait accompli after another.
Even if these projects are ‘run of river’ type, these give Chi the power to control water flows that can trigger untimely draughts or floods, like the suspected artificial flooding of Siang in 2000. The sudden variations in water flow downstream can in turn scupper Indian efforts to harness the hydro potential of its Northeast region. And this is a matter over which a sort of cat-and-mouse game between the two neighbors seems to have begun. There is a UN advisory on ‘river water dispute’, which says that a downstream riparian state can ensure ‘first user right’ on intertiol rivers by building dams. This is thought to be the motive behind Indian government’s master plan to build as many as 76 dams in Aruchal with an estimated capacity of around 36,900 MW. Under the rendra Modi dispensation, there has been a clear sense of urgency in implementing this plan. There are genuine environmental concerns about the Northeast’s fragile ecology from the threats posed by mega dams; the debate gets further charged, given the high seismicity of the region. Some environmental activists here have been accused of pushing a hidden Chinese agenda to oppose Indian dams in NE. More thoughtful voices argue for smaller dams in accordance with latest global trends. But one argument makes eminent sense. It is in Beijing’s interest to keep any water sharing negotiations strictly bilateral, where it can exercise its full clout. It is true that instead of a policy of appeasement, New Delhi should forcefully make its concerns clear to Beijing. But it is in India’s interest to push for multilateral agreements so that other lower riparian states like Bangladesh and Bhutan are also brought aboard to keep downstream flows intact. New Delhi can look further east towards SE Asian countries that are also impacted by Beijing’s plans to dam Tibetan rivers and divert their waters to its parched northern lands. India also cannot afford to let go of its high moral ground as it seeks to keep reminding Chi of its obligation to respect the rights of lower riparian states. That means it has to be very circumspect about any attempt to revisit the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan and claim its ‘rightful share’, despite grave and continuous provocations from Islamabad.