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Stealing the Brahmaputra Away?

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  19 Nov 2017 12:00 AM GMT

By Bikash Sarmah

The mighty Brahmaputra, which origites from the holy Mount Kailash (abode of Lord Shiva in Hindu mythology) near Mansarovar Lake and is fed by the Gyema Yangzom Glacier during warmer months, has a huge and mesmerising course in Tibet before it curves stunningly into Aruchal Pradesh to eventually enter Assam. In Tibet, it flows as Yarlung Tsangpo (the Chinese me for the river) some 2,000 km eastward before making a very sharp U-turn, called the Great Bend in Tibet’s Nyangtri Prefecture, and enters Aruchal. During this amazing U-turn, not only is the Himalayan range split into two, but it also forms the world’s steepest and longest canyon (a steep gorge), called the Brahmaputra Canyon – which Chi now wants to develop as a tourist hub. But we shall discuss this somewhere else. What is Nuture-engendered awe is that the canyon is 505-km long, 21-km wide, and its core part measures an average of 2,673 metre in depth! It is called the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon in the official Chinese parlance. Here hangs a tale.

The Great Bend has an enormous hydropower potential, which Chi wants to exploit to the hilt to respond to the water cries of its people in its parched northern plains. About 600-800 cities in Northern Chi, including prominent ones like Shaanxi, Hebel, Beijing (the capital itself) and Tianjin, suffer from an acute water shortage. Water woes in the south are less. But since the north is industrially more advanced, Chi must ensure that the region grapples with its water woes successfully. So, what better way than to either build a huge (unparalleled in the world dam history) dam at the Great Bend or divert the river right there towards the north? An introduction was given to the dam project by this writer last week in this column (“Water War: Northeast in Peril”, The Sentinel, 12 November 2017). Here we throw some light on the neighbouring country’s audacious water diversion enterprise, called the Great Western Route by zealous proponents in that country, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals.

It was in 1999 that the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin iugurated a grand infrastructure development plan called xibu da kaifa, which means Great Western Opening Up or Great Western Extraction, to develop that country’s hydropower infrastructure to meet both water and power needs in the western region. This programme was based entirely on the river water potential of Tibet, known as the fount of at least 10 rivers such as the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze (on which Chi has built the world’s largest dam, the Three Gorges Dam, with the world’s highest installed capacity of 22,500 MW), the Salween and the Mekong (these two latter rivers have already been exploited at Chi’s hydroengineering best). The Great Western Route (to be called GWR henceforth) is the ambitious, and more often than not controversial, hydro-component of xibu da kaifa.

What essentially is GWR? As Brahma Chellaney, arguably India’s top strategic expert who has done extensive research on Asian water issues, says in his epoch-making book Water: Asia’s New Battleground, GWR “is centred on the waters of the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, and the three Yangtze tributaries located on the eastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau – the Jinsha, the Yalong, and the Dadu. The Great Western Route is also known as Shoutian – a me that represents a fusion between the first four letters in Shoumatan (the Chinese me for the Suma Tan site on the Brahmaputra where the uppermost dam for the purpose of river-waters rerouting is to be built) and the port city of Tianjin, the end point of the Yellow River, to which waters from the other rivers are to be diverted (emphasis added). Interestingly, shuo tian translates as ‘reverse flow’ in Mandarin. So, the Great Western Route is indeed what it entails – a reverse-flow cal.”

Clearly, given the fact that the Brahmaputra is the most important river that flows out of the Chinese territory (Tibet) to any other country because its “mean annual transboundary runoff volume is nearly equal to the aggregate volume of cross-border flows of all the other rivers directly flowing into India from Tibet”, the “reverse-flow cal” must be a cal to divert the Brahmaputra at a strategic point to take its waters to Western Chi in the north in order to smartly respond to its water exigencies. This is a dangerous proposition, with very serious implications for the people of Aruchal Pradesh and Assam who are heavily dependent on the river, apart from the threat it would pose to the prized biodiversity of the two States. Add to all this the grand Chinese plan to build a dam at the Great Bend twice as large as the Three Gorges Dam at the reported cost of $ 1.2 billion to generate about 40,000 MW power! Since Chi’s hydroengineers are one of the best in the world and the top political leadership of that country is manned by hydroengineers-turned-politicians, and given that books of the likes of Li Ling’s celebrated and widely distributed Tibet’s Waters Will Save Chi find great favour with the communist leadership, besides the PLA top brass, one should not be surprised if Chi has already filized its plans. After all, impenetrable secrecy is the greatest hallmark of the opaque Chinese regime.

In fact, Li’s grandiose plan has a marvellous physics element to it: his plan has ensured that no laws of physics are violated during the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra. Here, again, we get a glimpse of how scientific-minded the Chinese are when it comes to hydro-ambitions. Since extremely tall mountains and the majestic Brahmaputra Canyon come as impediments to tapping the Great Bend water reserves, Li proposed an altertive: to shift the diversion point from the Great Bend upstream, towards west, to the 3,588 metre-high Shoumatan site near the famous eighth-century Tantric meditation cave of Tibetan Buddhist Guru Rinpoche. Therefore, as Chellaney has exposed in his book in question, “Li’s plan seeks to reduce the need to pump water uphill, thereby ensuring that the construction of the 1,239-kilometre route (from the Brahmaputra in Tibet) to the Yellow River (in the majority Han heartland) does not openly defy the laws of physics.” This is perhaps hydrophysics at its best. As a half-done PhD student of Fluid Dymics, this writer wonders whether a smart blend of Chinese pure hydroengineers would team up with the Beijing University fluid dymics experts ilk to work out more elegant plans to play with the waters of what they call their Tsangpo – our own lifeline the Brahmaputra – to feed their dry northern plains and to eventually dry us up in the absence of a pro-active, effective and pragmatic New Delhi response.

How far Chi might go in its attempt to divert the Brahmaputra? According to Chellaney, it nurtures a “nuclear-explosives idea”: to carry out peaceful nuclear explosions (better known by the acronym PNEs) to dig out an underground tunnel 15-20 km long through the Himalayan range to the north of Brahmaputra in order to divert the waters of the river to that country’s northern plains. This allegation is based on Vaclav Smil’s write-up “Finding Mutual Interests in ture” published in the influential Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2009. (Smil is a highly acclaimed Czech-Cadian environmental scientist and policy alyst who made it to the list of “top 100 global thinkers” prepared by the Foreign Policy magazine in 2010.) Should this be indeed so – and no one knows what would Chi be up to, given its desperation to be the numero uno economic power house for all times – the fallout of PNEs to butcher the Brahmaputra in a highly fragile ecosystem as Nyangtri’s could be disastrous, with radioactive materials flowing down to Aruchal and Assam and playing havoc with lives here. Readers would do well to know that hydroengineers, at a meeting of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics in Beijing in 1995, were of the view that even if it was not so possible to reroute the Brahmaputra using conventiol methods, PNEs would definitely be useful in making the enterprise possible. Scientific American, a revered American scientific publication, carried a piece titled “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions: Chi’s Interest in This Technology May Scuttle a Test-Ban Treaty” by John Horgan way back in June 1996 that dwelt heavily on Chi’s increasing interest in PNEs for non-military purposes. It pointed to the open touting of “the potential of nuclear blasts for carrying out non-military goals” by Chinese technologists. (Horgan is a famous American science jourlist best known for his 1996 book The End of Science.)

In the ultimate alysis, since the Chinese modus operandi is short of even a modicum of transparency – thanks to the authoritarian communist dispensation – it merely remains in the realm of speculation as to the real intent and workings of Beijing, with its hydroengineers having to already boast of the marvel called the Three Gorges Dam, which is a hydroelectric gravity dam of a unique kind with ship-lifting facilities too, and with its avowedly anti-India PLA actively backing the proposed stealing of the waters of the Brahmaputra. The fact of the matter is that the UN Convention on the Law of Non-vigation Uses of Intertiol Watercourses does not allow any country to stop the tural flow of an intertiol river, which the Brahmaputra is. Unfortutely, Chi is not a sigtory to it (nor, of course, is India). Here lies the scope for mischief. More on the Chi advantage factor next time.

(Bikash Sarmah, a freelance jourlist, is doing independent research on Chi’s hydropolitics and may be reached at

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