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The Chinese dams on Yarlung Tsampo (Brahmaputra) and our dams: The real issues

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  14 Dec 2016 12:00 AM GMT


By Pradip Kr. Bhuyan

There was much concern in the country, specially in Assam at the news that Chi is blocking a northern tributary of Yarlung Tsampo, - the 195 km long tributary, Xiabuqu river origiting from near Sikkim, by a dam under construction as part of Lalho Hydro Electric project in Xigaze prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The project will generate mere 42 mw of power and will irrigate 30,000 HA of land. The project will be completed in 2019.

Till now, the Chinese have commissioned the Zangmu Dam in the main Yarlung Tsampo (Siang / Brahmaputra located 140km south-west of Lasha) in 2014. Salient features of the Dam indicate that it is a true Run of the River (RoR) Baseload Generation Dam i,e. a turally flowing river which is generating electricity as well 24x7. It has a small pondage (reservoir) of 86.8 MCum and power generation of 510 MW only.

It is also in public domain now that Chi is building 3 more dams for hydropower development – Dagu 640 MW, Jiexu 560 MW & Jiacha 320 MW within a very short stretch from the Zangmu Dam. The fact that these 4 dams are within a short distance of each other indicates that the 3 dams which are under construction are also Run of the River (RoR) Baseload Generation Dams with small pondages and a flowing river. More such projects are in the pipeline. Fortutely, Hydro power projects cannot hold up water. In the case of the 4 Chinese Dams, water will flow without interruption as these are true RoR free-flowing hydro power projects as per salient features of the dams.

Coming back to the Xibuqu Dam of the Lalho hydro electric project in this northern tributary of Yarlung Tsampo, it is clearly a very small project which will generate only 42 mw of power. Cost of the project also indicates this – 740 musd (say 4923 crore). This project will not impact flow of Brahmaputra in any significant way. But, the project has a great significance as for the first time, Chi will divert some water, however small now, for irrigation of 30,000 HA of land. It sigls start of a process of diversion of Yarlung Tsampo water for irrigation, vigation, water supply etc. i.e. for non-power generating activities.

Sword of Damocles – Chi’s intentions

Three of the world’s ten major rivers, - Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsampo), the Yangtze, and Mekong and other rivers like Huang Ho (Yellow River), Salween, the Sutlej, the Indus, the Arun, the Karli flows out from Tibet Himalayas. Yarlung Tsampo (Brahmaputra) flows over 2000 km in Tibet before entering India in Aruchal Pradesh. When the Tsampo reaches its easternmost point in Tibet, it takes a sharp U-Turn known as the great bend which is the deepest and longest canyon in the World.

The Chinese has eyes in this part of the river to build a mega mega power station to produce 40,000 mw of power. Also, after power generation, some Chinese Engineers have dreamed to divert water from Tibet’s Yarlung Tsampo to Xinjiang in the arid lands of North-West Chi through 800km of cals and viaducts. The Mega mega project conceived by some Academicians and engineers was first mentioned in a conference in Alaska in July 1986 as a probable project under Global Infrastructure Fund (GIF). The project as conceived now, plans to divert the Yarlung Tsampo water by a 15km tunnel through the Himalaya from before the start of the U-turn of the great bend to the other end of the big bend, circumventing 200-250 km of the loop and a drop of 3000m or so to generating 40,000 MW of power from 9 cascading dams from the immense drop and to create a reservoir from where water can be diverted 800 km to the north to the arid regions. The project is termed as the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan (GWWDP).

But the plan has failed to secure the backing of the Ministry of Water Resources and other key authority of Chi. Domestic and intertiol environmental groups are also concerned. But certainly, giving Chi’s penchant for mega mega projects, this looks like a sword of Damocles or our heads may be for decades and decades unless taken care of by a bilateral agreement.

The reality of the situation :

It is time we in India, specially in Assam and Aruchal, realise a few facts of realities which are bitter pills for us. The truth is, Chi as the first riparian country, has a right to divert some water of Yarlung Tsampo for its own use for irrigation, water supply and vigation etc., apart from building hydro power projects (which does not hold up water).

But today, Chi – the upper riparian tion has apparently based its claim on a basis of ‘absolute territorial sovereignity right’ to do anything it chooses on Yarlung Tsampo, regardless of its effect on the other riparian tions.

As the downstream riparian, India is hoping to establish first user rights to stake its claim to an uninterrupted flow of Yarlung Tsampo waters i.e. for absolute integrity of the Yarlung Tsampo. GoI through its Ministries are planning mega dams on Siang over last two decades assuming full flow of Yarlung Tsampo to be available without any diversion by Chi, no doubt blinded from reality by its ‘policy of Power at any Cost’ from Aruchal Dams! The utter incompatibilities of such claims from both sides should eventually ensure a balanced agreement of views in the form of a bilateral agreement even though it may take decades of negotiation to arrive at.

A Bilateral Agreement

Prof. Dulal Goswami noted authority on Brahmaputra river system, in an interview with the Assam Tribune has advocated talks to settle issue of Brahmaputra with Chi, the first riparian country. Certainly it must be our goal. Water sharing agreements / arrangements are very complex and takes years of protracted discussions / dialogues. When political issues are entangled between the two riparian countries, the issues get complicated even further. In 2000, India accused Chi of not sharing hydrological data on the flow of Brahmaputra through the Chinese territory resulting in widespread devastation and flood. Atleast 40 people died in Aruchal. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in 2002 to coordite data-sharing pertaining to water level, discharge and rainfall. In 2013, the two countries have established an Expert Level Mechanism on Transboarder Rivers and signed an MoU on strengthening co-operation on Transboarder Rivers under which Beijing is to provide water flow data during monsoon period. We now need to build from these premises to workout a comprehensive bilateral Water Treaty over Yarlung Tsumpo – as a vision of shared resources as the focal pointing of co-operation.

In this context it is pertinent for us to understand that, India is diverting water of Ganges and Teesta for its own use in a bigway bulldozing serious concerns of Bangladesh as a lower riparian country. Similarly, India on its part need to recognize the right of Chi, as the first riparian country, to utilize the water of Yarlung Tsampo for power generation, irrigation, water supply etc. – the only issue is, how much? Once countries accept and realise the basic premises and become transparent in their policies, bilateral agreements are feasible based on this shared vision. The 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was developed and signed amidst very adverse relationship between India and Pakistan but the treaty itself is based on shared visions. The treaty has survived very strained relationship including wars between the two countries because the treaty was designed to mage conflict over a shared water resource which is beneficial for both the countries. The sharing of the Ganga waters between India and Bangladesh remained a subject of conflict for almost 35 years, until a comprehensive bilateral agreement was signed between the two countries in 1996 over the ‘Farakka Barrage diversion’ of water of Ganges.

Luit in Peril – Need of the hour

Our Luit faces great challenges and perils in the future from Chinese activities and also our own hydro power dams in the format, as peaking HEPs in Aruchal. But the need of the hour is not hysteria but a push for a bilateral agreement with Chi on Yarlung Tsampo water sharing. This is a matter of great urgency and GoI must pursue the issue with Chi with vigour. No one however should expect any quick result as these agreements are very complex and also because of the fact that Chi is in a position of great advantage as the first riparian country of Yarlung Tsampo which flows over 2000 km through its Tibet territory.

In this context, a bilateral agreement is the only option, which can safeguard our riparian rights over Brahmaputra, and we must vociferously and unitedly clamour and press the GoI for a continuing dialogue with Chi for a bilateral water sharing agreement as a priority agenda of the Government.

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