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Water uncertainties in riparian countries

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  9 Aug 2016 12:00 AM GMT

By Mridul Deka

Two days after the Egyptian intelligence leaked an information to press in the month of November’ 1989 about Israeli hydrologists studying some areas on Blue Nile for construction of few dams on Ethiopian soil to store 5IBCM(Billion Cubic Meters)of Nile waters, the Ethiopian ambassador was called to the foreign office in Cairo to provide an explation on the matter. Understandably, Egyptian side cautioned the Ethiopian ambassador against any interference of Egypt’s inherent right to Nile waters through a Nile River Agreement which Great Britain had signed with Egypt in 1929. The Anglo Egyptian Treaty granted Egypt an annual water allocation of 48 BCM and Sudan, a share of 4 BCM out of the estimated average annual yield of Nile River at 84 BCM. The 1929 agreement also gave the Egyptian authorities, the veto power over all construction projects on river Nile or its tributaries. Through another treaty signed between Egypt and Sudan in 1959, the water allocation of river Nile was raised from 48 BCM to 55.5 BCM for Egypt and for Sudan, water allocation was increased from 4 BCM to I8.5BCM. What both these parties conveniently forgot was, there were at least nine other riparian countries which also depend on Nile waters for their survival. Quite plausible is the fact that upper riparian states like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia do not recognize these agreements any longer. In fact, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) was the first country to oppose these agreements raising its concern shortly after it gained independence from Great Britain in 1961.

River Nile itself has two tributaries White and the Blue Nile which meet at Khartoum in Sudan. While the White Nile origites in Lake Victoria, Blue Nile origites in Lake Ta in Ethiopian highland. It is the Blue Nile which contributes more than 80 percent of discharge in the river Nile. Therefore Ethiopia’s demands and concerns for an equitable share of Nile waters are seemingly reasoble. Ethiopia has about 3.7 mba (million hectors) of land, which can be irrigated. It is estimated that irrigating fifty percent of this land will reduce river Nile’s flow by 15 percent. For centuries, River Nile has been a cultural symbol of Egypt. In fact, the river is the only source of water for 40 million farmers of Egypt irrigating their fields in this desert tion. Therefore, it is obvious, that any diversion of Nile waters would seriously harm Egypt, which the country will not tolerate. Until recently, Egypt had little or no worries for its share of fresh water from the Nile. However, Egypt’s complacencies were lost when erstwhile Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zewi laid the foundation of Grand Ethiopian Reissance Dam on 2 April, 2011. Formerly called the Millennium Dam, the Grand Ethiopian Reissance Dam on Blue Nile is located at about I 5Kms east of Sudanese border. Presently, half way through, this gravity dam when complete, will have storage capacity of 79 BCM and would house the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and would be generating 6000 MW of electricity. This project with initial cost of US$4.8 billion is slated for completion in July 2017.

Yellow River, the longest in Chi traverses through Tibetan Plateau (Upper basin), the Loess Plateau (Middle basin) and the North Chi Plains (Lower basin). Nearly 70 percent of the basin population resides in the lower third of the basin. Many industrial cities like Xining, Yinchuan, Baotou, Zhengzhou, and Jin came up in the basin giving rise to tremendous water demand. The river carries 1.2 billion tons of sediments each year. The silt deposits in the river bed and consequent rise in its levels has made approximately 90 million people in the basin vulnerable to floods. Tibet acts as the fresh water source of approximately 85 percent of Asian population. It is estimated that Tibetan plateau stores up to 12,000 cubic kilometers of fresh water. Its fresh water reserves are so bountiful that it serves as the head waters of many of the Asia’s largest rivers including Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, etc among others. Almost half the world population lives in the water sheds of these rivers. However, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report in May’2007 highlights the fact that Tibet’s glaciers are receding at a rate of 0.90meters annually, and at least 500 million people in Asia and 250 million people in Chi are at risk from declining glacial flows on Tibetan plateau.

A member at Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wang Guangqian in June, 201 1, raised a new proposal to divert water from the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet to country’s northern province of Xinjiang. The newly proposed route is expected start from the Brahmaputra River and would carry water to Xinjiang along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and Hexi Corridor. However, the new plan proposed by Wang Guangqian is inspired by the “Shoutian Cal”-conceived by Chinese hydro-geologist Guo Kai in 1988. Also called the Tsangpo Project, the Shoutian Cal aims to divert 200 billion cubic meters comprising nearly 33 percent of Brahmaputra River’s water to Yellow River each year. The proposed dam of the project at Shoumatan Point on Great Bend would have the world’s largest hydroelectric facility. It is believed that there will be much more diversion than the origilly planned 200 BCM, as the recent studies point to faster glacial melt than earlier projections of 1990 when climate change considerations were not applied. Despite repeated denial by Chinese authorities, reports and opinions suggest that the Yarlung Tsangpo diversion project had already been initiated with allocation of 750M Yuan in its 11th 5 year plan out of the IOOB Yuan for capital works projects in Tibet for construction of the Medog highway. Roughly 20 kilometers to north of Medog is the site for the proposed storage dam of Tsangpo Project.

Like river Nile and Brahmaputra and in similar cases around the world involving riparian states, the upper riparian state will always have a strategic advantage and may be tempted to use water as a political tool to put pressure on a lower riparian tion. Not only a diversion dam on the upper reaches can create scarcity in lower riparian state, but it can also cause flood havoc through sudden release of excess water during rainy seasons. Not to forget, in 2000, General Zhao nqi, former Director of People’s Liberation Army, declared “even if we do not build this water diversion project, next generation will, sooner or later, it would be done”. Therefore, it would be prudent on the part of our Civil Societies and NGOs to voice their concerns about the proposed dam/dams on Yarlung Tsangpo or Brahmaputra under Chinese control than protesting against dam/dams on river Brahmaputra in India. As what river Nile means to people of Egypt, similar is the importance of river Brahmaputra to life and culture of people of Assam in India. With a stable Government at centre and a rising status in world affairs, let us hope that the tion will use its influence and persuade Chi to refrain from going ahead with any water diversion projects on river Brahmaputra, be it Tsangpo Project or the Great Western Cal project so that unlike the Egyptians, present and the future generations of Assam, do not have to live with water uncertainties. [Mridul Deka is former Advisor (Engg), CBI]

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