This is the season to hate the Chinese. China has done much to bring this upon itself. Its action in Dokolam was deliberate and inexcusable. This also gives an opportunity to an ever-growing band of China baiters, Tibetan propagandists, New Delhi’s pro-western lobby and long list of ever-incensed “patriots” to add half-truths and untruths to the narrative. Dokolam has passed, but the untruths in the narrative will stay for a very long time and blight our understanding of issues. This is the season when the lunatic fringe emerges from the woodwork. The RSS wants a ban on Chinese imports. Yet another bunch is blaming China for the Assam floods. The alleged diversion of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) at Zhangmu is often cited by as yet another clear sign of Chinese perfidy and the risks it poses India. But does it? Lets look at the facts.
The Zhangmu dam is a run of the river project, just like the dams India is building on the Jhelum and which Pakistan vigorously contests, that is well within the rights of an upper riparian state. The bottom line here is that the upper riparian may use the water but not divert it. But the narrative internalized in India is full of jingoism and ignorance, as is in many other matters relating to relations with neighbors.
At the political level, the then government which could ill-afford to be impervious to public opinion, however ill- informed it may be, responded by appointing an Inter-Ministerial Expert Group on the Brahmaputra. This expert group only recently expressed concern about China keeping a lower riparian ignorant about its activities and plans. This is a well-founded concern as China has made a practice of shrouding in secrecy even the most normal and often innocuous.
Some years ago a landslide at Parechoo near the India-Tibet border had backed up the Sutlej into a huge lake that if it suddenly broke loose would have caused havoc downstream in Himachal. India kept asking for details but it elicited a stony silence from China. Mercifully nature resolved this amicably. India naturally wants to be fully informed about Chinese and nature’s activities having a bearing on it near the India-China border.
Responding to India’s pressure China finally agreed to address India’s concerns. We now have pacts that facilitate India with data on water levels and rainfall twice a day from June 1 to October 15 at three hydrological stations in Tibet. New Delhi has said that China has once again not shared hydrological data about the Sutlej and Brahmaputra flows.
But we have yet other concerns. There is no water sharing agreement. But is this important? Writing on this, a consultant at our MEA, cautions us on three counts: “First, China's attempt to build infrastructure in Tibet and improve its connectivity with the Chinese mainland has been one of China's major strategies, not only in terms of military preparedness but also to overcome the challenge of regional disparity. Second, China has been working on improving infrastructure and connectivity with the frontier states along its border. Finally, the Brahmaputra is a major lifeline for India's northeastern region. If the situation continues unabated, it will have long-term implications for India.”
Lets examine these. Should not the improvement of infrastructure with its own territory be the concern of every government? Are we to keep complaining about every road or bridge, lest military vehicles use them? Our first two concerns are not really serious. Then there is the concern over the Brahmaputra waters. We need to familiarize ourselves with some realities.
Many Indian and international security experts have been warning of the coming of “water wars” between the two countries. A couple of years ago the late BG Varghese, an acknowledged expert on the India-Pakistan-China water disputes and myself made a presentation on this subject at the well known think-tank, the Center for Air Power Studies (CAPS). We showed that India and Bhutan together generate about 86% of the system’s input. China accounts for almost half the basin area, but it actually contributes a fraction of the system’s input of waters. The narrow Yarlung Tsangpo actually becomes the mighty Brahmaputra after it enters India at the Great Bend. Yet the water wars narrative persists.
The supporters of this narrative believe that China already has a plan to divert the Brahmaputra River – more specifically, the western route of China’s South North Water Diversion Projects. Writing about this Zhang Hongzhou, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore unambiguously states, “This is a misperception. It is the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan (GWWD), which was proposed by Chinese water expert Guo Kai. It was to divert water from the upstream sections of six rivers in southwest China, including upstream Mekong, the Yarlung Tsangpo River, and the Salween, to the dry areas of northern China.” It was only an idea.
There was another water diversion plan. This is the South-North Water Diversion (SNWD) project. It is envisaged linking the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers across the high-altitude Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.” In 2011 the Chinese government officially confirmed that there was no plan to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo waters, meaning it is not feasible.
China is learning from its experiences with the gigantic Three Gorges Dam and the SNWD projects that there are other costs and the economic and social cost benefits hardly justify the huge expenditures. It is also confronted with growing internal criticism and the dialogs on its social media are becoming increasingly strident. Communist gigantism is now being replaced with a rigorous social and environmental assessment where the implicit costs are primary concerns In March 2015, when asked about the progress of the western route, Jiao Yong, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Water resources, said that while the government is still studying the western route, top priority will be given to water conservation and environmental protection.
Lets now look at some basic realities of the Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra system. While China has the largest spatial share of the basin at over 50 percent, it generates only 22-30 percent of the total basin discharge. Tibet’s low precipitation and desert conditions is the reason for this. In contrast, the Indian section of the basin, covering about 34 percent of the basin area, contributes 39 percent of the total discharge. This is because of the snowmelt of the eastern Himalayas and the severity of the monsoons. Equally significant is the contribution from Bhutan, which accounts for 6.7 percent of the total basin area but generates 21 percent of the system output. Other experts estimate that only 14 percent of the Brahmaputra’s flow is generated in China, the other 86 percent comes from India.
The utilisation rate of water in Brahmaputra River is very low. Professor Pranab Kumar Ray, Director, Centre for Hydro-Meteorological Research, Kolkata writing in “Rivers of Conflict or Rivers of Peace” a paper published by the ORF, estimates that the utilisable water of the Brahmaputra system is a mere four percent of the total discharge. This being a reflection of the very high speed of the discharge and its sheer volume. This is to say, even a 10 percent or 20 percent reduction in the water flows of Brahmaputra River would be unlikely to cause water scarcity of any nature in the Indian part of the basin.”
Quite clearly the “water wars” scenario in patently bogus as far as the Brahmaputra is concerned. We need to think of ways to harness more of the mighty Brahmaputra for power and agriculture to serve the people of India (and Bangladesh) rather than to let 96 percent of it to just run into the Bay of Bengal. We need to work with Bangladesh closely rather than just keep pointing fingers at China.