China’s grand plans to harness the waters of the Brahmaputra River* have set off ripples of anxiety in the two lower riparian states: India and Bangladesh. China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is not only expected to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream; it could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relations.
The 2,880 km-long Brahmaputra originates in Tibet, where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo. It flows eastwards through southern Tibet for a distance of 1,625 kilometers and at its easternmost point it swings around to make a spectacular U-turn at the Shuomatan Point or Great Bend before it enters India’s easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh. Here it is known as the Siang River. After gathering the waters of several rivers it announces itself as the Brahmaputra in the state of Assam. The river snakes lazily through Assam to then enter Bangladesh, where it is known as the Jamuna. In Bangladesh it is joined by the Ganges (known as the Padma in Bangladesh) and Meghna and together these rivers form the world’s largest delta before emptying their waters into the Bay of Bengal.
As with other rivers originating in the icy Tibetan plateau, Beijing’s plans for the Brahmaputra include two kinds of projects. The first involves the construction of hydro-electric power projects on the river and the other, more ambitious project, envisages the diversion of its waters to the arid north.
In November last year, China’s plans for the Brahmaputra took a leap forward when the first unit of the $1.5 billion Zangmu Hydropower Station project, which is located in the middle reaches of the river, became operational. Once completed – five other generating units of this project are due for completion this year – the project is designed to generate 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually.
Besides the Zangmu power station, the Chinese government has approved other hydropower projects along the Brahmaputra. It maintains that all these are run-of-the-river projects that involve no storage or diversion and that they will not affect the river’s downstream flow into northeast India. Still, its plans have generated apprehensions in India’s Northeast and in Bangladesh, where the Brahmaputra is a veritable lifeline and a core part of the cultural life here.
Fueling anxiety over the Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra is the impact that a reduction of the flow of the Ganges has had on millions in the region. India’s damming of the Ganges has reduced the water flow into Bangladesh. The increased salinity of soil has adversely impacted agriculture and over the last several decades millions of Bangladeshis have been forced to relocate, many migrating to India’s northeast. This migration changed the demographic composition of vast tracts of Northeast India (especially in Assam) and triggered serious ethnic conflicts and insurgencies there. Will a reduction in the flow of the Brahmaputra add fuel to the conflicts already raging in the region?
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Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at email@example.com.