The mighty Brahmaputra — one of the longest rivers in the world — flows from Tibet into Arunachal Pradesh, down to Assam and eventually Bangladesh.
China, which controls Tibet, acts like an “upper riparian” state that exercises control over the water resources upstream and ignores the concerns of nations downstream (India and Bangladesh in this case). Its weapon of control? Dams.
Dams, canals and irrigation systems can turn water into a political weapon to be wielded in war, or during peace, for influence over a co-riparian state.
Over the years, China has made huge investments in building dams and avoided entering into any water-sharing agreement with downstream countries like India.
According to a report on Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), China completed the Zangmu Dam (510 MW capacity) built on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in 2010. Three more dams at Dagu (640 MW), Jiacha (320 MW) and Jeixu are at present under construction. The work on Zam hydropower station, which will be the largest dam on the Brahmaputra, commenced in 2015.
Earlier this year, a US government-funded study showed that a series of new dams built by China on the Mekong river had worsened the drought affecting downstream countries. China disputed the findings.
Last week, Chinese media reported that the country is now planning to “implement hydropower exploitation in the downstream of the Yarlung Zangbo River” (the Tibetan name for Brahmaputra) and the project could serve to maintain water resources and domestic security. China also intends to boost its hydropower capacity and is building more and more dams on the trans-boundary rivers to achieve its hydropower targets.
A scramble for water resources
Both India and China are growing at a rapid pace and depend heavily on water resources to fulfil the spiraling demand.
China has always been a water scarce country with uneven distribution of its water resources. It constitutes almost 20% of the global population but has just 7% of the water resources. Similarly, India has less than 4% of the global water resources and nearly 17% of the global population. The Brahmaputra river, like most others, originates in China. This makes water sharing between the two nations tricky.
What adds to the complexity is China’s ambitious hydrological engineering plan to divert water from south to north. A report by US-based Center on Irregular Warfare & Armed Groups (CIWAG) said that water division plans on the Chinese portion of the Brahmaputra are crucial to the western route.
The report said that as an upper riparian country, China is able to make decisions that directly affect the volume of water available to its downstream neighbours like India, and of the numerous trans-boundary rivers, the Brahmaputra is the most important.
Why India is wary of Chinese dams
India has always been suspicious about China’s dam-building activity, and with good reason.
China has not been forthright about its construction of dams and hardly gives information on projects or long-term plans. A case in point: In 2010, after several years of denial, Beijing finally admitted that it’s building the Zangmu Dam on the Brahmaputra.
Even though China has dismissed India’s concerns over diversion, hoarding and release of water, authorities here have taken the assurance with a pinch of salt. In 2014, the then UPA government asked the ministry of water resources to verify whether the dams built on Brahmaputra are actually run-of-river (where water is released back after use) or storage dams.
And that’s where lies India’s other concern.
According to the IDSA report, the dams built by China are large enough to be turned into storage dams, which will allow it to manipulate the water resources freely for the purpose of flood control or irrigation. In such a scenario, China can potentially deprive India of water during dry seasons.
India is also apprehensive about the release of water during the monsoons, which can inundate the already flooded Brahmaputra. As it is, Assam has been grappling with massive floods for the last few monsoons. The state has even raised concerns about China’s dam-building activity with the Centre.
Using data as leverage?
Even though there is no water cooperation treaty between India and China, the countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2002 for the sharing of hydrological data.
Under the MoU, China agreed to share information about the discharge of water at three stations from June 1 to October 15 each year. This was later revised to twice a day between the same period. The data is considered crucial for flood control and planning during the monsoon period in India. However, when relations between the two nations soured during the months-long Doklam standoff in 2017, China refused to share this data. The move gave rise to fears that it may use its upstream position for strategic leverage. The data sharing resumed in 2018, but India now knew that China will not hesitate to use water as a political weapon if required.
The ecological impact of China’s dam-building activity was among the other concerns that Assam had raised with the Centre in 2017. The Assam government had said that the Siang river was turning black with pollutants and samples of the Brahmaputra at Tezpur revealed that the water contained a large amount of mineral properties. Even experts have pointed out that dam construction could cause the river to lose its silt and lead to a reduction in agriculture productivity.
India is not taking any chances this time and has already started planning a multipurpose 10,000 MW hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh.
“This project will help offset the impact of the hydropower project by China,” T S Mehra, Commissioner (Brahmaputra and Barak), in the Jal Shakti ministry said.
He explained that the proposed 9.2 BCM ‘Upper Siang’ project on the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh will be able to take the excess load of water discharge and can even store water in case of any deficit.
“Formally, we are telling them (the Chinese) that any project you undertake, should not cause an adverse impact on India. They have given an assurance, but we don’t know how long their assurance will last,” Mehra said.