November 30, 2016

Brahmaputra: The Great Chinese Diversion

In the wake of India’s newly re-imagined policy towards the neighbouring Country, conducting precision strikes across the Line of Control (LoC), reviewing the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status tag, and organising high-level meets to discuss withdrawal from the Indus Waters Treaty, China has taken a step by blocking tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo River (a tributary of Brahmaputra) to facilitate work on of its expensive hydropower projects in Tibet on September 30, 2016. The 4.95-billion-yuan project ($740 million) can store up to 295 million cubic meters of water.

China’s dam-building agenda has created apprehension within India about the risk of flash floods and landslides affecting millions downstream. In 2013, India complained to China about its expensive hydropower projects announced in the Brahmaputra region citing ‘irreparable damage’ to the Indian basin and also the impact it would have on the physical land and surrounding regions. China only assured that these projects would not have a negative impact. South Asia is one of the regions to be adversely affected by China’s proposed diversion of waters from the Tibetan plateau which is the ‘Principal Asian watershed and source of ten major rivers.[1] Tibet water travel to almost eleven countries and are said to bring fresh water to over 85% of Asian population, approximately 50% of world’s population.[2] South Asia is mainly concerned with Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej, Arun andKarnali whose water is life line for more than one billion people living downstream.

Climate change, depleting aquifers, rapid population growth and urbanisation are placing pressure on scarce water resources within the two countries of China and India. China’s increasing water scarcity is a complex web of pollution, energy, urbanisation and climate change. With high rates of population growth and urban development, China has an insatiable demand for energy, food and water. Water scarcity threatens the supply of all three of these needs. The Chinese Government must meet the water demands of its rapidly increasing urban population and its industrial sector without compromising agricultural production and food security. Therefore, it is presently toying with massive inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects.

[1] Claude Arpi, Born in Sin: The Panchsheel Agreement : the Sacrifice of Tibet, Mittal Publication, New Delhi, (1st edn., 2004) at 173.
[1] Bharat Verma, Threat From China, Lancer Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, (2013).

For South Asia and more particularly for India, the enormity of the scheme and its closeness to the Indian border cannot be ignored. If it is accomplished, it will have ominous consequences for millions of people downstream.[1] These also raise the larger question about the cumulative impact of massive dam-building projects across the entire Himalayan region and the consequences of such intensive interventions in a region that is ecologically fragile. The dangers of water accumulation behind dams could also induce devastating artificial earthquakes. The creation of a huge artificial lake on the Tibetan plateau inundating vast areas of virgin forest within the canyon and beyond, home to  rare species of flora and fauna within the canyon which is at stake.

In the geo-dynamically active Himalayas, earthquakes are an ever-present danger with a recorded history going back to the 13th century. A sobering reminder is the devastating earthquake of 1950 in Assam in which the Brahmaputra Valley suffered the most damage.[2] A vast and densely populated region of North-east India that depends on water from Brahmaputra and its tributaries  feels  agitated over China’s ambitious efforts to redraw its water map. China’s reported plan to divert the Brahmaputra from its upper reaches is  seen as a direct affront to India and a violation of international norms of sharing river waters. Once the construction of dam is complete, the control on the water of Brahmaputra would be in the hands of China. As the Brahmaputra is the lifeline of North East India, the life and environment in the region  would be adversely affected by this development.

Besides India which in talks with the Chinese leadership raised the construction of a dam on the river Brahmaputra many times, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia had expressed similar concerns over eight dams being built on the Mekong River. China’s accelerating programme of damming every major river flowing from the Tibetan plateau  would trigger environmental

The Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Jaswant Singh, speaking on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address, March 5, 2008 said, “Sir, it is about the External Affairs Minister again. It is a very intriguing thing. I should not really be raising it until the discussion takes place on his statement. There is just one rather concise but intriguing sentence that the honorable Prime Minister made during his visit to the People’s Republic of China. This is exactly what it says, “PM also took up the issue of trans-border rivers.” I would like to caution you, Sir, that the question of Brahmaputra and the great bend of the Brahmaputra before it debouches into Assam in the North East is a serious situation. “Sir, I have obtained for myself maps from the Space Research Organization and they show that this gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo and thereafter the Namca Barwa Mountain, has drop of 2,000 meters. It is a narrow gorge, and 2,000 metres in a distance of 15 km, which gives an enormous resource intimate to the people of China. I know there are plans to build a dam there. I would like to know what the response of the People’s Republic of China is about that.”

Nimmi Kurian, Downstream concerns on the Brahmaputra, The Hindu (November 3, 2015), available at (last visited on October 13, 2016).

imbalance, natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies, and divert vital water supplies. China’s vast thirst for power and water, its control over the sources of the rivers and its ever-growing political clout make it a singular target of criticism and suspicion. Although China has said  that it was constructing the dam to produce power, there are fears about hidden agendas  associated with it. China has assured India that nothing would be done that would affect India’s interest. India’s official narrative has largely tended to downplay many of these concerns with official pronouncements that India “trusts China”

In 2013, Beijing and New Delhi had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), recognising that trans-boundary rivers are an important asset  for the development agendas of all riparian countries. Both countries agreed to strengthen communication and strategic trust. China had agreed to provide more hydrological information to India at the start of the flood season. The international community’s attention needs to be attracted and India needs a totally different tactic to tackle the situation and maintain  goodwill. Only a combination of bilateral co-operation and strong leadership with demand- and supply-side management can influence the future and reduce the potential for a Sino-Indian water conflict.

~ The author is a Research Assistant in Law at the Indian Institute of Legal Studies, Siliguri, West Bengal.

All India, Press Trust of India, India to take up with China blocking of Brahmaputra River,  NDTV, (October 7, 2016), available at (last visited on October 12, 2016).


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