India, China and the Yarlung Tsangpo: Much Ado About Nothing?

Originally published as, Jabin T Jacob, ‘Brahmaputra water diversion: India must go with the flow on this’, Hindustan Times, 16 October 2015.

China’s recent operationalization of the Zangmu hydropower station on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the largest such station in Tibet, is an occasion to reconsider the ‘water problem’ in India-China relations. Unsurprisingly, but sadly, mainstream Indian reactions have been kneejerk and paranoid rather than based on any rational considerations.

Any dam, even run-of-the-river projects will have effects on riverine ecology. However, the impact downstream must be balanced against the fact that most of the water that contributes to the volume of the Brahmaputra beginning in Assam comes from rainfall and tributary flows on the Indian side in Arunachal Pradesh. The more important issue in India is the lack of management of river water resources; thus, a huge hydropower potential remains un- or under-exploited on the Indian side.

There is also the issue of trust and transparency that the Tibetan dams represent. More than once, India has had to show China proof from satellite imagery to get the Chinese to admit dam construction on their side. Actually, this might not perhaps be so much a case of deliberate Chinese intent or malice as much as a rigid defence of its sovereignty that suggests activities China carries out within its borders are not anyone else’s business, even if it has cross-border effects. This data issue is however, something that is likely to be largely resolved either through increased Indian technological capability or through greater Sino-Indian agreement.

And there are grounds to believe that such agreements are possible. One, there is in China today, a burgeoning consciousness on environmental issues. While this is not yet a movement of any significant strength, the Chinese authorities have been far more willing to tolerate protests on issues related to the environment. The rise of ‘cancer villages’, Beijing’s smog, soil pollution leading to contaminated food and crops and unusable water in many areas, have led authorities to tighten regulations and to rethink the country’s development paradigm. This in turn has led to the reassessment of such legacy projects as the South-North water diversion.

Two, the technocratic elite that promoted the big dams and infrastructure construction projects in China in the past, have mostly passed from the scene. This generation tended to view such projects in much the same terms as Jawaharlal Nehru did, that is, as ‘temples’ of modernity and development. Their successors today are more likely to be worried about political stability issues arising out of the hundreds of thousands that might have to resettled and rehabilitated as a result of such projects or because of environmental catastrophe.

Three, there are other technological options China is trying out including promoting desalination projects in coastal cities, water conservation strategies and recycling. In addition, the western leg of the water transfer projects involving the Yarlung Tsangbo is seen as posing huge technical challenges in addition to massive costs without necessarily providing commensurate benefits. In fact, it has been reported that much of the water already being transferred in the South-North project is actually not being used because of the high pollution in the water by the time it reaches its final destinations or because local governments along the way did not have the money to build the necessary infrastructure to exploit the water newly available to them.

Four, again as in India, mega infrastructure projects are a major source of corruption in China. With the current anti-corruption crackdown in China, there will be considerably more careful thought given to commissioning these massive projects.

All told, Chinese dam construction activity on the Yarlung Tsangpo is likely to be limited and water diversion from the river is an expensive and environmentally-unsustainable proposition that might never take place.

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