By Amitava Mukherjee:
A China watcher named Claude Arpi has drawn attention to a recently posted article on the website of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission under China’s Ministry of Water Resources. The article speaks of the necessity and feasibility of diverting the waters of some rivers, including the Brahmaputra (called Yarlung Tsangpo in China), to meet water supply needs in China’s arid north and northwest. This further confirms the fact that, in spite of several denials, China is still progressing with the controversial project that could spell doom in not just large parts of India but Bangladesh as well.
If the article is to be believed, engineers in China’s Ministry of Water Resources have already completed a feasibility study. In 1999, Jiang Zemin, a former president of China, announced the grandiose “Great Western Extraction” plan which would transfer huge volume of water from Tibet to the Yellow River. In 2008, Prime Minister Singh raised the issue with the Chinese leadership, but Wen Jiabao, the then Chinese prime minister, replied that the water diversion plan was imperative due to China’s water insecurity.
There was a grain of truth in Wen Jiabao’s statement, and herein lies a grave source of tension in the Indian subcontinent. Fast-paced development has raised water imbalance in China to such an extent that the Chinese government has no other option but to look at unconventional replenishment options. Already 300 million people in China have no access to safe drinking water and 400 of the country’s 600 major towns are suffering from water shortages. While southern China has 80 inches of average annual rainfall, northern China – with massive population centers like Beijing with over 20 million people and Tianjin with 12 million – receives only 8-16 inches of annual rainfall on average. Groundwater levels under Beijing have fallen by 2.5 meters since 1999 and a staggering 59 meters since 1959.
The situation is very alarming, as water conflicts may soon become the main source of discord between India and China, replacing the two countries’ ongoing boundary dispute. China has 2.8 trillion cubic meters of water and stands fourth in the world in this regard. But due to the gigantic size of its population, China’s per-capita water reserves stand at only 2,300 cubic meters. The northern portion of the country has 44.3 percent of overall population and 59.6 percent of its arable land – but it has only 4.5 percent of the country’s water resources. The region has an average per-capita water reserve of 747 cubic meters, which is one third the national average.
The burning question then becomes: how much of the Brahmaputra’s water does China plan to divert? To all intents and purposes Beijing seems to have a two pronged strategy. The first one is called the South-North Water Diversion Project, which seeks to transfer 45 billion cubic meters of water from the Yangtze River to the north and northwest of the country. The first phase of this project has already gone operational. But the most ambitious strategy aims to shift 50 billion cubic meters of water from the Brahmaputra to the Yellow River. Experts believe that the energy generated from these proposed hydro-electric projects on the Brahmaputra might turn out to be useful in pushing up river waters through difficult mountainous terrains.
No one knows whether there are any Chinese plans for the river Indus, which also originates in Tibet. If Beijing were to divert the Indus, then several other Indian rivers, like the Sutlej, Kosi, Gandak, and Mahakali which get their replenishment from it would run dry.
The Brahmaputra is a trans-national river. It enters India from China at Arunachal Pradesh, where it is known as the Siang. While in Assam it takes the name Brahmaputra and enters Bangladesh at a place named Bahadurabad. On March 1, 2012 residents of Pasighat, a town on the bank of the Siang in Arunachal Pradesh, witnessed a very strange sight. On that date, the Siang – which used to be nearly several kilometers wide – ran completely dry. Since then the river has continued to shrink.
There is no doubt that China is in need of water. However, the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group has calculated that the Himalayan river basins in Bangladesh, China, India, and Nepal shelter 1.3 billion people. In the next two decades, annual per-capita water availability in these basins will decline by 13-35 percent. Moreover, 10-20 percent of the Himalayan rivers are largely dependent on glaciers and lakes for their supplies and 70 percent of these glaciers may melt in the next 100 years.
Within China there are two opposing schools in regard to the Brahmaputra water diversion proposal. In 2006, Wang Schucheng, the then Minister for Water Resources, described the proposal as unnecessary, unfeasible, and unscientific. But Wang Guangqian, an expert on the subject who enjoys great influence over the present Chinese power set-up, threw his weight behind the idea of Brahmaputra water diversion. In such a milieu, India has also stepped up its efforts to make use of the river’s flow. Already New Delhi has sanctioned an 800-megawatt hydro-electric project on the Brahmaputra. A technical expert group (TEG) constituted by the Indian government has suggested the construction of hydro power projects on the rivers Lohit and Subansiri, both tributaries of the Brahmaputra, at sites close to India’s border with China. India has also decided to speed up studies on the basins of the rivers Subansiri, Lohit, and Siang for their strategic utilization.
Bangladesh will face serious problems if China and India start actively competing over the Brahmaputra. Bangladesh receives around 1,106 cubic kilometers of water per year from external sources, out of which around 600 cubic kilometers of water come from the Brahmaputra. Bangladesh’s own internal generation is only 105 cubic kilometers, which means the country’s dependence on external water supplies is around 91 percent.
Thus, the need of the hour is a multilateral approach for solving this growing controversy over the Brahmaputra – before it starts to do real harm to Sino-Indian relations.
This piece is cross-posted from OilPrice.com/GeopoliticalMonitor.com with permission.