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  Opinion   Columnists  08 Dec 2020  Mohan Guruswamy | Worry on Brahmaputra waters seems misplaced

Mohan Guruswamy | Worry on Brahmaputra waters seems misplaced

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Dec 8, 2020, 9:16 am IST
Updated : Dec 8, 2020, 9:16 am IST

A published paper estimates that the utilisable water of the Brahmaputra system is just four percent of the total discharge

 Brahmaputra River (Photo: Youtube)
  Brahmaputra River (Photo: Youtube)

Last week, the Chinese state media said the country could build up to 60 GW of hydropower capacity on a section of the Brahmaputra, citing a senior executive Yan Zhiyong, chairman of the state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China, speaking at an industry conference, said plans to dam the river were a “historic opportunity”. This is not a confirmation but an old pipedream. But it has set off a howl of protest in the social media.

The Chinese have built a run of the river hydel (215 MW) project at Zhangmu, just like the dams that India is building on the Jhelum and which Pakistan vigorously contests. The bottomline is that the upper riparian states may use the water but not divert it.

But we seem to have other concerns too. An external affairs ministry consultant has cautioned: “First, China’s attempt to build infrastructure in Tibet and improve its connectivity with the Chinese mainland has been one of China’s major strategies, not only in terms of military preparedness but also to overcome the challenge of regional disparity. Second, China has been working on improving infrastructure and connectivity with the frontier states along its border. Finally, the Brahmaputra is a major lifeline for India’s northeastern region. If the situation continues unabated, it will have long-term implications for India.”

Let’s examine these. Should not the improvement of infrastructure with its own territory be the concern of every government? Are we to keep complaining about every road or bridge,just in case military vehicles use them? Our first two concerns are not really serious. Then there is the concern over the Brahmaputra waters. We need to familiarise ourselves with some realities.

Many Indian and international security experts have been warning of the looming “water wars” between the two countries. A few years ago, the late B.G. Varghese, an acknowledged expert on the India-Pakistan-China water disputes, and myself made a presentation on this subject at the well-known think-tank, the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS). We showed that India and Bhutan together generate about 80 per cent of the system’s input. China accounts for almost half the basin area, but it actually contributes a fraction of the system’s input of waters. The narrow Yarlung Tsangpo actually becomes the mighty Brahmaputra only after it enters India after the Great Bend. Yet the water wars narrative persists.

The supporters of this narrative believe that China already has a plan to divert the Brahmaputra river’s waters-- more specifically, the western route of China’s South-North Water Diversion Projects. They are referring to the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan (GWWD), which was proposed a long time ago by Chinese water expert Guo Kai, to divert water from the upstream sections of six rivers in southwest China, including the upstream Mekong, the YarlungTsangpo River, and the Salween, to the dry areas of northern China. Writing about this, Zhang Hongzhou, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore, unambiguously states: “This is a misperception. It was only an idea. And it will be no more than an idea.”

The Yarlung Tsangpo originates near Mount Kailash and traverses eastward for about 1,700 km as a relatively shallow and small river when the river enters the area known as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. This is the deepest canyon in the world, and at 504.6 km  is longer than the famed Grand Canyon (446 km) in the United States. As the gorge bends around the 7,800-metre-high Mount Namcha Barwa and cuts its way through the eastern Himalayan range,its waters drop from about 2,900 metres (9,500 ft) near Pei to about 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) at the end of the upper gorge, where it is joined by the Po Tsangpo river. The river continues through the lower gorge to the Indian border at an elevation of 660 metres (2,170 ft). The steep river drops make it a raging torrent all along the canyon.

As the canyon passes between the peaks of the Namcha Barwa and Gyala Peri mountains, it reaches an average depth of about 5,000 metres (16,000 feet) around Namcha Barwa. The canyon's average depth overall is about 2,268 metres (7,440 feet), while the deepest depth reaches 6,009 metres (19,714 feet). Now imagine the physical challenge of damming this canyon.And if it is meant to also supportirrigationin Yunnan, the water has to be lifted a few thousand metres and will involve monumental costs. Even in China a cost-benefit analysis will make its unviability apparent.Even the technically less challenging American-designed Three Gorges Dam in Hubei ended up costing China over $50 billion.

Now let’s look at some basic realities of the Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra system. While China has the largest spatial share of the basin at over 50 percent, it generates only 22 percent of the total basin discharge. Tibet’s low precipitation and desert conditions is the main reason for this. In contrast, the India section of the basin, with about 34 percent of the basin area, contributes about half of the total discharge. This is because of melting snows in the eastern Himalayas and the severity of the monsoon. Equally significant is the contribution from Bhutan, thathas 6.7 percent of the total basin area but generates 21 percent of the output.

The utilisation rate of water in the Brahmaputra is very low. Prof. Pranab Kumar Ray, director, Centre for Hydro-Meteorological Research, Kolkata,in “Rivers of Conflict or Rivers of Peace”, a paper published by the ORF, estimates that the utilisable water of the Brahmaputra system is just four percent of the total discharge. This is a reflection of the very high speed of the discharge and its sheer volume. That’s to say even a 10 percent or 20 percent cut in the Brahmaputra’s water flow is unlikely to cause water scarcity of any nature in the Indian part of the basin.

Quite clearly, the “water wars” scenario is unfounded as far as the Brahmaputra is concerned. We need to think of ways to harness more of the mighty Brahmaputra for power and agriculture to help the people of India (and Bangladesh), rather than let 96 percent of it to just flow into the Bay of Bengal. We must work with Bangladesh closely rather than just keep pointing fingers at China.

Tags: brahmaputra river, bay of bengal, yarlung tsangpo water war hydel project