Zhangmu Dam is a gravity dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River just northwest of Gyaca in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
This is the season to hate the Chinese. China has done much to bring this upon itself. Its action in Doklam was deliberate and inexcusable. This also gives an opportunity to an ever-growing band of China baiters, Tibetan propagandists, New Delhi’s pro-Western lobby and a long list of ever-incensed “patriots” to add half-truths and untruths to the narrative. Doklam will pass, but the untruths in the narrative will stay for a very long time and blight our understanding of issues. This is the season when the lunatic fringe emerges from the woodwork. The RSS wants a ban on Chinese imports. Yet another bunch is blaming China for the Assam floods. The alleged diversion of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) at Zhangmu is often cited as yet another clear sign of Chinese perfidy and the risks it poses to India. But does it? Let’s look at the facts.
Zhangmu Dam is a gravity dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River just northwest of Gyaca in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Construction began in 2009 and the first generator was commissioned in November 2014. The last became operational on October 13, 2015. It is the first dam on the Brahmaputra/Yarlung Tsangpo River and has caused so much unnecessary controversy in India
The Zhangmu dam is a run of the river project, just like the dams India is building on the Jhelum and which Pakistan vigorously contests, that is well within the rights of an upper riparian state. The bottomline here is that the upper riparian may use the water but not divert it. But the narrative internalised in India is full of jingoism and ignorance, as is in many other matters relating to relations with neighbours.
At the political level, the then government which could ill-afford to be impervious to public opinion, however ill-informed it may be, responded by appointing an inter-ministerial expert group on the Brahmaputra. This expert group only recently expressed concern about China keeping a lower riparian ignorant about its activities and plans. This is a well-founded concern as China has made a practice of shrouding in secrecy even the most normal and often innocuous.
Some years ago a landslide at Parechoo near the India-Tibet border had backed up the Sutlej into a huge lake that if it suddenly broke loose would have caused havoc downstream in Himachal. India kept asking for details but it elicited a stony silence from China. Mercifully, nature resolved this amicably.
Responding to India’s pressure, China finally agreed to address India’s concerns. We now have pacts that facilitate India with data on water levels and rainfall twice a day from June 1 to October 15 at three hydrological stations in Tibet. New Delhi has said that China has once again not shared hydrological data about the Sutlej and Brahmaputra flows.
But we have yet other concerns. There is no water-sharing agreement. But is this important? Writing on this, a consultant at our MEA cautions us on three counts: “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.”
Many Indian and international security experts have been warning of the coming of “water wars” between the two countries. A couple of years ago the late B.G. Verghese, 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 86 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 after it enters India at 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. Writing about this, Zhang Hongzhou, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, unambiguously states: “This is a misperception. It is the Grand Western Water Diversion Plan (GWWD), which was proposed by Chinese water expert Guo Kai. It was to divert water from the upstream sections of six rivers in southwest China, including upstream Mekong, the Yarlung Tsangpo River, and the Salween, to the dry areas of northern China.” It was only an idea.
There was another water diversion plan. This is the South-North Water Diversion (SNWD) project. It is envisaged linking the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers across the high-altitude Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.” In 2011, the Chinese government officially confirmed that there was no plan to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo waters, meaning it is not feasible.
China is learning from its experiences with the gigantic Three Gorges Dam and the SNWD projects that there are other costs and the economic and social cost benefits hardly justify the huge expenditures. It is also confronted with growing internal criticism and the dialogues on its social media are becoming increasingly strident. Communist gigantisms is now being replaced with a rigorous social and environmental assessment where the implicit costs are primary concerns
Let’s now look at some basic realities of the Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra system. While China has the largest spatial share of the basin at over 50 per cent, it generates only 22-30 per cent of the total basin discharge. Tibet’s low precipitation and desert conditions is the reason for this. In contrast, the Indian section of the basin, covering about 34 per cent of the basin area, contributes 39 per cent of the total discharge. This is because of the snowmelt of the eastern Himalayas and the severity of the monsoons. Equally significant is the contribution from Bhutan, which accounts for 6.7 per cent of the total basin area but generates 21 per cent of the system output. Other experts estimate that only 14 per cent of the Brahmaputra’s flow is generated in China, the other 86 per cent comes from India.
The utilisation rate of water in the Brahmaputra River is very low. Prof. Pranab Kumar Ray, director, Centre for Hydro-Meteorological Research, Kolkata, writing in “Rivers of Conflict or Rivers of Peace”, a paper published by the ORF, estimates that the utilisable water of the Brahmaputra system is a mere four per cent of the total discharge. This being a reflection of the very high speed of the discharge and its sheer volume. This is to say, even a 10 per cent or 20 per cent reduction in the water flows of the Brahmaputra River would be unlikely to cause water scarcity of any nature in the Indian part of the basin.”
Quite clearly the “water wars” scenario in patently bogus 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 serve the people of India (and Bangladesh) rather than to allow 96 per cent of it to just run into the Bay of Bengal. We need to work with Bangladesh closely rather than just keep pointing fingers at China.