China has started building water reservoirs and dams along the Brahmaputra river to better its economy. However, this could further aggravate relations between Bangladesh and India, says santanu basu
The impending threat of a water crunch looms large in Northeastern states of India as the Brahmaputra river, considered a lifeline for these states and Bangladesh, will soon be obstructed by China for its own purposes. The Chinese authority&’s stubbornness became clear when it turned down India&’s advice regarding not building dams. China is set to construct three dams and water reservoirs on the river&’s upper ridge in autonomous Tibet. The truth is China&’s population is growing and the country is trying to divert the river&’s flow to generate power, cultivate paddy, wheat and vegetable fields to cope with rising demands of food and ward off its water crisis. Like any south Asian country, China will face scourges of drought in the years to come.
A document, recently approved by the Chinese cabinet, mentioned that three dams would be built in Daju, Jiachu and Jiexu. China has kept New Delhi guessing about its plans for Brahmaputra for over three years without giving a clear reply to India and has kept it engaged in joint hydrological studies. It now turns out that the country was quietly making preparations to construct dams and Indian officials knew little of it. Amid India and environmental groups’ concern regarding the reduced water flow downstream, the construction comes after a two-year halt. As a riparian country, India will obviously suffer the most. China has already begun constructing a dam on the middle reaches of the river.
Another newly approved dam is supposed to be bigger than the first project. The Chinese government has already built at least six small hydropower projects on the river&’s tributaries and they still prefer keeping India and Bangladesh in the dark about it. Many folklores, mythical songs and folk cultures that are associated with the river can still be found in different islands along the Brahmaputra and in Assam. In Majuli, a large island in the Brahmaputra River, Vaishnavites worship the river. Age-old folk traditions are bound to vanish once the river recedes. Thousands of instances have proven that whenever a river is manipulated for human consumption, its slow death is inevitable. The Brahmaputra&’s destiny is sealed and so are the people whose lives depend on it be it Indian or Chinese.
The Chinese State Council has approved plans to construct three new hydropower projects on the river Yarlung Zangbo. The projects were listed in an energy development plan for 2011-2015 which was announced on 23 January. Work has already begun on the 510-megawatt Zangmu dam project in the Tibet Autonomous Region. China is not just guilty of constructing dams on the Brahmaputra. One of its dams in far western Xinjiang has evoked concern in the neighbouring country of Kazakhstan where officials say water levels in Irtysh and Ili Rivers, which are crucial to the country&’s water security, have fallen in recent years.
China&’s dams on Mekong River have become a matter of concern in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Erratic monsoon patterns have already caused rainfalls to dwindle in Meghalaya and other hilly terrains in the Northeastern state. As if that wasn’t enough, the Brahmaputra&’s fast depleting water will put human lives in peril as well as the economy of Northeastern states.
During the last 20 years, average rainfall has gone from 12,000 mm to a meagre 200 mm if not lesser. Waterfalls and tributaries in valleys remain dry resulting in a serious paucity of drinking water. In Maomihthid village, long queues of people have to desperately wait for whatever little water they can get their hands on. In Meghalaya, water is so scarce that people only have access to it once every three days otherwise they are forced to trudge several kilometres to collect it themselves.
Cherrapunji, considered one of the wettest places on earth, in the Khasi Hills is in the grip of a drought. Indiscriminate deforestation and mining have aggravated the situation and have ruined the ecology of Meghalaya hills. Swami Shumanashananda of the Ramakrishna Ashram in Cherra Bazar Hill said that a grave injustice had been committed against nature since nothing else can explain the gross mismatch between heavy rainfalls in previous years and the lack of it in recent times. Apart from being tied up with water sharing agreements with China, India is involved in arguments with Bangladesh regarding the Teesta river-sharing issue. Like any other hilly river, the Teesta is drying up because of environmental degradation.
The Teesta Low Dam Project, initiated by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation nine years ago in Sikkim to generate electric power has further shortened the life of this river. Apart from a shortage of surplus water in Bangladesh, large tracts of riverbeds are quite visible from the river&’s banks. Several survey reports about rivers in hilly regions show that riverbeds are higher than riverbanks therefore it is impossible to share water.
Some say that India&’s attitude and approach towards the Teesta issue is similar to what China is doing with India over Brahmaputra but such perceptions are considered myopic. Even before construction on TLDP began, Teesta River was already showing signs that something was wrong because large quantities of sediment from the Himalayan slopes found its way down to the river&’s bed making the river shallow. Even the Mahananda and Ganga Rivers suffer the same problem.
Though Mamata Banerjee objected to a water-sharing proposal with Bangladesh so that the interests of farmers in North Bengal can be protected, her point of contention doesn’t include an ecological perspective. However this isn’t something new since politicians have always cared two hoots about the environment. At the BRICS conference in Durban, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought up the fact that China was trying to block the Brahmaputra River&’s flow with Chinese President, Xi Jinping but how far China will pay any heed to India&’s objection is a doubtful matter.
The strenuous relationship between China and India will be determined by dams and water reservoirs built by the Chinese administration. It will also be inconvenient to Bangladesh whose water supply from the Meghna River will be compromised. This will lead to further tensions between India and Bangladesh. Just to prove its superiority in Asia, China appears to be dangerous to both India and Bangladesh since it has been pumping cheap commodities into both countries causing a partial recession in the Indian economy.
Pakistan, Nepal and China have been pushing fake currencies in Kishangunj, Bihar and Mahadipur, Malda. Terrorists have wreaked havoc on India. Regarding the water-sharing issue, they want to promote Khaleda Zia&’s anti-Indian stance. Over the years China has succeeded in improving its relations with Khaleda Zia. Had it not been for China she would have found it a tricky task to fight against the Awami League Government. Pakistan has entered into a nuclear agreement with China and the latter has set up large army camps in Nepal-Bhutan and Nepal-China border areas to wage war with India.
China and its allies, namely Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan want a political changeover in Bangladesh. In addition to creating a proposal that will provide various districts of Bangladesh with electricity, India has in the past provided huge financial support to the country.
Bangladesh reciprocated by demolishing militant camps nurtured by Bangladesh&’s military junta. This act didn’t go down well with Pakistan and China, which is why they’re rooting for Khaleda Zia&’s party to be at the helm of power. If she does come to power then water sharing treaties could become a matter of concern in New Delhi.
The writer is associate professor in political science, Chanchal College, Malda