Water Wars: China, India and the Great Dam Rush


China’s grand plans to harness the waters of the Brahmaputra River* have set off ripples of anxiety in the two lower riparian states: India and Bangladesh. China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is not only expected to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream; it could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relations.

The 2,880 km-long Brahmaputra originates in Tibet, where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo. It flows eastwards through southern Tibet for a distance of 1,625 kilometers and at its easternmost point it swings around to make a spectacular U-turn at the Shuomatan Point or Great Bend before it enters India’s easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh. Here it is known as the Siang River. After gathering the waters of several rivers it announces itself as the Brahmaputra in the state of Assam. The river snakes lazily through Assam to then enter Bangladesh, where it is known as the Jamuna. In Bangladesh it is joined by the Ganges (known as the Padma in Bangladesh) and Meghna and together these rivers form the world’s largest delta before emptying their waters into the Bay of Bengal.

As with other rivers originating in the icy Tibetan plateau, Beijing’s plans for the Brahmaputra include two kinds of projects. The first involves the construction of hydro-electric power projects on the river and the other, more ambitious project, envisages the diversion of its waters to the arid north.

In November last year, China’s plans for the Brahmaputra took a leap forward when the first unit of the $1.5 billion Zangmu Hydropower Station project, which is located in the middle reaches of the river, became operational. Once completed – five other generating units of this project are due for completion this year – the project is designed to generate 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

Besides the Zangmu power station, the Chinese government has approved other hydropower projects along the Brahmaputra. It maintains that all these are run-of-the-river projects that involve no storage or diversion and that they will not affect the river’s downstream flow into northeast India. Still, its plans have generated apprehensions in India’s Northeast and in Bangladesh, where the Brahmaputra is a veritable lifeline and a core part of the cultural life here.

Fuelling anxiety over the Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra is the impact that a reduction of the flow of the Ganges has had on millions in the region. India’s damming of the Ganges has reduced the water flow into Bangladesh. The increased salinity of soil has adversely impacted agriculture and over the last several decades millions of Bangladeshis have been forced to relocate, many migrating to India’s northeast. This migration changed the demographic composition of vast tracts of Northeast India (especially in Assam) and triggered serious ethnic conflicts and insurgencies there. Will a reduction in the flow of the Brahmaputra add fuel to the conflicts already raging in the region?

“India has nothing to be worried about,” Romesh Bhattacharji, a former Indian bureaucrat who has travelled along much of the India-China border, told The Diplomat. The Zangmu hydropower station being a run-of-the-river project, “the Brahmaputra’s waters will continue to flow to India as before, after their brief storage period is over.” As for the other dams that China proposes to build on the river, “they are on tributaries like the Nyingchi further to the east from Zangmu and none of these are large storage dams,” he pointed out, reiterating that “there is no need for India to panic.”

Others are less optimistic. China’s dams on the Brahmaputra may be run-of-the-river projects but they are “a matter of utmost concern to lower riparian countries,” argues Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary of Water Resources with the Government of India and currently an honorary research professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. A “break in the river between the point of diversion to the turbines and the point of return of the waters to the river … can be very long, upwards of 10 km in many cases, even 100 km in some cases; and there would be a series of such breaks in the river in the event of a cascade of projects,” he points out. Besides, “far from being environmentally benign, as often claimed,” a run-of-the-river hydroelectric project “spells death for the river.” Turbines operate intermittently in these projects, “which means that the waters are held back in pondage and released when the turbines need to operate, resulting in huge diurnal variations – from 0 percent to 400 percent in a day – in downstream flows. No aquatic life or riparian population can cope with that order of diurnal variation.”

Northward Rerouting

More worrying than China’s construction of hydropower dams on the Brahmaputra is the proposed northward rerouting of its waters at the Great Bend. This diversion would result in a significant drop in the river’s water level as it enters India. It will have a serious impact on agriculture and fishing in the downstream areas as the salinity of water will increase.

Bhattacharji dismisses these fears. Drawing attention to the enormous technological and other challenges posed by the difficult terrain through which the Brahmaputra runs in Tibet – it flows here at an altitude of around 3500 meters above sea level – he points out that if the Chinese have to divert its waters to the north, they will have to haul the water up over an altitude of another thousand meters at least. ”It’s impossible to even think of such a diversion,” he observes. Besides the technological challenges, there are financial and environmental costs that stand in the way of implementing the water diversion plan.

Even if the diversion project goes ahead, its impact on India will not be severe, Bhattacharji argues, as the “Brahmaputra gets most of its waters after entering India.” It is the Brahmaputra’s tributaries in India and the heavy rainfall here that provides roughly 70 percent of the water volume of the Brahmaputra River, points out Jabin Jacob, Assistant Director at the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies.

Even though the Brahmaputra gathers the bulk of its volume in India, Iyer warns against “complacency.” The 30:70 ratio applies to the rainy season only. Besides, “30 percent of the flows is not an insignificant figure, and even a 10 percent diversion could have serious consequences,” for downstream areas.

Analysts predict that “water wars” could break out between India and China. “Upstream dams, barrages, canals, and irrigation systems can help fashion water into a political weapon that can be wielded overtly in a war, or subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction with a co-riparian state. Even denial of hydrological data in a critically important season can amount to the use of water as a political tool,” warns strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney.

Other experts reject predictions of a Sino-Indian war over the Brahmaputra.

“China and India see themselves as responsible regional and global powers and a war of any kind between them will not only set back bilateral relations but also damage their reputations internationally. At the moment, this is not a cost that either side is willing to pay,” Jacob argues.

However, the lack of communication on the issue is deepening suspicion and tension. This underscores the need for dialogue that includes all the riparian countries. China must share data with India and Bangladesh on its dam construction and other plans for the Brahmaputra.

Meanwhile in a bid to exploit the immense hydropower potential of the Brahmaputra and importantly, to establish prior use rights, the Indian government is on a massive dam building spree – including mega dams as well micro-hydel projects – in Arunachal Pradesh. Environmental and other norms are being flouted in the construction of these projects. These could worsen the water flow for the people further downstream in Assam and Bangladesh, deepening existing problems and triggering new conflicts.

Some have suggested that a joint India-Bangladesh effort on the question of China’s damming of the Brahmaputra may be effective. This is unlikely given China’s preference for bilateral approaches to dispute resolution.

And importantly, there is little difference between the strategies of India and China on dam building or water diversion. India may worry about Chinese plans for diverting the Brahmaputra’s waters but the present Indian government too is keen on diverting India’s northern rivers. While such plans are still on the drawing board, it has not consulted its neighbors, the lower riparian countries, on this project or on hundreds of others in the past.

Ask the Bangladeshis. They will tell you that both China and India are arrogant upstream superpowers.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].

* The Brahmaputra is known by different names in the course of its journey to the Bay of Bengal. This article will use the name “Brahmaputra” to refer to the river through all its stages.

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