China’s dam-building activities in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra (or Tsangpo as it is known in Tibet) have been known for close to a year now. At 24, the number of dams under construction could seriously threaten the ecology of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. These states are often victims to floods. Now they could be parched.
Yet such is the state of denial in New Delhi that the ministry of water resources and the Central Water Commission have stated that these dams pose no threat to India. As reported in Mint today, the argument rests on the fact that China contributes only 78 billion cu. m (bcm) of water at the Indian border; in contrast, 629 bcm flow into Bangladesh from India. The theory here is that much of the water gets added in Indian territory and that China poses no threat.
This misses the point. One, it looks at the current situation based on present-day flows alone. Two, it ignores China’s acute water hunger that has led to careful water planning over the past many decades. Three, it naively (or disingenuously) argues that Chinese projects are run of the river projects that do not have a water storage and water diversion part to them.
Perhaps the ministry officials have not heard of the South to North Water Transfer Project. This $65 billion project aims at taking water from the Yangtse river and moving it to North China. It has three components. One, an Eastern Route Scheme to take water from the lower reaches of the Yangste and move it all the way to Shandong peninusula. Two, the Middle Route Scheme from the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan to Beijing. And three, the Western Route Scheme, one part of which takes water from the Yarlung Tsangpo and other rivers across the mountains and Tibet into the Yellow river and thence to North China. More details of the project can be found in the article by Liu Changming “Environmental Issues and South-North Water Transfer Scheme,” China Quarterly, December 1998. Kenneth Pomeranz, an expert on China’s history and its growth experience, revisited the water issue in 2009. His conclusions point in an uneasy direction and are in marked contrast to what the ministry has to say.
An ostrich-like behaviour will not serve India’s interests. Chinese planning is of a long-term nature while we continue to take comfort from day-to-day data.
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