Brahmaputra river: India plans integrated river basin authority for strategic projects
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New Delhi: Prodded by the pace of Chinese constructions along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in China, India is planning to set up a river authority to speed up the development of its strategic Subansiri basin in Arunachal Pradesh.
The authority is proposed to be set up along the lines of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) and Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) and will form part of India’s overall strategy to tap the hydropower potential of Arunachal Pradesh while countering the Chinese threat.
A river basin authority will help draw up plans for flood control, irrigation and drinking water supply, and power generation and develop an integrated infrastructure. These, in turn, will help ramp up the pace of project construction on the Subansiri basin close to the international border with China, thereby helping establishing India’s so-called existing user rights.
Such an authority, with its model of joint ownership between the Centre and the state, is expected to offer an institutional mechanism that could serve as a template for other strategic river basins while helping minimize differences between the Arunachal Pradesh government and the Centre.
This plan comes in the backdrop of China’s ambitious $62 billion south-north water diversion scheme of the rivers that feed downstream into the Brahmaputra river, known in China as the Yarlung Tsangpo. Of the eight river basins in Arunachal Pradesh, Subansiri, Lohit and Siang basins are of strategic importance as they are closer to the border with China than are other basins. There is a plan “to constitute Subansiri Independent Integrated Reservoir Management Authority (SIIRMA) or Subansiri River Basin Authority (SRBA). The constitution, composition, powers and functions of SIIRMA/SRBA shall be well defined,” according to documents reviewed by Mint. The authority is expected to be in place before the commissioning of a 2,000 megawatts (MW) hydropower project, to be built by state-owned NHPC, on the Subansiri basin.
Arunchal Pradesh has the highest potential for hydropower generation among Indian states. Subansiri basin alone accounts for a 12,716 MW capacity of which 7,912 MW capacity has been awarded through eight projects. However, only the 2,000 MW lower Subansiri project is under construction by NHPC Ltd.
Projects with a capacity of 11,368.5 MW and 7,247 MW have been allocated in the Siang and Lohit basins respectively.
“There is a thinking for an integrated river basin authority,” said an Indian government official requesting anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue.
Executing a hydropower project is a time-consuming and tedious process—it includes conducting thorough surveys and geological investigations, preparing a detailed project report, relocating and resettling displaced populations and related developing infrastructure.
These authorities are to be set up by an Act of government, thereby giving them the mandate to operate across large swathes of areas.
In order to establish existing user rights, the plan is to run one unit of the Subansiri project at the full load of 250 MW round the clock to ensure a continuous flow of 250-300 cubic metre per second (cumecs) in the river downstream. Given the concern that China’s diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters may have an impact on river morphology, environment and power projects on the Indian side, this flow would help in establishing downstream riparian rights by sustaining biodiversity. In addition, the government also plans to develop fish hatcheries.
Commenting on India’s plans, Jabin T. Jacob, assistant director and fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies and assistant editor of China Report, said, “We are building some large projects. As long as we get them started now, before the Chinese start similar projects, we are okay as this allows us to establish first user rights. In any case, it is important to remember that most of the volume of water that contributes to Brahmaputra comes from the Indian side in Arunachal. Whatever the Chinese do will impact us only during the lean season.”
Of the 2,880km of the Brahmaputra’s length, 1,625km is in Tibet, 918km in India, and 337km in Bangladesh. The average annual rainfall is 400mm in Tibet, and 3,000mm on the Indian side. According to the Central Water Commission, while 60% of the water in the Brahmaputra comes from India, 40% comes from Tibet.
According to documents reviewed by Mint, the inter-ministerial expert group (IMEG) set up by a committee of secretaries on the Brahmaputra water diversion issue is of the view that the “Chinese side is currently concentrating on the middle route of the south-north water diversion project, after completion of which, it will turn its attention towards western route”.
The Indian government is anticipating a surge in activity on three tributaries of the Brahmaputra—Subansiri, Siang and Lohit—which originate in China once the development starts on western route.
The IMEG comprises representatives from the ministries of external affairs, home, defence, water resources and departments such as the Intelligence Bureau, National Technical Research Organisation, Space, and Research and Analysis Wing, the external intelligence agency.
China has 36 projects on rivers upstream of the Brahmaputra, 30 of which are completed projects. Two are under construction at Zangmu and Phudo Dzong and the remaining sites are Jiexu, Jiacha, Zhongda and the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra.
With China having operationalized the 3.3 km Galongla tunnel along the Bomi-Medog road—which connects Tibet with Arunachal Pradesh—India is concerned that the country has strengthened the infrastructure that is needed for nine run-of-the river (RoR) projects. The key road link comprises the tunnel, 29 bridges and 277 culverts and has been operational since June 2012.
RoR projects harness the seasonal flows of rivers to generate electricity and supply peak loads.
“Perceived Chinese intransigence in sharing information about their activities on the Yarlung Tsangpo must be understood in the context of their belief that such construction is an internal issue of China’s. But as a rising global power, China must also understand that the rest of the world, including India, will expect greater transparency from it and especially when its actions have trans-boundary implications,” said Jacob, who has co-edited books on India’s foreign policy and India-China relations.
India on its part plans to monitor areas such as Tongia, Changxu, Qilong, Xierga and Renda and the nine RoR projects near the Great Bend on the Brahmaputra through satellite images and human intelligence.
There has been an increase in the number of project sites on the Chinese side of the Brahmaputra. As compared to 28 sites in April 2011, there are now 36 sites. While 31 of these projects are on the river’s tributaries, four are on the main branch of the Brahmaputra, with one on the Great Bend.
On the Indian side by contrast, only three projects with a total capacity of 2,710 MW are under construction in Arunachal Pradesh, even as 94 projects with a combined capacity of 4,1502.5 MW have been allotted by the state government.
Hydropower holds the key to meeting India’s peak power shortages, but hydropower capacity comprises only 17.43%, or 39,623.40 MW, of India’s installed power generation capacity of 227,356.73 MW. Some 641 hydropower units are operational at 184 power stations across the country.
India and China are engaged on the issue with a joint expert level mechanism between the two countries having been set up for cooperation on flood season hydrological data, emergency management and other issues of trans-border rivers.
India is also focusing on the development of water storage projects awarded in Arunachal Pradesh to manage the fallout from China’s plans.
It also plans to allot at least one major project each in Subansiri, Lohit and Siang basins as close to the international border as possible.
“Forget, what the Chinese are doing on their side; dam construction on the Indian side will impact the ecology and environment as well as the culture and lives of tribal communities in Arunachal Pradesh,” said Jabin T. Jacob.
A case in point is the Siang basin, where NHPC Ltd had planned a single project of 9,500 MW with a water storage capacity of 13.91 billion cubic meters. However, this project would have submerged two towns, Tuting and Yingkiang, with a total population of 17,000.
Due to opposition from the Arunachal Pradesh government a new pre-feasibility report was prepared in 2009.
This is the last of a three-part series on how India has initiated an action plan on the Brahmaputra river that would give it user rights, even as it continues to explore a diplomatic option with China to resolve the dispute.