Business News/ Politics / Policy/  India plays down diversion of Brahmaputra water by China

New Delhi: India seems to be playing down China’s diversion of waters from the Brahmaputra, although an analyst criticized this approach.

The opinion in New Delhi is that precipitation in China contributes only 7% to the flow of three tributaries of Brahmaputra—Subansiri, Siang and Lohit—which originate from China.

“Out of five major tributaries of Brahmaputra, only three come from China, rest are from Arunachal Pradesh. Of the total water entering (Brahmaputra), only 7% is contributed by precipitation in China. What can the Chinese do? How much can they divert?" said a senior Indian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

India’s ministries of water resources and power had expressed their reservations over China’s ambitious $62 billion south-north water diversion scheme.

After making much of this for some time, the Indian government now seems to be softening its stance.

“Not much water is gathered upstream," said a second person who was involved in formulating India’s strategic response to China’s water diversion plans.

This person too did not want to be identified.

Of the 2,880km of the Brahmaputra’s length, 1,625km is in Tibet, 918km in India, and 337km in Bangladesh. According to India’s ministry of water resources, of the total catchment area of 580,000 sq. km, 50% lies in Tibet, 34% in India, and the balance in Bangladesh and Bhutan. The average annual rainfall is 400mm in Tibet, and 3,000mm on the Indian side.

An analyst questioned the 7% data.

“All kind of fake data are being touted. These numbers keep on varying. Brahmaputra is a very unique river. Only reliable data is from the United Nations. The Indian government doesn’t provide accurate data to mislead the public," said Brahma Chellaney , professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.

India and China have sparred over hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh, the state that borders China and has the highest potential for hydropower generation in India. With China planning to divert water from rivers that flow into the Brahmaputra to the arid zones of Xinjiang and Gansu, India is worried about the fate of hydropower projects awarded in Arunachal Pradesh. Separately, New Delhi is also concerned about the slow pace of work on these projects.

According to the Central Water Commission, while 60% of the water in the Brahmaputra comes from India, 40% comes from Tibet. Also, hydropower generation potential from the Brahmaputra is 15,000-20,000 MW.

Any delay in executing hydropower projects in the region, particularly on rivers originating in China, will affect India’s strategy of establishing prior-use claim. Under international law, a country’s right over natural resources it shares with other nations becomes stronger if it is already putting them to use. Mint reported on 29 August about New Delhi stepping up efforts to develop infrastructure in a region it has traditionally ignored.

According to the United Nations, the cross border annual aggregate flow of Brahmaputra river system is 165.4 billion cubic metre (bcm) which is greater than the combined trans boundary flow of the three key rivers—Mekong, Salween and Irrawady—that run from the Tibetian plateau to the South East Asia.

Brahma Chellaney pointed out that the upstream collection of water also contributes to the river’s ecosystem in the form a nutrient rich silt.

“Once the Chinese reduce the flow of Brahmaputra by 30%, it will retard the river’s ecosystem. Downstream collection is of no use to the ecosystem. One should look at holistic approach to water issues, rather than compartmentalising it in different ministries," Chellaney said.

India has a power generation capacity of 225,794 MW, of which 17.55% or 39,623.40 MW is hydropower. Arunachal Pradesh boasts of the highest potential for hydropower generation in the country.

China claims 90,000 sq. km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh and occupies around 38,000 sq. km in Jammu and Kashmir that India claims. And under a China-Pakistan boundary agreement signed in March 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq. km of Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China.

Utpal Bhaskar
"Utpal Bhaskar leads Mint's policy and economy coverage. He is part of Mint’s launch team, which he joined as a staff writer in 2006. Widely cited by authors and think-tanks, he has reported extensively on the intersection of India’s policy, polity and corporate space.
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Updated: 09 Sep 2013, 11:12 PM IST
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