Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water. – Ismail Serageldin, World Bank President, 1995
Increasing Water Demand, Decreasing Supply
A Polluted River in China
Tibet’s vast glaciers and high altitude make it the biggest source of water in the world. With control of Tibetan plateau, China is in the ideal position to influence the water supply to a number of countries downstream – India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries form almost half the world population. No wonder any Chinese activity on Tibetan rivers makes its neighbors restless. With rapid industrialization of China, water is fast becoming a scars commodity not only due to increasing consumption but also because of pollution of water bodies. Another irony is that Asia is rather water deficit continent despite being home for over half of humanity. Asia has only about 3920 cubic meter of water per capita, only better than Antarctica.
Pressure on water resources also come from the spread of irrigated farming, water guzzling industries like steel and paper and a growing middle class which is increasingly adopting comforting lifestyle based on washing machines and dishwashers. The fast growing middle class population in Asia (more importantly in India and China) aspires to live like Americans, whose daily consumption is of the order of 400 liters – about 2.5 times the Asia average.
Added to growing water consumption is the adverse effect coming from global warming, climate change and environmental degradation in the form of shrinking forest and swamp covers. They foster cycles of abrupt flooding and droughts which are increasingly putting pressure on people’s well being. The shrinking Himalayan glaciers do not portray a good picture for the future of most Asian rivers.
In this backdrop, Chinese efforts to dam rivers on the Tibetan plateau or talk of redirecting their water towards its northern cities provoke anxiety among its downstream neighbors. Among Asian mighty rivers, only the Ganga originates from the Indian side of the Himalayas. Major rivers originating from the Tibetan plateau include Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, Salween, Kamali, Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) and Sutlej.
As the water is becoming scars in the northern mainland due to ever increasing consumption and river pollutions, China increasingly looks towards the bounteous water reserves of the Tibetan plateau. It has dammed rivers not only for hydropower but also channels water for irrigation and other purposes. Its five dams on Mekong has inflamed Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It is currently toying with the idea of massive inter basin and inter river water transfer proposals.
China Taking Control of Water Resources
The control over 2.5 million sq km Tibetan plateau gives tremendous strategic leverage to China, besides access to vast natural resources. Its efforts to harness rivers of the Tibetan plateau for water and energy are endangering the water ecosystems of its neighbors in the south and Southeast Asia.
It is not difficult to foresee that if China enters a conflict with any of its neighbors in the future, the reason would be water. Rivers from the Tibetan plateau flow down to eleven countries and supply fresh water to over 85% of Asia’s population, approximately 50% of the world’s population. Four of the world’s ten major rivers, the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra in India), the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Huang Ho (Yellow River) originate from Tibetan Plateau. In addition there are other important rivers such as the Salween, the Irrawaddi, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus that owe their birth in Tibet.
China’s economic growth of the past decade has been remarkable and in order to maintain the growth rate it has turned itself into an ogre devouring raw materials, energy and natural resources. Along the way it has ended up polluting most of its major rivers meandering the mainland region. It only means increasing demand for water and threat of water diversion from Tibet to north China.
All it means is that China’s downstream neighbors can no longer take their river water supply for granted in the future. With China in the driving seat on the Tibetan plateau and its awe inspiring military might, they can only watch the Chinese activities and diplomatic posturing with sense of dismay and resignation. Naturally, every report of damming of rivers in Tibet or news of Chinese plans to divert waters towards arid north, causes alarm in its downstream neighbors.
When it comes to hydro projects on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo), both India (for its northeast states) and Bangladesh (because it receives over half of its water from Brahmaputra) have to take it seriously.
The Brahmaputra River
About 2900 km long Brahmaputra River or Yarlung Tsangpo, as it is known in Tibet, has an immense bearing on the lives of millions of people in the sub-continent. It originates from the Angsi Glacier near Mt Kailash and runs eastward along southern Tibet for about 2057 km before flowing into India to become the Brahmaputra. It is considered to be the highest river on earth with an average altitude of 4,000 meters. An interesting feature of the river is the sharp U turn (known as the Great Bend) at its east-most point near Mt. Namcha Barwa close to the Indian border. Just like the Nile in Egypt, the Yarlung Tsangpo has fed and nourished the Tibetan civilization along its valley, especially in the Central Tibet.
After entering India in Arunachal Pradesh it penetrates Assam, where it is joined by two other rivers (the Dihang and Lohit). It has been considered as the soul of Assam by poets and ordinary folk alike due to its fertile valley. In Bangladesh, it takes the name Jamuna and unites with the Ganga and then ultimately divides into hundreds of channels to form a vast delta before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
Fresh Chinese Hydro Projects
Recently China approved proposals to set up 3 new dams in the middle reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu, under a new energy development plan for the twelfth Five Year Plan (2011 – 2015). The Chinese government announced that “it will push forward vigorously the hydropower base construction” on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo. It is already constructing a major hydropower dam for a 510 MW project in Zangmu in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). When its construction started in 2010 it triggered concern in India. But the Chinese assured that the project was only a run-of-the-river type hydropower project and not storage or diversion of Brahmaputra’s waters. The four projects are within few dozen km from each other. The current proposed construction of the 124 meters Dagu dam (with a 640 MW capacity) along with two others only adds more apprehensions.
There are 12 small dams on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches and tributaries which prepared the ground for bigger projects as being revealed now. It is easy to see that the minor projects are always innocuous but the situation changes as progressively larger projects come up. They could not only affect water flows but also remove nutrient-rich silt that helps nourish agriculture downstream.
From the Yangtze to the Mekong and now the Brahmaputra, Chinese dam-building follows a well-established pattern. It starts with small dams on the river’s upper reaches and eventually moves to large size dams downstream.
Fear of Future Mega Hydro Projects
The next logical step on the Brahmaputra is to prepare for a gigantic hydropower project near the Great Bend area where the fall is steepest. For now it can easily be dismissed as too fanciful and technically challenging. But looking at Chinese technical capability after building world’s largest hydropower project at Three Gorges Dam and their penchant for mega projects, it is very much possible that at some time in the future they decide to go for it. Such gigantic technological adventure is fraught with risks for the downstream neighbors not only in terms of reduced water flow and loss of soil fertility but also probable catastrophic seismic disasters. A dam in the Great Bend area would also allow implementation of water diversion projects to transport water to the northern region. Such a scenario would be no less than a silent declaration of water wars on India and Bangladesh. This is what worries them the most.
The dangers of earthquake and dam collapse are other serious concerns for India. A recent study of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore revealed for the first time that in 1255 and 1934, two great earthquakes ruptured the surface of the earth in the Himalayas. Professor Paul Tapponnier of the French Academy of Sciences, using new high-resolution imagery and latest dating techniques, confirmed that the 1934 earthquake did rupture the surface of the earth and damaged the ground across an area over 150 km, in the Himalayas. Quakes of magnitude between 7.8 and 8.9 on the Richter Scale also occurred in 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950 and caused tremendous damage.
Hydro Projects in Tibet: Thirsty Dragon, Restless Neighbors
The ideal solution is to set up an International Brahmaputra River Water Tribunal or a tripartite agreement between India, China, and Bangladesh for cooperative water management in the region. But the opaque style of functioning in communist China makes such peace inducing initiatives unfeasible.
Incidentally, in May 1997, when the UN General Assembly adopted a Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, China along with Turkey and Burundi voted against it and India abstained from the vote. The rather mild Convention “aimed at guiding States in negotiating agreements on specific watercourses.”