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Diversion of Yarlung Tsangpo: A Probability Analysis

Dr Medha Bisht is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi; and former Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 11, 2009

    Rational choice is considered to be one of the key determinants in shaping state response. A key assumption underlying this approach is that state interest is shaped by perceptions that are constantly fed by imperfect information. A case in point is the current media coverage in India about the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River) by China to meet its water needs in its Northern areas.

    The debate on diversion of Brahmaputra waters resurfaced recently in the wake of talks between Indian and Chinese diplomats on the issue of China diverting the Brahmaputra waters as part of its Great South-North water transfer scheme. Some media commentaries stated that China has already started the diversion. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that no such scheme was underway and that the Indian media was confusing the “great Western project” with the “smaller Western project”. Even before this Chinese statement, on October 29, 2009, a report had stated that India has no objections to the project being envisaged by China since it is a run of the river project and that it would do no actual harm to India. In addition, on November 5, Pawan Kumar Bansal, the Union Water Resource Minister noted that there is no evidence of China diverting the Brahmaputra waters. He, however, confirmed that a small dam is being constructed upstream about 1,100 kilometres inside Chinese territory and that it was meant for ‘local use’. He also reiterated the importance of remaining alert on the issue.

    The issue of water diversion from the Brahmaputra River first came to public attention in 1999, when Jiang Zemin announced the “Great Western Extraction” which potentially involved the massive transfer of water from Tibet into the Yellow River. In 2003, Li Guoying, Director of the Yellow River Conservancy Committee, stated that the project was essential because the Yellow river’s flow was being exhausted by developmental demands in Western China. But in November 2006 Li Guoying added the caveat that though the project was essential, the route could be technologically challenging and it would have to overcome huge environmental and engineering impediments. And he further stated that the project would be launched once the economic and social development of the North Western areas reaches a certain level and the potential of water saving measures is exhausted.

    The backdrop against which such schemes for river water diversion has to be seen is the water problem that China has been confronting. While South East China receives around 1,800 millimetres of rainfall, the North West receives around 200 millimetres. Approximately, sixty million people predominantly in rural areas have difficulty getting enough water for their daily needs and twenty-five per cent of China’s total population is without access to drinking water. China has increasingly been tapping ground water resources, and over the years this extraction has greatly depleted the water table. According to one study, ground water near the Northern cities fell between ten and thirty metres in the 1980s, while ground water levels across North China’s plains has been dropping by 1.5 metres a year over the last few years.1 Precipitation and ground water resources no longer meet demands in the Huai and Yellow River basins, which is considered to be one of the most fertile wheat growing areas. The same study notes that Northern China’s water shortages were so severe in 1997 that the overdrawn water does not reach the Yellow Sea almost 200 days a year.

    China essentially has three routes (Eastern, Western and Central) for water diversion schemes in mind. The controversy around Yarlung Tsangpo revolves around the Western route geared towards diverting waters to the Xinjiang and Gansu provinces which fall in the Gobi Desert region. Here, there are two projects being envisaged. One is the smaller “Western” project which intends to tap the Yalong, Dadu and the Jinsha rivers that flow into South West China and are tributaries of the Yangtse River. This project involves the construction of a 300 kilometre long tunnel that has official backing. But the project does not interfere with the Brahmaputra waters. It is unfortunate that some of the writings in the media confuse ‘Yalong’ as ‘Yarlung’, and cite the former as the great diversion project.

    The second, the Greater “Western Project” which pertains to the Brahmaputra river diversion would link the Brahmaputra to the Yellow River through a tunnel. Some reports say that China may have contemplated cutting such a tunnel through the mountains with peaceful nuclear explosions and that is why China may have sought to gain exemptions for peaceful nuclear explosions from the ambit of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Another way through which Beijing can divert waters is through a link canal that would pass through the Salween, Mekong and the Yangtse, thus joining the Yellow River. But this would impact the lives of millions inhabiting countries downstream – India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. Moreover, within China, there has been opposition to the massive Three Gorges Dam, which, apart from its exorbitant social and ecological costs, is also considered to be one of the main reasons for the depletion of water levels in the Yangtse. China would thus have to take domestic and regional sensitivities into account before undertaking any large projects.

    Given domestic demands and regional constraints, three probability scenarios on the issue of Brahmaputra river diversion can be drawn. The first is based on an understanding of past Chinese behaviour and the situational constraints that confront China. Given China’s proclivity towards dam building, a river diversion scheme could very well be on its mind. This is all the more probable considering that the current leadership is convinced about the benefits of dams and construction activities in Tibet. The success of the smaller diversion projects could be the main determinant in shaping support for the bigger ones that might follow. It is no conjecture that China would face food and water shortages by 2050 and industrialisation, demographic factors, urbanisation and climate change are going to be the critical drivers in shaping the country’s depleting water levels. Diversion of river waters could therefore definitely be in the long term policy perspective of China and it would move along despite protests from lower riparian states.

    The second scenario would reflect Indian sensitivities on Chinese river diversion schemes and the issue would be played out at the political level. Debates in India would be fed by the oft raised public cry on the issue of Brahmaputra river diversion and the costs it could impose on lower riparian states. This fear psychosis of a typical lower riparian could complicate Sino-Indian relations. Further, water would often be used and perceived as a tool of political leverage. India could well attempt to counter China by playing the Tibet card differently. Alternately, India could go on a dam building spree in Arunachal Pradesh to justify its water requirements. Thus, water could indeed become the defining issue for bilateral relations.

    The third scenario could pave the way for a cooperative approach on water sharing between India and China. A need based assessment could be the starting point for such a cooperative relationship. India has already stated that it has no objection to a run of the river project. In fact, this would regulate water flows and in coming years could also give rise to an emerging buyer-seller relationship between India and China. Holistic development of the Brahmaputra River could be explored by China, India and Bangladesh and frameworks could be worked upon to arrive at solutions that meet the needs and interests of all three countries. India also needs to make a realistic assessment of its water demands to meet its industrial and domestic needs. It needs to be noted that tributaries originating on Indian territory and high precipitation rates form a major part of the Brahmaputra flow in India. Thus effective measures (local and community) and realistic assessments would be needed to tap these resources efficiently before any overtures on water sharing solutions are made towards Bangladesh and China. Overall, the issue of water allocation and water rights of Bangladesh, India and China could form the basis of a framework on which joint cooperation among the three countries can be formulated.

    In October 2007, General Zhao Nanqi, former Director of the People’s Liberation Army, stated that “even if we do not build this water diversion project, the next generation will… sooner or later it would be done.” An appropriate strategy for India to adopt under such a circumstance is to draw China into a regional framework on trans-boundary river waters. None of the South Asian countries are part to the UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses signed in 1997. In the absence of a reference point combined with a lack of a common framework, interpretations and understanding based on precedents can aggravate the situation further. Bangladesh has already started voicing concerns on its water security needs and has been seeking support for a regional multilateral understanding on water issues for quite some time now. India perhaps needs to revisit some norms that govern the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. This would mean that India engages Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan in order to generate a consensus on conflict-laden issues. It could be done by increasing the basket of mutual benefits to the concerned countries. The evolving situation indicates that India, sooner or later, will have to tackle the issue of water sharing in a more serious and holistic manner. Absence of such an approach would not only aggravate tensions between India and China but would also affect the availability of water in Bangladesh during the lean season, which could be detrimental to India-Bangladesh relations in the coming years. Keeping these factors in mind it is perhaps time for Indian and Chinese policy makers to think of a long term solution, and forge an agreement that would prove beneficial for the region as a whole.