Transparency vital on China's dam projects

The statement by the Chinese foreign office recently that China has completed work on a dam on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet, where the river is known as Yarlung Tsangpo, has again sparked off a debate on its implications for India. It has also caused concern in the North-East, especially Assam. The Brahmaputra is the lifeline of Assam. The river is also important for Bangladesh where it flows into the sea. The Chinese statement has clarified that the dam, built at Zangmu on the plateau, is a run-of-the-river project and will not reduce the quantum of water that flows downstream. But the statement has not reassured many. China had, for long, denied any plan to dam the river. But four years ago, it announced the start of construction of the dam. India had then seemed to accept China’s position that the dam would do no harm. This time, the government has not responded to the Chinese statement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also did not mention it during his recent visit to Assam.

China reportedly has plans to build more dams on the river. There are also reports of plans to divert its water to the dry regions of western China. A series of dams in Tibet will adversely affect the flow of water to India, whatever be the claims about maintaining the levels. Security experts and environmentalists have long worried about the consequences of large scale impounding of water upstream of the river. The Himalayan ecology is fragile, as seen in last year’s Uttarakhand floods, and the region is prone to earthquakes. No major scientific study has been undertaken on the likely impact of damming the river. There are major security issues involved because the situation might pose a danger in the event of hostilities. 

There is no river water treaty between India and China, probably because the border dispute is yet to be settled. A bilateral expert group was set up some years ago to study water-related issues but the issues involved are bigger than what such a group can handle. In fact, data in the possession of the governments are not always shared with the group because of the sensitive nature of the information. There is the need to engage China at a higher level over its plans for the river. This should involve Bangladesh also because it is a lower riparian country which has legitimate rights. Recognition of the needs of all countries, transparency about plans and projects and creation of an institutional mechanism to monitor them will help to remove many worries and fears.

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