Scheming China

China has finally made public its plan to build a dam on the Brahmaputra in Tibet where it is known as the Tsangpo. It has probably started construction, and has officially told India that the hydro-electric project will not affect the flow of water in the river. External Affairs Minister S M Krishna told the Rajya Sabha last week that India has been reassured by China on this count and the minister seemed to accept this in good faith. But the government needs to exercise caution on the matter as China’s plans are still not clear. The admission of the plan to construct a single dam comes after many years of denial of any plan to impound the river’s waters. Beijing probably concealed its plans and has now made it public because with the start of construction it can no longer be concealed. That raises the question whether China can be trusted on the matter.

China reportedly has plans to construct more dams on the river and even to divert the water to the parched areas of western China. This is a colossal project which will involve construction of a series of dams to move water over thousands of miles. It calls for huge investment but China has had a liking for such outsized projects. India cannot obviously accept it. The Brahmaputra is the lifeline of India’s North-Eastern states and Bangladesh.
The reduction in the flow of water in the river will undermine the economies of these states and hit the lives of millions of people. India has not yet made proper use of the river. It has a huge hydro-electric potential but only a fraction of it is being harnessed now.

India has no river water-sharing agreement with China but that does not diminish its rights. There is a bilateral expert group to discuss water-related issues, but this plan needs to be taken up a different level. Both India and Bangladesh are lower riparian states with respect to the eastern Himalayan rivers. All three countries should jointly evolve a long-term plan for utilisation of the water which protects their rights and benefits all. The issue should be addressed well in time so that it does not become yet another matter of future discord.

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