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Brahmaputra River – Dispute between India and China

Preethy Vignesh

The search for water resources in China and India has persistently been a source of tension between the two countries. Chinese efforts to divert the water resources of the Brahmaputra River away from India will worsen a situation that has remained tense since the 1962 Indo-China war. The melting glaciers in the Himalayas as a result of accelerating global climate change will have a dramatic effect on this river’s water supply. This will increase water scarcity as well as the likelihood of floods, impact agrarian livelihoods and strain the fragile equilibrium between the two Asian giants.

Regional Summary

The Brahmaputra River flows 2,900 km from its source in the Kailas range of the Himalayas to its massive delta and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It flows through China, India, and Bangladesh, but its watershed includes Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma as well. The river drops steeply from the heights of the Tibetan Plateau through the world’s deepest valley (5,075m) into northeast India where the river eventually merges with the Ganges and Meghna rivers to form the largest river delta in the world (60,000km2).The Brahmaputra basin covers 651,334 km2 (WRI), 58% of which lies in India and 20% in China.

The river is defined by the diversity of terrain through which it flows, subject to regular earthquakes, natural disasters, and other changing conditions. 29% of the basin is actively used as cropland, almost half of which is irrigated. Only 3% of the basin is developed as urban land and 2% is considered barren. 19% is covered by forest, 16% by shrub, 29% by grassland, 21% by wetland, and 11% is considered eroded land.

History of Tense Diplomatic Relations between India and China

In 2000, India accused China of not sharing hydrological data on the flow of the Brahmaputra River through the Chinese territory resulting in widespread devastation and floods. At least 40 people died. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2002 to coordinate data sharing pertaining to water level, discharge and rainfall. The data provided by China has helped in flood-forecasting and given the Indian Water Ministry a better understanding of the river system. Any plan to divert the Brahmaputra will have to be made known to the Indian Water Ministry beforehand in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding.

The Indian concerns over plans to divert the Brahmaputra were not unwarranted. The two components of the diversion scheme would include the construction of the world’s largest hydroelectric plant on the Great Bend of the river on the Tibetan plateau; the second is the diversion of the waters northwards across hundreds of kilometers to China’s northwestern provinces.

In early 2003, scientists from the China Water Conservancy and Hydropower Planning and Designing Institute organized a feasibility study for a major hydropower project along the section of the Brahmaputra River which flows through China. This section of the river, which later flows into India and Bangladesh, has a water energy reserve of about 68 million kilowatt, or 1/10th of the national total.

If successful, this project would divert 200 billion cubic meters of water annually to the Yellow River. Although highly beneficial for Chinese interests, the effects on India and Bangladesh will be devastating. Environmental experts report that roughly 60% of the total water flow will fall drastically if China is successful in constructing this dam on the Brahmaputra.

China’s effort to redirect the flow of a river which provides the base for agrarian life in its neighboring countries is a provocative move, indeed. Some have gone so far to say that this action qualifies as an act of war. In fact, this is another grand effort on behalf of the Chinese government to fulfill its goal of instituting a massive South-North water diversion project.

In 2006, the Chinese government denied the existence of plans to divert water resources from the Brahmaputra to provide fresh water for the Northwest provinces away from India and Bangladesh. Although top water officials denied this motivation, it has been a fear of the Indian government and has yet to be fully resolved.

China’s South-North Water Diversion Project

The incredible growth rate of China’s population (predicted to reach 1.6 billion in 2045) and the rapid urbanization of major sectors of its populace will exacerbate one of the country’s greatest concerns, the availability of water to meet the needs of its people. Current numbers estimate that China has only 8% of the world’s fresh water to meet the needs of 22% of the world’s people. To further compound this problem, the country’s water resources are not equally distributed. Southern China, with roughly 700 million people, has 4/5th of its water and northern China, with 550 million people, has 1/5th of the water.

The scheme to divert the waters from the South to the North was crafted based on this understanding of water distribution. As evidenced in the following map, there are three critical segments: the eastern, central and western routes.

Due to the proximity to the Indian border, the scale and impact of this water diversion scheme will have dangerous consequences for millions of people downstream. The foremost concern is the decreased water flow which will impact irrigation practices and local livelihoods. The environmental impact will result in an increased salinity of the water.

Impact of Climate Change on the Brahmaputra River Conflict

As tensions grow between China and India over river diversion projects and accessibility to fresh water resources, the likely impacts of climate change on this conflict over natural resources will amplify the current state of affairs.

Primary concern needs to be placed on the possible changes in magnitude, extent and depth of floods from the Brahmaputra River in India and Bangladesh.

The gradual melting of Himalayan glaciers as a result of climate change will impact the amount of water in the Brahmaputra. As the ice disappears, so will significant fractions of south Asia’s water supply. As the Brahmaputra River dries up, along with other rivers critical to the survival of India, gross per capita water availability will decline by 1/3rd by 2050. The feedback loops that result from massive declines in water availability are directly correlated with human health and may result in a rise in water-borne diseases such as cholera.

Potential Solutions

Rather than covertly acting to divert water resources from one country to another, the protection of the shared resource of water supply might be a focal point of cooperation rather than conflict. China and India could work together to protect surrounding communities from increased flood hazard due to climate change by strengthening flood management policies and adaptation measures.

Conflict over the Brahmaputra River will be high at both the intrastate and interstate levels. The main reason for high intrastate conflict will be over availability to water between villages and communities, which may lead to hording and violence. This is less likely than the most definite interstate conflict which will take place between India and China as the two will have various reasons to take arms against one another – climate change may cause draughts throughout the western provinces of China, it will also melt the glaciers that feed the Brahmaputra River, gradually decreasing the total water supply. Decisions to route the direction of the River toward one country over another will be cause enough for high levels of conflict and will be further compounded by the impact of climate change.

Politics and Culture

The river’s three names, the Brahmaputra (India), Yarlung Zangbo (Tibet), and Jamuna (Bangladesh), reflect the complicated fabric of ethnic groups and International Communities living along its banks. The Brahmaputra flows through some of the most heavily disputed and unstable areas in South Asia. China and India currently dispute 83,000 km within the basin. Much of the boundary between the two countries is based on administrative units that do not shift with the rivers as they change course or level over time. Alluvial or “char” land that is exposed as a river shifts often leads to dispute, as the land is highly valued for agriculture (CIA World Fact-book, 1998; IBRU, 1999).

In northeast India, more than 6 separatist and rebel groups are active.  Recent riots contributed to the deaths of hundreds of Burmese and other immigrants and led to demonstrations. The northeast is one of the poorest regions in India. Currently population density, on average, is 174 people per square mile, but this population is concentrated in 14 large cities in the region. Urban areas are growing at 5% a year (WRI). The Brahmaputra basin has seen a surge in millions of people immigrating to the area from Bangladesh and West Bengal. Increasing densities have led to competition for jobs and land. In 1999, 500 people died from ethnic violence in Northeast India (US Commission on Refugees). In the mid 1960s the Indian government relocated 3,000 ethnic Chakmas to Arunachal Pradesh from what is now Bangladesh after construction of a large dam. The influx has caused conflict in this state.

In the ancient Indian tradition, two rivers are known to originate from Manasarovar Lake, in Mt. Kailas; one flowing to the east is called Brahmaputra and the other flowing to the west was called Shatadru, a tributary of the Sarasvati (joining the latter at Shatrana, Punjab) in Rigvedic times. Both these major rivers, Brahmaputra and Sarasvati are related to the God of creation, Brahma. The lower portion of the river is sacred to Hindus.

Hydropower and Infrastructure Development

In 1980, the Indian government established the Brahmaputra Board as a statutory body under the Ministry of Water Resources to plan for and implement projects to harness the river for hydropower, flood control, and economic development. The Board has identified 34 “Drainage Development schemes” that include hydropower dams, embankment reinforcement, and other multipurpose projects. These projects are included in the Board”s Master Plan, approved by the Indian government in 1997.Currently there are no large dams on the Brahmaputra.

It is estimated that the Brahmaputra”s power potential could provide about 48000 MW. This constitutes as much as 30 per cent of the total hydropower reserves of India, but less than even 3 per cent of this has yet to be harnessed.

Trade and Economics

The river is navigable for large crafts 1,290 km upstream from the Bay of Bengal to Dibrugarh, India. The lower portions of the river are used heavily to transport agricultural products. A major earthquake in 1950 (magnitude 8.7 on the Richter scale) and disputes over water rights impeded further access upstream. The Brahmaputra Valley in Assam has marshy jungle, teak forest, and commercial fisheries; rice, jute, tea, and sugarcane are grown there as well. In Tibet, the river forms an important east-west transportation route.

There currently exists a rapidly growing trade relationship between India and China. Both Indian exports and imports through China have grown tremendously since 1999.

Hydrology
The Brahmaputra’s flows fluctuate drastically between high and low flows. High flows, peaking in mid June, can run at 72,460 m3/s (1962 flood). The mean annual flood discharge of the river is 48,160 m3/sec at Pandu (India). Its minimum recorded dry-season flow was only 3,280 m3/s in 1960.

The average annual rainfall in the basin is 230 cm with a marked variability in distribution over the watershed. Rainfall in the lower Himalayan region amounts to more than 500cm per year with higher elevations getting progressively lesser amounts. The rainfall intensity occasionally records exceedingly high rates causing flash floods, landslides, debris flow and erosion.

The rains begin in May or early June, and the wet season lasts to October. From June to September, the rains occur nearly daily. A period of fluctuating high flow follows, usually with peaks in July and September. The last peak is followed by a long recession into December and January.

During the rainy season there, the river often floods to 8 km wide, rising 9-12 m and depositing sediment carried down from the mountains.

The wide Brahmaputra River is also a bio-geographic barrier for several species. For instance, the golden langur (Semnopithecus geei), hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus), and pygmy hog (Sus salvanius) are limited to the north bank of the river, whereas the hoolock gibbon (Hylobates hoolock) and stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides) are limited to the south bank (Rodgers and Panwar 1988).

The June to September southwest monsoon is funneled through the Gangetic River plains, flanked by the Himalayas to the north and the Mizo Hills to the south, deluging the eco region with 1,500-3,000 mm of rainfall, depending on the topographic variation. The substrate consists of deep alluvial deposits, washed down over the centuries by the Brahmaputra and other rivers such as the Manas and Subansiri, which drain southern slopes of the Eastern Himalaya. The eco region’s vegetation therefore is thus influenced by the rich alluvial soils and the monsoon rains.

The Brahmaputra drains an area of approximately 9.4 million square kilometers…combined with the Ganges River these rivers sustain more people than all the people in Western Europe and North America combined.

There has been speculation for years that China may build a dam in the area of the Great Bend to divert water into China’s Gobi desert which covers half of China’s landmass and yet has only 7 percent of its freshwater.

The Chinese are apparently eyeing about 40 billion cubic meters, out of the annual average inflow of 71.4 billion, of the Brahmaputra’s waters. The river skirts China’s borders before dipping into India and Bangladesh. China has a serious need to feed water to its north-west territory, the Gobi Desert, which contains almost half the country’s total landmass, but only seven percent of its freshwater. The Gobi occupies an area of 1,300,000 sq.km making it one of the largest deserts in the world. Desertification of Gobi since 1950s has expanded it by 52,000 sq.km and it is now just 160 km from Beijing. It is said to expand by 3 km per year.

China has the will and the necessary resources — manpower, technology and, above all, large foreign currency reserves in excess of a trillion dollars — to take the Brahmaputra diversion project forward; the country’s economic stimulus in infrastructure could create employment potential for more than a few million people.

The Brahmaputra flows 2,900 km from its source in the Kailash range of the Himalayas to its massive delta and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The river drains a vast area of nearly 9,36,800 sq. km. This river system forms the largest river delta and the third largest free water fall out into the Ocean in the world — next only to the Amazon and the Congo rivers. More people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin than Western Europe and the entire North American continent.

This river system is of critical interest to all the four countries, including Nepal. China is an upper riparian state and, therefore, has the freedom and capacity to divert the river. Should that happen, the irreparable loss will result in destruction of a large part of the North-East and Bangladesh. This step will also drive millions of refugees from Bangladesh into India for their livelihood. There is thus an urgent need to address this issue trilaterally.

China says it has no designs on the Brahmaputra.  In a story reported by the Times of India this past fall China’s Minister for Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, stated in the China Daily that the proposal to divert waters of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra had no government backing and “there is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects”. China’s own freshwater resources have become more strained as the population grows and pollution ruins available freshwater.  China has water issues…and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River is a tempting source and solution for their issues.

In April 2010, China said the dam being built by it on river Brahmaputra will have no impact on the downstream flow of the river into India.

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