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Insights into Editorial: China gives green light for first downstream dams on Brahmaputra

 

dams_on_brahmaputra

 

Context:

D(2021-2025), which is set to be formally approved, has given the green light for the first dams to be built on the lower reaches of Yarlung Zangbo river, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, before it flows into India.

The draft outline of the new Five-Year Plan (FYP) for 2025 and “long range objectives through the year 2035”, submitted before the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s ceremonial legislature, specifically mentions the building of hydropower bases on the lower reaches of the river as among the priority energy projects to be undertaken in the next five years.

 

Impact of construction of dams on downstream states:

  1. Dams will eventually lead to degradation of the entire basin. Silt carried by the river would get blocked by dams leading to a fall in the quality of soil and eventual reduction in agricultural productivity.
  2. The construction of several dams along the Yarlung Zangbo river (Brahmaputra) river on the Chinese side has been a repeated cause for concern for Indian officials and the local people.
  3. China has an ambitious plan to link its south and north through canals, aqueducts and linking of major rivers to ensure water security.
  4. In pursuit of these goals, China, being an upper riparian state in Asia, has been blocking rivers like the Mekong and its tributaries, affecting Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

 

Construction of these Dams will damage the world’s most ecologically sensitive zones:

  1. It has caused immense damage to the environment and altered river flows in the region.
  2. The location of the dams in the Himalayas pose a risk. Seismologists consider the Himalayas as most vulnerable to earthquakes and seismic activity.
  3. The sheer size of the infrastructure projects undertaken by China, and increasingly by India, poses a significant threat to the populations living downstream.
  4. Close to a million people live in the Brahmaputra basin in India and tens of millions further downstream in Bangladesh.
  5. The Brahmaputra basin is one of the world’s most ecologically sensitive zones. It is identified as one of the world’s 34 biological hotspots.
  6. This region sees several species of flora and fauna that are endemic to only this part of the world.
  7. The river itself is home to the Gangetic river dolphin, which is listed as critically endangered.
  8. China sees these projects as a continuation of their historic tributary system as the smaller states have no means of effectively resisting or even significant leverage in negotiations.

 

India expressed concern regarding upper stream dams construction:

India has expressed concerns to China over the four planned dams on the upper and middle reaches, though Indian officials have said the dams are not likely to greatly impact the quantity of the Brahmaputra’s flows in India because they are only storing water for power generation.

As a lower riparian State with considerable established user rights to the waters of the trans-border rivers, the government has consistently conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities.

India also urged them to ensure that the interests of downstream States are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas

However, the location of the dams also poses a risk as the Himalayas are one of the most vulnerable to earthquakes and seismic activity.

Landslides resulting from earthquakes pose a significant threat. For example, the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the resultant landslides wiped out several dams and other facilities.

The Brahmaputra is not entirely dependent on upstream flows with an estimated 35% of its basin in India.

Dams on the lower reaches and at the Great Bend would, however, raise fresh concerns because of the location across the border from Arunachal Pradesh and the potential impact downstream.

 

In future, it may leads to water scarcity to India:

  1. India’s concerns are that these dams are large enough to be converted and used as storage dams, especially if the purpose is flood control and irrigation (as is the case with Zangmu Dam).
  2. In the absence of a water treaty, China depriving India of water during lean seasons becomes a possibility.
  3. According to Chandan Mahanta, who heads the Centre for Environment at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati, the Chinese hydropower projects could convert Brahmaputra into a seasonal river implying water scarcity in India.
  4. Another risk is the release of flood waters during the monsoon season, which could inundate the already flooded Brahmaputra river basin in Assam.
  5. There is much apprehension that the Brahmaputra may lose the silt, which makes the plains in its basin fertile, because of sediment trapping in the dams.

In building its dams, China has also polluted its rivers. The quality of water that flows downstream into India needs to be taken into account.

The disruption of natural flood cycles of the river could also adversely affect the rich geo-environmental and bio-physical settings in India’s Northeast.

These multifarious factors could also severely impinge on the economy of the region.

 

Conclusion:

Responsible countries were expected to heed the international water policy and that the Ministry of External Affairs would deal with the issue of dam construction in Tibet.

There are alternate solutions to solving the water crisis. Building a decentralised network of check dams, rain-capturing lakes and using traditional means of water capture have shown effective results in restoring the ecological balance while supporting the populations of the regions in a sustainable manner.

Instead of construction of dams without each other concern, since India and China do not have a water-sharing agreement and they should work upon it.

Both nations share hydrological data so it becomes important to share genuine data and have a continuous dialogue on issues like a warning of droughts, floods and high-water discharges.