Watch dragon carefully

DN Bezboruah

Of all the rivers in India, one of the least known to most people is perhaps the Brahmaputra. This is surprising because the Brahmaputra is not only one of the mightiest rivers, but also the only male river flowing through the country. No wonder, when we invoke the rivers of India to be part of the water that we use for our religious rituals, we call upon Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri, but leave out the Brahmaputra. And yet, it is one of the major rivers of Asia.

From its origin in south-western Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo river, it flows across southern Tibet and breaks through the Himalayas in great gorges to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Thereafter it flows south-west through the Assam valley as the Brahmaputra (also called the Luit) and as the Jamuna (not to be confused with the Yamuna) through Bangladesh where it joins up with the Ganga and flows southwards into the Bay of Bengal. Its total length is about 2,900 km. Its average depth is 124 feet and the maximum depth 380 feet. It is about 20 km wide in some parts, with the narrowest stretch being just less than a mile wide near Guwahati where the double-decker Saraighat bridge is located. We get some idea of its might when we consider its average discharge of about 19,300 cubic metres of water per second. No wonder, it can be so destructive during the monsoon every year, causing massive floods in many parts of Assam. That is a time when it becomes our river of sorrow. Even so, despite its annual rampages and the fact that it has nibbled away several thousand hectares of land, the emotional bonding of every Assamese with the Brahmaputra is very strong.

Of late there has been some legitimate concern about what might happen to our ‘ole man river’ named the son of Brahma. This concern hinges on the fact that the Chinese have long been thinking of diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo to provide water to parched areas in northern China. The Chinese Government has also constructed a dam at Zangmu in the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo to generate electricity. The hydro-electric project cannot really be a major source of worry because it will not store water and will almost certainly not affect the downstream areas in India. The real concern is about what would happen if China were to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo that also has the highest navigable channel in the world at an altitude of over 12,000 feet. After all, it is not for nothing that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been called the most powerful man in the world because he can even change the course of rivers!

The satellite imagery shows that the Yarlung Tsangpo has indeed been dammed at Zangmu and the river has been made to flow through two channels from that point. However, there are no visible indications of the water being stored at that point.

Early last week, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna assured the nation that the area had been constantly monitored via satellite and that the dam erected at Zangmu for generation of electricity would have no adverse impact on the downstream areas of India. As such, he was of the opinion that there was “no cause for immediate alarm”. He followed this up later in the week with a similar assurance to Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

Krishna’s statement has led to further revelations by officials of the Ministry, and the following facts have emerged:

There is enough water in the Brahmaputra to meet the demands of both India and Bangladesh.

Though there is no water-sharing agreement between China and India, there are annual meetings between the officers of water resources and foreign ministries of the two countries.

China shares data of water flow of all the three rivers that flow from China to India — Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej — twice a day from June to October.

A large proportion of the catchment area of the Brahmaputra is in Indian territory.

China knows that India will not look favourably at the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo and would protest in the strongest terms if this were to happen.

Krishna is of the view that it is important for both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to harness and utilise the waters of the Brahmaputra properly. There seems to be a strong hint in his statement that this has not been happening. After all, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries are capable of giving us about 40,000 MW of hydroelectric power. But organising this efficiently involves the construction of very large dams in an earthquake-prone area. Experts all over the world are of the view that this is not a safe proposition.

The External Affairs Minister’s assessment that there is no cause for immediate alarm is obviously based on the statement made by the Chinese Government on June 14, indicating that it would not divert the waters of the Brahmaputra and saying that it would take into “full consideration” the interests of the downstream countries in taking forward any projects on the river. The Chinese Government has asserted on several occasions that any decision on diverting the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo would be more an economic decision than a political one. At present, the question of diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo just does not arise for China because of the astronomical cost of doing this. But costs apart, the Chinese Government is also obviously concerned about world opinion, since the people of India and Bangladesh have derived sustenance from the Brahmaputra for centuries, and it will not do anything to take away water from the millions that depend on the great river.

Though we know that China has no plans of diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo in the near future, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility of this happening in a few decades from now. Besides, one must not overlook the fact that simulation and dissimulation as well as long spells of profound silence are integral elements of Chinese diplomacy. So, should the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo come about eventually, how badly would the people of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in India and the people of Bangladesh be affected by the reduction in the flow of the Brahmaputra? JN Sarma, KD Malaviya Chair Professor in the Department of Applied Geology of Dibrugarh University, is known for his extensive work on the Brahmaputra and other rivers of Assam. He has said that if the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo takes place at Shigatze, within the Tibetan reach of the river, it will result in a reduction of 12 per cent in its total discharge at Pandu near Guwahati, about 500 metres upstream of the Saraighat bridge. “If the entire Tsangpo is diverted by the Chinese authorities, we will lose about 30 per cent of the Brahmaputra water at Pandu,” he said, adding, “The Yarlung Tsangpo with its length of 1,625 km within Tibet contributes about 30 per cent to the discharge at Pandu.”

What this implies is that the tributaries of the Brahmaputra in Assam contribute more to the total flow of the river than what comes all the way from Tibet. Thus, the people of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh won’t face an apocalyptic scenario. Yet, we must closely monitor China’s activities on the Yarlung Tsangpo river with the help of our high calibre satellite imagery. The Chinese have rarely stated things as they are. We cannot afford to forget that the Chinese attack of 1962 on India was after repeated assurances that there would be no attack. We need both careful monitoring of the situation on a day-to-day basis as well as frequent diplomatic interactions with the Chinese Government to keep reminding them of their promises about the Yarlung Tsangpo.

-The writer is former editor, The Sentinel