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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Ties And Troubled Waters

July 5, 2010

Brahma Chellaney
June 29, 2010

New evidence from China indicates that, as part
of its planned diversion of the waters of the
Brahmaputra, preparations are afoot to start work
on the world's biggest dam at the river's
so-called Great Bend, located at Tibet's corner
with north-eastern India. The dam, by impounding
water on a gargantuan scale, will generate,
according to a latest map of planned dams put up
on its website by the state-run Hydro China,
38,000 megawatts of power, or more than twice the
capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. Such is its
scale that this new dam will by itself produce
the equivalent of 25 per cent of India's current
installed electricity generation capacity from all sources.

Water is becoming a key security issue in
Sino-Indian relations and a potential source of
enduring discord. China and India already are
water-stressed economies. The spread of irrigated
farming and water-intensive industries, together
with the demands of a rising middle class, have
led to a severe struggle for more water. Indeed,
both countries have entered an era of perennial
water scarcity, which before long is likely to
equal, in terms of per capita availability, the
water shortages found in the Middle East.

Rapid economic growth could slow in the face of
acute scarcity if demand for water continues to
grow at its current frantic pace, turning China
and India ^ both food-sufficient countries by and
large ^ into major importers, a development that
would accentuate the global food crisis. Even
though India has more arable land than China does
^ 160.5 million hectares compared to 137.1
million hectares ^ the source of most major
Indian rivers is Chinese-controlled Tibet. The
Tibetan plateau's vast glaciers, huge underground
springs and high altitude make Tibet the world's
largest freshwater repository. Indeed, all of
Asia's major rivers, except the Ganges, originate
in the Chinese-held Tibetan plateau. Even the
Ganges' main tributaries flow in from Tibet.

But China is now pursuing major inter-basin and
inter-river water transfer projects on the
Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish
international-river flows into India and other
co-riparian states. China's opaquely pursued
hydro-engineering projects in Tibet threaten the
interests of India more than those of any other
country. The greatest impact of the diversion of
the Brahmaputra waters, however, would probably be borne by Bangladesh.

The Brahmaputra is Bangladesh's most important
river, and the Chinese diversion would mean
environmental devastation of large parts of
Bangladesh. In fact, China is presently pursuing
a separate cascade of major dams on the Mekong,
the Salween, the Brahmaputra and the Irtysh-Illy,
pitting it in water disputes with most of its
riparian neighbours ^ from Kazakhstan and Russia
to India and the countries of the Indochina peninsula.

In March 2009, the chairman of the Tibetan
regional government unveiled plans for major new
dams on the Brahmaputra. A series of six big dams
will come up in the upper-middle reaches of the
Brahmaputra, to the south-east of Lhasa, with
construction of the first ^ Zangmu ^ having begun
in 2009 itself. As part of this cascade, four
other new dams will come up downstream from
Zangmu at Jiacha, Lengda, Zhongda and Langzhen.
The sixth, at Jiexu, is upstream to Zangmu. This
cascade is in addition to more than a dozen
smaller dams that China has already built on the
Brahmaputra and its tributaries, including at
Yamdrok Tso, Pangduo, Nyingtri-Payi and Drikong.

The most ominous plan China is pursuing is the
one to reroute a sizable chunk of the Brahmaputra
waters northwards at the Great Bend, the point
where the river makes a sharp turn to enter
India, creating in the process a canyon larger
and deeper than the Grand Canyon in the US. The
rapid infrastructure work in this area is clearly
geared at such water diversion and hydropower
generation. In fact, a new Chinese state grid map
showing that the Great Bend area will soon be
connected to the rest of China's power supply is
a pointer to the impending launch of work on the
mammoth dam there ^ a scheme recently supported
by leaders of China's state-run hydropower
industry, including Zhang Boting, the deputy
general secretary of the Chinese Society for Hydropower Engineering.

Through its giant projects in Tibet, China is
actually set to acquire the capability to fashion
water as a political weapon against India. Such a
weapon can be put to overt use in war or employed
subtly in peacetime so that the level of
cross-border water flows becomes a function of political concession.

With China determined to exploit its riparian
dominance, New Delhi's self-injurious acceptance
of Tibet as part of China is becoming more
apparent. Just as India has retreated to an
increasingly defensive position territorially,
with the spotlight on China's Tibet-linked claim
to Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet's status
itself, New Delhi's policy straitjacket precludes
an Indian diplomatic campaign against Beijing's
dam-building projects. Accepting Tibet and the
developments there as China's "internal" affairs
has proven a huge misstep that will continue to
exact increasing costs. A bold, forward-looking
leadership, though, can rectify any past mistake before it becomes too late.

* The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.
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