As China’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo, became fully operational this month, it has once again evoked concerns in India. The $1.5 billion Zangmu hydroelectric dam has stoked a virtual paranoia over China’s resource choices and their likely downstream impact. But the debate has generated more heat than light. It has also unwittingly ended up being a single-issue debate, fixated on water diversion and its likely impact. But is that all there is to it?
An overwhelming focus on diversion has moved attention away from other critical issues such as water quality that India needs to raise with China. There are growing concerns over worsening environmental degradation facing Tibet’s ‘Three Rivers area’ comprising the Yarlung Tsangpo, Lhasa river and Nyangchu basins in central Tibet. One of the most intensely exploited areas in this region is the Gyama valley, situated south of the Lhasa river, with large polymetallic deposits of copper, molybdenum, gold, silver, lead and zinc. Studies by Chinese scientists are pointing to the possibility of a high content of heavy metals in the stream sediments and tailings that could pose a potential threat to downstream water users. Global warming could further accelerate the movement of these heavy metals besides projected spatial and temporal variations in water availability. By 2050, the annual runoff in the Brahmaputra is projected to decline by 14 per cent. This will have significant implications for food security and social stability, given the impact on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture.
The cumulative impact of run-of-the-river dams also remains ill-defined and little understood. In this regard, the Ninth Report of the Inter-Ministerial Expert Group on the Brahmaputra (IMEG) in 2013 called for a close monitoring of the 39 run-of-the-river projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo and its tributaries. Despite being projected as run-of-the-river projects, the fact that the Jiexu, Jiacha and Zangmu dams are within 25 km of each other and at a distance of 550 km from the Indian border has further stoked downstream concerns.
These also raise the larger question about the cumulative impact of massive dam-building projects across the entire Himalayan region and the consequences of such intensive interventions in a region that is ecologically fragile. The dangers of water accumulation behind dams could also induce devastating artificial earthquakes. In the geo-dynamically active Himalayas, earthquakes are an ever-present danger with a recorded history going back to the 13th century. A sobering reminder is the devastating earthquake of 1950 in Assam in which the Brahmaputra Valley suffered the most damage. Recent research by Chinese scientists has shown that the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which resulted in the loss of 80,000 lives, could have been triggered by the Zipingpu Dam in Sichuan province. These findings were part of a study conducted between 2008 and 2012 by Fan Xiao, a Chinese geologist and chief engineer of the Regional Geological Survey Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau.
Cost of data
What sort of normative bargains should we be mindful of while designing data-sharing protocols between India and China? Are these to be seen merely as commercial transactions or do these raise larger questions regarding contested market-based mechanisms such as Payment for Ecosystem Services? While India provides flood-forecasting data to Pakistan and Bangladesh free of cost, it pays to receive the data from China. India pays China Rs. 82 lakh annually to receive advance flood data as per MOUs reached in 2008, 2010 and 2013. These provide flow data from May to October on the water level, discharge and rainfall from three measuring stations on the Brahmaputra, namely Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia.
The justification for payments is being advanced on the premise that downstream users are disproportionate beneficiaries of data flows. But then it can also be argued that location bestows a disproportionate advantage on the upper riparian and consequently a primary responsibility to build cultures of trust and confidence within the region. An upper riparian’s willingness to bear the costs involved in the maintenance and operation of upstream measuring stations could be read as an indicator of its willingness to invest in such riparian trust-building practices. These could further strengthen the larger philosophical argument of an inherently intrinsic as against instrumental value of nature and have beneficial ripple effects on the discourse on water as a human right within the region.
At the end of the day, the core issue in a shared transboundary basin becomes the criticality of perception, right or wrong. These become the vectors through which the actions of the upper riparian get refracted and processed. While technical issues of measurements, flow patterns and runoffs have their importance, it is just as often the more intangible, perceptual aspects that create and entrench positions and produce or retard cooperation at the transboundary level. For its part, China has assured India that “nothing will be done that will affect India’s interest”. India’s official narrative has largely tended to downplay many of these concerns with official pronouncements that India “trusts China”. But is trust in a transboundary river basin to be built on such rhetoric or is it best served by investing in process-oriented, institutionalised norms? India can no longer stand at the water’s edge and expect answers or solutions to these critical questions without wading in. It is in India’s interests as a lower riparian state to start a serious conversation with China on some of these larger questions of benefit sharing, risk allocation and trade-offs on the Brahmaputra.
(Nimmi Kurian is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)