A water-scarce China has decided to create hydropower projects comparable to scale to the Three Gorges Dam along the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra (Yarlang Tsangpo in Tibet), just before it crashes down in a U-bend from the Tibetan plateau and enters Arunachal Pradesh. China’s 14th Five Year Plan has brought to life a project that has been in contemplation for decades. Now, China is not just flexing its muscles as an upper riparian country — it has done so in the case of Mekong (with Vietnam) and can do so with respect to the Irrawaddi and Salween (Myanmar) — but is also responding to the growing water crisis in its northern cities. A generation capacity of an estimated 40,000 MW will fuel China’s growth drive, including its 5G ambitions which would ride on higher electricity availability. But for India, these moves are deeply disconcerting and must be countered without delay.
There is some truth in the argument that water flows in the Brahmaputra may not be hugely affected by these structures, as its tributaries largely enter the Indian side. But experts point out that in a lean season, a drop in flows could hurt livelihoods as well as the performance of hydropower projects on the Indian side of the river in Arunachal Pradesh and further downstream, including Bangladesh. Drastic damming of the newest mountain ranges in the world also brings with it the risk of great ecological and seismic instability. The impact of reservoirs in a region that has historically seen devastating quakes is frightening to contemplate. Besides, excessive silting, which has been witnessed in the case of Himalayan projects, raises river bed levels and increases prospects of flooding. Above all, the release of water downstream will be controlled by China, with the possibility of sudden floods and depleted flows. For low-lying Bangladesh already impacted by the prospect of rising sea levels, this can prove to be a new complication.
India needs to develop a multilateral response to this development, bringing on board Bhutan, Bangladesh and even Myanmar, which stands to lose if the Irrawaddi and Salween are similarly dammed. In this situation, India should be ready for being more pragmatic and long-sighted in Teesta water sharing. Though the Mekong Commission does not really work to the advantage of the lower riparian States with China being the ‘hydro-hegemon’ that it is, a similar body can certainly be created, with India being an assertive player. The Indus Water Treaty is not a bad template to go by. However, the larger point is that too much hydro-power development is not a great idea in a fragile mountainscape. Difficult negotiations lie ahead for India but it has little option but to engage with China on this.