Swimming With The Enemy


Are we going to war with our neighbours to secure our share of South Asian rivers? Despite the hysteria, the answer seems to be an emphatic no. For now. Avalok Langer reports

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

Tsangpo, China
Dry Me A River

ON 1 MARCH, reports came in from Arunachal Pradesh that the Siang river, the ‘lifeline’ of the Northeast, had dried up, “shrinking about a kilometre from its banks” at Pasighat, as the Chinese had diverted its water. Doomsday scenarios poured in as locals exclaimed, “In my lifetime, I have never seen the river so dry.” War seemed to be the only recourse or rather TV studio discourse, but is China diverting the river’s waters?

Strategic analyst Ajai Shukla says an emphatic NO. “I have just spent a week driving along the Siang and these reports are utter rubbish.” According to Arunachal Pradesh Governor Gen (retd) JJ Singh, the water level has, in fact, gone up. “In 2005, the level at Pasighat was 287 metres; in 2010, 288.8 m and now it’s 289 m.”

According to former Water Resources secretary Ramaswamy Iyer, two kinds of Chinese intervention are being talked about. “One is the proposed world’s largest hydro-electric power project on the river’s U-bend, just before it enters India. This may be feasible or not; it may have horrendous ecological consequences; but if the waters are returned to the river, it may not affect the flow to the lower riparian state. The other is the idea of a diversion project. If the Brahmaputra does get partly diverted, the corresponding flow will be reduced and is therefore a matter of concern for India and Bangladesh.”

North China suffers from acute water shortage. Having identified this as a major obstacle for economic growth, authorities picked the Great Western Route Water Diversion project as a solution to China’s water woes.

The project envisages 200 billion cubic metres to be diverted from the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Salween and Mekong rivers every year to the arid northern region through an elaborate system of canals, tunnels, reservoirs and dykes spanning 1,239 km and costing an estimated $25.1 billion. The plan has been a cause of much debate within China and panic in India and Bangladesh.

Many argue that only 20 percent of the Brahmaputra’s water comes from the Siang (the rest come from the lower Himalayan watershed) and any diversion would have a limited impact. But Northeast expert Sanjoy Hazarika feels that the diversion would have a huge impact. “These rivers are sensitive entities and not tributaries. They are entities in themselves and sustain life cycles, ecosystems and millions of people,” he says.

‘Instead of understanding China’s insecurity, we have superseded their insecurity with our own,’ says a strategic analyst

However, despite the hype, the project has remained stalled. “The Chinese have conducted surveys and studies, but there is nothing on ground to suggest that they are diverting, or planning to divert the water of the Brahmaputra in the near future,” says a senior intelligence official.

“China wants to project itself as a responsible nation. Talks are underway to share river information with India, so diverting the river does not fall in line with their global image projection,” he says.

Many Chinese experts have questioned the project’s viability. Academician Wang Hao believes that the project not only has shortcomings in theory but it will not work in reality. The diversion northwards would be against the natural gradient and the only way to transport the water would be through a system of lifts, hundreds of metres above ground level, something that is not cost effective or technically possible. He also feels the cost has been grossly underestimated; he thinks it would cost $125.5 billion as opposed to the projected $25.1 billion.

China’s former water resources minister Wang Shucheng admits to major financial and technical difficulties, deeming the project “unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific”. For now, the Great Western Route Diversion Project is technically and financially unfeasible; but the key words are: for now.

To Where The River Flows  • Both the Baglihar and Kishanganga hydro projects in J&K have met with massive protests from Pakistan • As the water speeds up at the U-bend, the Chinese have chosen it to build the world’s largest hydroelectric project • The Farakka Barrage has been the historical bone of contention between India and Bangladesh  Chinese Dam On U-Bend
• Both the Baglihar and Kishanganga hydro projects in J&K have met with massive protests from Pakistan • As the water speeds up at the U-bend, the Chinese have chosen it to build the world’s largest hydroelectric project • The Farakka Barrage has been the historical bone of contention between India and Bangladesh Chinese Dam On U-Bend

Shukla feels that there has to be some sense of balance and proportion when reporting on these issues. “Yes, the Chinese are building up their border areas, but because they are extremely worried about not being able to get the Tibetan problem under control,” he says. “They feel that development is their only hope, but that is failing and this makes them even more insecure. Instead of understanding China’s insecurity and capitalising on it, we have superseded their insecurity with our own.”

Known as the Third Pole, the Tibetan plateau is the largest glacier after the North and South Poles. It is the source of not only the Indus and Brahmaputra but eight other major rivers, four of which flow into India. However, the rapid development of Tibet is drastically impacting India’s water security. Experts feel that climate change, compounded by the building of highways, railways and other infrastructural development by China, is hastening the melting of the permafrost in Tibet.

Preserving the natural resources in Tibet is key to the water security of not only India and China, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Nepal and Bhutan.

Indus, Pakistan
The Battle For The Indus

THE INDUS Water Treaty signed between India and Pakistan in 1960 is regarded as a successful instance of conflict resolution between two countries otherwise locked in conflict. The treaty allocates the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) to India and the western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Indus) to Pakistan.

While the treaty states that India has limited use of the western rivers, including the setting up of hydro-electric project, under strict technical guidelines, “Pakistan tends to look with anxious eyes at any attempts by India to build structures on the western rivers,” says Ramaswamy Iyer. “Structures give control, enabling India either to reduce water flow or to release stored waters and cause floods. Pakistan is reluctant to allow India any semblance of control over rivers allocated to it.”

Dependent on an intricate system of canals inherited from the colonial times, Pakistan suffers from poor water management

What compounded the problem was the position taken by former president Gen Pervez Musharraf. Challenged by many in the Pakistani establishment for his stand on turning the Line of Control into a permanent border, Musharraf was accused of abandoning Pakistan’s historic position on Kashmir. To save face, he diverted the issue. “He wanted to show that the real issue of Kashmir is not territory but water,” explains water expert BG Verghese. “Musharraf tried to show that the three reasons why Kashmir belongs to Pakistan were: One, it is a Muslim majority area; Two, Islamabad needed the strategic depth of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir; and finally, they were dependent on a single river, the Indus.”

As Musharraf began to put stress on water, the militant groups picked on it and the slogan “rivers will flow or blood will flow” was born. Over the years, the Kashmir issue has become intertwined with the water issue. “When it comes to water security for India and Pakistan, Jammu & Kashmir is of strategic importance,” says a government official. “This is one of the reasons why India cannot give up Kashmir and Pakistan cannot leave it alone.”

According to an intelligence official, “Sindh is already water-starved due to silting and mismanagement. The problem is gradually shifting to Punjab (Pakistan). It will take 10-15 years but when the water crisis hits Punjab, the economic nerve-centre, they will lash out at India.”

Pakistan repeatedly claims that India is stealing its water and as an upper riparian state, it must bear the responsibility of the diminishing levels in the western rivers. But according to experts, there is little truth in these accusations. Dependent on an intricate system of canals inherited from the British, Pakistan suffers from poor water management.

“Pakistan, like India, is a wasteful water user,” avers Verghese. “Both sides are weak on integrated water management and Pakistan suffers from high water losses, drainage problems, water-logging, salinity and mineralisation of groundwater.”

Despite all the posturing and whipping up of domestic fervour, Shukla feels that “Pakistan knows well that it is an internal problem of bad water management”.

The real challenges faced by both are water management and climate change. Experts feel that more talks, research and cooperation are needed in dealing with shared water resources in the face of the melting Third Pole.

Ganga, Bangladesh
Big Brother, Little Brother

WHEN REPORTS surfaced that China was diverting the Brahmaputra flowing towards India, there was a sense of glee in Bangladesh. Many saw India as a self-appointed ‘big brother’ that had been arm-twisting its smaller neighbours. “Now the bigger brother (China) will teach you a lesson,” was a common refrain on the streets.

Ninety-four percent of Bangladesh’s water originates beyond its borders and for more than two decades, India and Bangladesh have disputed over the Ganga water. The dispute originated with India building the Farakka barrage across the river. Seen as a unilateral decision, nationalistic fervour in Bangladesh rallied around the idea that whenever there was a drought or a flood, India was to blame.

Damned issue The Baglihar dam across the Chenab
Damned issue: The Baglihar dam across the Chenab, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Things eased off with the treaty of sharing the Ganga waters, signed in December 1996. “We have realised that we have to cooperate with Bangladesh to open up with the Northeast and deal with our borders and insurgency issues,” says Verghese. “We have also realised that we need to have close ties with the Bangladeshis for better water management.”

People in Bangladesh rallied around the idea that whenever there was a drought or a flood, India was held responsible

But the recent incident over the Teesta river may serve as a setback. “West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s withdrawal from the Teesta agreement is being seen as the strength of our democracy, but at the same time, it is the failure of our foreign policy,” says a government official on the condition of anonymity. “Had Bangladesh been a more aggressive country, things would not have gone off so smoothly.”

The current dispensation in Bangladesh is on friendly terms with India. But if the issue remains unresolved, the Opposition parties could rally around the anti-‘big brother’ sentiment and return to power. Politics aside, silting and China’s diversion of the Brahmaputra remain key areas of bilateral concern.

Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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