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The dragon is thirsty; it wants your water

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While diplomats from New Delhi and Beijing talk about border issues, Chinese engineers continue to firm up plans to divert the Brahmaputra river. This is despite assurances that the project has been shelved

Recently, India had the 17th round of talks with China on the Sino-Indian border. Mr   Shivshankar Menon, the National Security Adviser (and Special Representative) and Mr Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, discussed not only the possibility of fixing the 4,057km frontier, but also common strategic issues. Before the routine exercise, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin  explained: “The Special Representatives are expected to focus their discussion for a framework for the resolution of the boundary.” He added: “The two Representatives will also discuss the bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest.” That sounds good, especially as a fifth meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on the India-China border affairs was also held at the Joint Secretary level, in Mr Akbaruddin’s words, “To review recent development on the India-China border areas especially the western sector and the implementation of Border Defense Cooperation Agreement.”

Unfortunately, while diplomats talk, Chinese engineers continue to plan to divert waters from the Brahmaputra. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in October 2013, the Chinese and Indian Ministries of Water Resources inked a Memorandum of Understanding on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers. The MoU says: “The Chinese side agreed to extend the data provision period of the Brahmaputra River [Yarlung Tsangpo].” The Indian side was delighted; China had generously increased the period for providing hydrological information on the Brahmaputra River from May 15 (instead of June 1) to October 15 of the same year. Frankly, this amounts to little when there was not a word about the planned diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters. Of course, South Block can argue that the project has been denied by China.

In October 2011, Mr Jiao Yong, China’s Vice Minister of Water Resources, told a Press conference in Beijing that although there was a demand in China to use waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), “considering the technical difficulties, the actual need of diversion and the possible impact on the environment and state-to-state relations, the Chinese Government has no plan to conduct any diversification project in this river”. A month earlier, returning from the UN General Assembly on September 27, Prime Minister Singh in one high-flying interaction with the media affirmed: “I have myself raised this issue with both the President as well as the Prime Minister of China on a number of occasions. They have assured us that they are not doing anything which will be detrimental to the interests of India.” Already in 2006, the Water Resource Minister, Mr Wang Shucheng, had publicly stated that the proposal was “unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific. There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects.”

Recently, I was shocked when I discovered an article detailing the project on the website of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission of the same Ministry of Water Resources of China. It describes in detail the phaoronic Great Western Water Diversion and the Yellow River Waterway Corridor. It mentions a preliminary feasibility study prepared by officials of the Ministry of Water Resources in Beijing. The idea of Chinese engineers is to divert 150 billion cubic meters of water and ‘push’ these waters into the drying (and dying) Yellow River in order to irrigate northern China. The Water Diversion Project would collect waters from six rivers: Yarlung Tsangpo (later known as Siang in Arunachal and Brahmaputra in Assam), Salween, Mekong and Yangtze, Yalung and Dadu rivers and before reaching the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The website of the Chinese ministry gives details: Some 50 billion m3 would be diverted from the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra (about 30 per cent of the average annual runoff of 165.4 billion m3). To my knowledge, this is the first time that a ‘preliminary’ study appears on a Government website with such details.

In the 1990s, a book by Mr Li Ling, Tibetan Waters Will Save China, was circulated among experts in China. Mr Li and his acolyte Guo Kai, a retired People’s Liberation Army General, had suggested a Shuotian Canal (‘Shuotian’ is a contraction of Shuomatan in central Tibet, the origin of the canal, and Tianjing, the city of at the other end). This project would have diverted 206 billion m3 of water from Tibet to northern China. According to Mr Li, in one strike, the recurrent floods of the Yellow River would be eradicated; inland water transport in north China would restart, and the floods in Bangladesh and India would be prevented. The route suggested by Mr Li was, however, different from the one mentioned on the website of the Chinese Ministry of Water Resource.

Chinese engineers now bank on two tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Palung Tsangpo and Yigong Tsangpo, through which the Yarlung Tsangpo’s waters can be ‘pushed’ eastward along the Sichuan-Tibet highway (China National Highway 318, running from Shanghai to the China-Nepal border) through Baxoi County of Chamdo Prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The energy produced by six dams in Lengda, Zhongda, Langzhen, Jiexu, Jiacha and Zangmu (already under construction) will be used to push the diverted waters eastwards. The diversion will meet the Salween, (one of the three parallel rivers, with the Mekong and the Yangtze) and proceed to Xiaya following the Chamdo-Tibet Highway. The Sanjiang (Three Rivers) Water Transfer would then follow the Sichuan-Tibet highway before reaching Dege and the confluence with the Upper Yangtze.

Now, the ‘four’ rivers can run along the Sichuan-Tibet highway through the Chola Mountains of western Sichuan and, via Garze, reach the confluence with the Yalung River. There will now be five rivers (Yarlung Tsangpo, Salween, Yangtze, Mekong, and Yalung). The water transfer will then proceed along the Sichuan-Tibet highway, via Dadu in Luhuo County. After the confluence with the Dadu River, it will finally shoot off north along the highway through Zamtang of Ngaba Prefecture before reaching the Yellow River which will be crossed to reach the Yellow River Ma Chu Great Bend where a reservoir will regulate the flow of the river. ‘Maqu’ or ‘Ma chu’ (‘River of the Peacock’ in Tibetan) is the local name of the Yellow River.

The above details show that the seriously the project has been studied. How feasible is it to realise this mega project? It is difficult to say. The first leg, before the transfer reaches the Salween, seems impossible, but, then why do Chinese engineers keep working on the ‘feasibility’ of such a megalomaniac scheme? And why tell Indian diplomats (and the Prime Minister) that it has been shelved? The problem is that China is thirsty. Did the Special Representatives discuss this? It’s doubtful. Probably, the present Government prefers to leave this hot potato for its successor. 

 
 
 
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