The reported Chinese decision to block the Xiabuquo river, a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo, the Tibetan name for the Brahmaputra, to complete the Lalho hydro-power project at an estimated cost of $740 million has raised an alarm in India, particularly in the North-east, as this will be the first such action on the flow of water from the Brahmaputra into the lower riparian countries. Is this the beginning of hydro politics and water wars in South Asia that strategists have been projecting for quite some time?
This also highlights the transnational ecological importance of the Tibetan plateau as the Mekong and many other rivers originate either in Tibet or in its close proximity and that gives China a strategic advantage of being the only upper riparian state. Of the total 2,906 km of the Brahmaputra, 1,625 km falls in China, 978 km in India and 363 km in Bangladesh. The Lalho project has a special significance for Assam and the North-east since India has embarked on large hydel power development in the region to harness the potential of some of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal. The estimated hydro power potential of Arunachal alone is 33,000 MW, of which only about 2,000 MW may have been used and also the fact that there has been a shift in the Cente’s approach from flood control to basin development with the restructuring of the Brahmaputra Flood Control Board.
This approach has been already put in place in the Meghalaya sub-basin under the Meghalaya Basin Development Authority that has successfully taken up a number of inter-related activities such as flood and erosion control, community-based conservation of forests and wetlands and various non-farm sustainable income-generating activities like commercial hatchery, fish farming in small ponds, apiary, floriculture, horticulture and smallscale food processing mainly through the cooperatives or self-help groups. From this perspective, overemphasis on hydro power development or only flood control betrays an “extractive state” mindset that tends to ignore the overall impact of embankments or construction of storage dams or reservoirs and hydro power generation on the ecology and the communities in its command areas.
In Assam, the construction of about 4,800 km of embankments across the Brahmaputra and the Barak valley over the years did not result in significant flood moderation, not to speak of flood control, due to frequent breaches or overtopping of embankments, And this, the experts noted, had caused huge and recurring losses to human habitats, standing crops and animals than the usual high floods.
In Bangladesh, where 5,800 km of embankments were constructed, the experience is about the same. Poor maintenance of embankments, the use of low quality construction materials, usually linked to corruption, are issues of serious public grievance.
The focus of basin development, on the contrary, is comprehensive community-centric sustainable development of a basin’s land water and biotic resources and its adoption is thus a welcome development. In this background, the Chinese blockade of a tributary of the Brahmaputra should be a wake-up call for India and Bangladesh, the two lower riparian countries, and Bhutan and Nepal as stakeholders of the Ganga- Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin to develop an integrated and scientific basin development approach to pre-empt unilateral action and bring about “spatial integration” of sub-systems of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin.
This could be achieved through possible physical links between the sub-systems with link canals and storages; and these could only make meeting the water demand of deficit areas from water rich sub-systems possible by mutual agreement. What stands in the way is the structure of the nation-states based on territorial sovereignty and absence of international water governance as evidenced from the fact that the 1997 UN Convention on the non-navigable uses of the international water courses has been ratified so far by only 27 countries though 106 nations voted for the proposal in the General Assembly.
The voting pattern on the UN resolution showed how perceived national interests dictated the decisions; as, for example, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were in favour being lower riparian nations of the Ganga-Brahmaputra and the Mekong basin, respectively, while China, Turkey and Burundi voted against, being upper riparian countries; and India, Egypt, Israel and Pakistan abstained. Notwithstanding this position, the 1997 UN convention provides a framework to initiate a basin development approach for international rivers, though this is, indeed, a grey area of global governance.
While on this issue, certain unalterable geographical facts call for appreciation. The Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna system is part of a broader region that experts called the Bay of Bengal basin. The Ganges,the Brahmaputra and Barak -Meghna are separate sub-systems sharing a common delta providing a common terminus to the sea. This being the reality, basin development is to address common problems and technical possibilities of integration of the river systems; and this will require according a lower priority to sub-basin planning for water use, which is presently the practice in the North-eastern states. The recent public protests in Assam over the possible adverse environmental impact of the Lower Subansiri hydro power project in Arunachal in the Assam plains are the outcome of the absence of any integrated planning for the North-eastern sub-basin of the Brahmaputra.
In the final reckoning, the Assam valley is the gift of the Brahmaputra and its abundant ground water caused a visiting World Bank mission to depict Assam in its report as “a thin layer of land floating over a lake bigger than Lake Superior”; and the ground water potential has remained till date largely untapped, though its partial use in recent years covering about 150,000 hectares through mainly a shallow tubewell programme backed up by a good credit-input and extension support enabled Assam to harvest five million tons of rice and earn accolades from the Centre.
Thus. even if half of the estimated irrigation potential of 2.5 million hectares is realised by 2020, Assam could emerge as a major agricultural state and in a position to export to its neighborhood. Much, however. would depend on flood moderation and erosion control, vital for stabilisation of agricultural output, restoration of forests, rejuvenation of wetlands and soil conservation, together with storage reservoirs on some major tributaries might cause some flood moderation and prevent congestion of drainage, thereby reducing peak flood as these will be more effective than embankments.
To deal with land erosion, a durable solution suggested by some experts is to convert the Brahmaputra regime, which is presently a braided stream, to that of a meandering one mostly flowing through a single channel. This will vastly improve navigability of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The North-east has the largest amount of navigable waterways in India, with a length of 3,844 km, and much of it is in the Brahmaputra valley. Thus, realigning the Brahmaputra through a long-term river training plan, as was done in Germany to rejuvenate the Rhine, could effectively position the region’s inland water transport as a major driver of economic development. This would boost tourism — both domestic and foreign, as the world famous wildlife sanctuaries of Assam and the North-east are in the Brahmaputra valley and easily accessible from the river systems.
Obstructing progress along this path is hydro politics and an outdated perception of national interest in a period when combating the challenges of climate change makes it imperative for an international common action plan. The national interest approach ignores the fact that rivers don’t recognise state borders. Therefore, a holistic basin development approach that takes care of the legitimate demands of all stakeholders and nations and puts in place laws and institutions for various interventions on the basis of ecology and conservation and not on national aggrandisement is the need and challenge before the Bay of Bengal basin countries. It is time for the South Asian Association Regional Cooperation and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation to say “No” to hydro politics in South Asia.