Category Archives: Brahmaputra

Rivers don’t recognise borders

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.

Rangan Dutta



Brahmaputra – The Beautiful River or The Battleground?

Bogibeel, the fourth bridge on Brahmaputra is under construction between Dhemaji and Dibrugarh district.  Photo – Parag Jyoti Saikia

Capture 3

The Brahmaputra River, geologically is the youngest among the major rivers in the world yet it is known as a moving ocean. The river Brahmaputra travels 2880 km from its origin in the young Himalayan range through the Tibet and India and finally merges with the sea in Bangladesh by opening its streams like the roots of a large Banyan tree. While traversing through India the river is astonishingly wide at some areas. In Upper Assam near Dibrugarh the river is 16 km wide where as in lower Assam at Pandu, near Guwahati the river is 1.2 km wide but in the immediate downstream it is nearly 18 km wide. Brahmaputra which is mainly a glacier fed river has also the distinction of being the river with highest sediment yield 852.4 t/km2/y in the world and second highest water yield at delta, next only to Amazon.[1]

Origin and Path

The BrahmaputraRiver originates in the Chemayungdung mountain ranges which nearly sixty miles south-east of Mansarovar lake in the MountKailash range in Southern Tibet at an elevation of 5300 m.A spring called Tamchok Khambab spills from the glaciers which later gather breath and volume to become the Tsangpo, the highest river in world.

A Buddhist shrine called a stupa overlooks the Brahmaputra River in southern Tibet. Source:

Out of its total length of 2,880 km the Brahmaputra covers a major part of its journey in Tibet as Tsangpo. Tsangpo or the BrahmaputraRiver flows 1625 km in Tibet parallel to the main range of Himalayas before entering India through Arunachal Pradesh.

Apart from the name Tsangpo, the Brahmaputra is also known by its Chinese name, Yarlung Zangbo in Tibet.  There are several tributaries of Tsangpo in Tibet. According to Encyclopedia Britannica,  Raka Zangbo (Raka Tsangpo), Lhasa (Kyi) and Nyang Qu (Gyamda) are prominent north bank tributaries where as Nyang Qu (Nyang Chu) is a tributary on the south bank. The Raka Zangbo (Raka Tsangpo) joins Tsangpo in the west of Xigazê (Shigatse) and Nyang Qu (Gyamda) River joins the river from the north at Zela (Tsela Dzong). The Lhasa (Kyi) river flows past the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and joins the Tsangpo at Qüxü.  The right bank tributary Nyang Qu (Nyang Chu) meets the Tsangpo at Xigazê.

Before entering India, the river passes Pi (Pe) in Tibet and suddenly turns to the north and northeast and cuts a course through a succession of great narrow gorges between the mountain Gyala Peri and Namjabarwa (Namcha Barwa) in a series of rapids and cascades.

The Great Bend of Tsangpo where China planning to build world’s biggest hydropower project Source:

The river then turns south and southwest and flows through a deep gorge across the eastern extremity of the Himalayas with canyon walls that extends upward for 16,500 feet (5,000 meters) and more on each side. This is the celebrated great bend where China has plans to build the world’s biggest hydropower project of 40 000 MW capacity and also divert water from here to the North China, though China is currently denying any such plans.

Siang River Source:

The river enters Arunachal Pradesh near Gelling where it is known as the Siang or Dihang. The total length of Siang River is 294.5 km till its point  of confluence  with Dibang and Lohit River. The elevation of Siang river catchment area ranges from 90 m to around 5800 m. In India the total catchment of Siang river up to its confluence with Dibang is 14965.30 sq km.[2]

The SiangRiver meets two other major tributaries of Brahmaputra, Dibang and Lohit in the west of Sadiya, at a place named Kobo. From this confluence point, the river is known as the Brahmaputra till it enters Bangladesh. In India the journey of the river Brahmaputra is 918 km long.

A recent study has shown that Kobo used to be confluence point in 1915.  By 1975 the confluence shifted to a place called Laikaghat which is 16 km downstream of the earlier point of confluence. In 2005 through satellite images it was observed that the confluence point has shifted “19 km farther downstream”.[3]

The river crosses Assam below Dhubri and enters Bangladesh where the river is known as Jamuna and it flows for 337 km. Regarding Brahmaputra’s role in Bangladesh a study writes “The Jamuna is the local name given to the river for its entire length in Bangladesh to the Ganges junction.

Jamuna River in Bangladesh Source:

The Brahmaputra-Jamuna has one principal tributary input, the TeestaRiver in the north-west, and two major offtakes on the left bank that are the Old Brahmaputra and the Dhaleswari. The Brahmaputra/Jamuna River contributes ~51% of the water discharge and 38% of the sediment yield to the Padma (Schumm and Winkley, 1994), with the sediment yield being estimated at 590 MT/ yr and the sand fraction contributing 34% of this total (Sarker, 1996).”[4] The Jamuna joins the Ganges at Goalundo Ghat and from here the combined flows of these two mighty rivers are known as Padma which joins Meghna in the downstream. The united stream thereafter known as the Meghna and with this name the river Brahmaputra ends its journey, entering the Bay of Bengal.

Bhutan forms an integral part of the Brahmaputra river basin even though it does not come in the path of the river. In our subsequent blogs we will bring a detail account of Bhutan’s role in Brahmaputra river basin.

 The Brahmaputra River Basin

The Brahmaputra river is an international river and its river basin is spread over four countries Bhutan, Tibet , India and Bangladesh with a total basin area of 5,80,000 sq. km. Out of this total catchment area 50.5% lies in Tibet, 33.6% in India, 8.1% in Bangladesh and 7.8% in Bhutan. For geologist and environmentalist the Brahmaputra is a very unique river because “drains such diverse environments as the cold dry plateau of Tibet, the rain-drenched Himalayan slopes, the landlocked alluvial plains of Assam and the vast deltaic lowlands of Bangladesh.”[5]

Map of Brahmaputra Basin from its origin to its confluence Source:

In India the total basin area of BrahmaputraRiver is 197 316 sq. km. which 5.9% of the total geographic area of the country. In India the river is spread over states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim.

In India state-wise the drainage area of the BrahmaputraRiver is as follows:


Drainage area (sq. km)

% of state area in Brahmaputra basin

Arunachal Pradesh 83 740 100%
Assam 71 216 90.79%
West Bengal 12 585 14.18%
Meghalaya 11 780 52.52%
Nagaland 10 895 65.71%
Sikkim 7 100 100%
Total 197 316

Source: ‘Intregrated Water Resource Development: A Plan for Action’, MoWR, Govt. of India, September, 1999

The Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland portion of the Brahmaputra river basin is mainly covered by mountain ranges and narrow valleys. Meghalaya part of the basin is majorly covered by hills where as Assam and West Bengal are mostly plain areas.

Politically in India the basin is spread over 22 parliamentary constituencies (2009) comprising 12 in Assam, 4 in West Bengal, 2 in Arunachal Pradesh, 2 in Meghalaya, 1 in Sikkim and 1 in Nagaland.

Projected Water Use for Diverse Purposes in the Brahmaputra Basin

Catchment Area 197 316 km2
Population (1991 census) 29.1 million
Surface-Water Potential (Av Annual) 629 km3/year
Utilisable Surface Water 24 km3/year
Total Replenishable Ground Water (Av. Annual) 26.55 km3/year
Natural Groundwater Recharge from Rainfall 25.72 km3/year
Estimated Utilisable Flow excluding Ground Water 21 km3/year

Source: ‘Integrated Water Resource Development: A Plan for Action’, MoWR, Govt. of India, September, 1999

Tributaries of Brahmaputra

Sub-basin map of Siang River Source: Environment Assessment Report Siang Basin In Arunachal Pradesh, Interim Report June 2012

Studies have stated that the Brahmaputra river in its entire course receive water from a large number of tributaries. A study called “Study of Brahmaputra River Erosion and Its Control” done by IIT Roorkee[6] stated “the Brahmaputra receives as many as 22 major tributaries in Tibet, 33 in India and three in Bangladesh.” However this study did not mention anything about the river in Arunachal. We have already mentioned about the few of the tributaries Tibet. In Arunachal the major tributaries of Siang River are Ringong Asi, Yang Sang Chhu, Sigong/ Sirapateng, Niyikgong, Angong, Simang, Yamne, Siyom, Yargyap, Hirit Korong.[7]

In the course of journey through Assam from east to west, some of the important tributaries of the BrahmaputraRiver which join the river on the north bank are Lohit, Dibang, Subansiri, Jiabharali, Barnadi, Puthimari, Pagladia, Beki, Manas, Ai, Gabhoru, Chompawati, Sankosh, Raidhak, Torsa, Teesta etc. Burhidihing, Desang, Dikhow, Jamji, Bhogdoi, Kakdonga, Dhansiri, Kopili, Kolong, Sonai, Digaru, Bharalu, Krishnai, Dudhnoi are the major tributaries on the left bank. The actual number of rivers and rivulets which joins the mighty river is much larger than this list. In subsequent blogs we will try to go into details of some of the tributaries of the river Brahmaputra.

Hydrology of Brahmaputra

For the river Brahmaputra the average annual flow (water discharge) throughout Assam vary from 8500 to 17000 cubic meters per second. At Pandu Ghat near SaraighatBridge the average annual floods recorded was 16,000 cubic meters per second. During floods water discharge reaches its peak and the yearly average peak flow recorded was approximately 51,000 cubic meters per second.[8] At its mouth in Bangladesh, the average annual discharge of the river is 19,830 cubic meters per second. This is the fourth highest average annual discharge in the world. For the river Brahmaputra the highest daily discharge was recorded in August 1962 at Pandu which was 72,726 cubic meters per second. The lowest daily discharge at the same place was 1757 cubic meters per second in February 1968.[9]

Satellite image of the river Brahmaputra (2008) just downstream of Guwahati city indicating intense braiding. width of the river at pandu is 1.2 km but donstream is about 18km. Source: ‘Riverbank erosion: a perspective” a presentation by Dr. Bipul Talukdar, Assam Engineering College

Though the Brahmaputra has been described as a braided river, recent studies have shown that the river does not fit into the conventional definition of braided river. A recent study states “In the study reach of the upper Assam area, the Brahmaputra appears to be a multichannel and multi-pattern river that has a tendency to very frequently generate ananabranching[10] (Latrubesse, 2008) pattern in decadal scale.” [11]

The Brahmaputra has been widening its (riverbed) size continuously from the last century. Reports from Water Resource Department showed that in Assam the river Brahmaputra was spread over for 4000 sq km in 1920 but in 2008 this has increased to 6000 sq km.[12]

The Brahmaputra along with several of its major tributaries like Subansiri, Jia Bharali, Manas had very high water yields[13]  which are higher than most of the major rivers in the world. The reason behind such high water yield for Dr. D.C. Goswami, one of the renowned environmental scientist from Assam is “High monsoon rainfall in the upper catchments and their steep gradients are considered to be the major factors responsible for the high rates of unit discharge which in turn help generate the high sediment yield from the basin and contribute significantly towards causing drainage congestion in the valley.”[14]

Seismicity and Brahmaputra Basin

The Brahmaputra river basin and its adjoining hill ranges are seismically very unstable because it is located in the Eurasian (Chinese) and Indian tectonic plates. The most severe earthquakes with Richter magnitude 8.7 was recorded twice in the valley, in 1897 and 1950. The latter one particularly had severe impacts on the river Brahmaputra. As a result of this earthquake river bed was raised at least by three meters at Dibrugarh which had increased the flood and erosion intensity of the river. In the opinion of geomorphologists “the region’s active seismicity has a significant impact on the hydro-geomorphic regime of the Brahmaputra system of rivers, causing landslides that result in the natural damming of rivers, flash floods due to the bursting of landslide-induced temporary dams, raising of riverbeds by siltation, fissuring and sand venting, elevation of existing river and lake bottoms and margins, creation of new water bodies and waterfalls due to faulting.”[15]

Climate Regime

The Brahmaputra in its path from snow covered mountains of Himalaya to the deltaic flood plains of Bangladesh covers different climatic regimes. The mean annual rainfall in the Brahmaputra basin excluding the Tibetan portion is 2300 mm.  The distribution of rainfall is different at different parts of the basin. In the southern slopes of Himalaya the rainfall is over 6000 mm but in parts of Nagaland this is 1200 mm. The monsoon rainfall (June to September) contribute 60-70% to the annual rainfall of the basin.[16]

In this basin, areas which are above or equal to the elevation of 1500 m experience snowfall. In the Indian part of Brahmaputra basin there are 610 glaciers which covers an area of 928.91 sq km and the volume of these glaciers are 49.57 cubic km. Out of these 449 glaciers are in Teesta basin and 161 glaciers are in Arunachal.[17]  In the Brahmaputra basin, Himalayan snow and glacial melt waters play a very significant role in water availability and climate change will have severe impacts on this. Climate change will also impact the rainfall and snowfall pattern in the Brahmaputra basin. This issue needs more serious attention and we will come up with more detailed blogs on this.

Bio-Diversity in the Brahmaputra Basin

The Lohit flooplains, immediately dowsntream of Lower Demwe HEP, constitute an Important Bird Area as per international criteria and is also a potential Ramsar site Photo: Neeraj Vagholikar

The Brahmaputra river basin hosts very rich and unique bio-diversity. The whole of northeastern region is a globally recognized bio-diversity hot spot.  In the Indian territory the total forest cover of the Brahmaputra basin is 1,14,894 sq. km. which is 54% of the total basin area. In the distribution of forest cover among 6 states in Brahmaputra basin, Arunachal Pradesh tops the list with 82.8% forest cover but it is sad that the highest number of hydro-electric dams are planned in this state inviting disastrous impacts for the biodiversity, forests, people and environment. The tally of rest of the five states is as follows – Nagaland (68.9%), Meghalaya (63.5%), Sikkim (38.1%), West Bengal (21.4 %) and Assam (20.6 %).

Besides, the aquatic bio-diversity of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries is also very rich. Here we should also take the case of ‘beel’ or wetlands in the Brahmaputra flood plains which according to experts work as ”ecotonal zones” and ”play an important role in the dynamics of the Brahmaputra ecosystem, as these are natural feeding and breeding grounds for a number of fish species and other aquatic fauna.”[18]

Flood and Erosion

Brahmaputra river basin is known to be very prone to flood and erosion and these two hazards have led to many problems in the basin. In India, out of the eight northeastern states, Assam faces the most severe brunt of flood and erosion. Both flood erosion has been severely affecting the economy as well political, social and cultural milieu of Assam.

Experts opine that natural as well anthropogenic factors lead to devastating floods in northeastern region. “The unique geo-environmental  setting of the region vis-à-vis the eastern Himalayas, the highly potent monsoon regime, weak geological formation, active seismicity, accelerated erosion, rapid channel  aggradations, massive deforestation, intense land use pressure and high population growth especially in the floodplain belt, and ad hoc type temporary flood control measures are some of the dominant factors that cause and/or intensify floods in the Brahmaputra and the Barak basins (Goswami, 1998).”[19] The Brahmaputra river basin is also prone to flash floods and some of the worst flash floods have occurred in the valley in the new millennium.

Along with floods, erosion is also threatening the lives of the people in the state of Assam as it leads to permanent loss of land.  Here we can take the case of the river island Majuli, which had been one of the worst sufferers of the erosion done by Brahmaputra. In 1853 the total area of Majuli was 1129 sq km but it has now reduced to 3.55 sq km.[20]

Ilish fishing, Dauladia, Bangladesh, 2001 Source:

In Bangladesh the Brahmaputra river which known as Jamuna is also infamous for severe floods and erosion. The river carries huge water and sediment discharge in this deltaic region. Because of its geographical setting, Bangladesh is very much dependent on its river for fertile fields and diverse flora and aqua culture but rivers also brings several hazards in the form of floods and erosion. Bangladesh has witnessed severe annual floods but the floods in 1987, 1988, 1998 and 2004 were the most severe ones in recent decades. But studies have shown that, “The people of Bangladesh have adapted their lifestyle for centuries to live with river flooding – frequently moving their temporary bank-side homes, planting on newly emergent river bars, and sometimes raising their homesteads above water level in flood periods (Paul, 1997). However, a growing population, coupled with the expansion of infrastructure and economic development, has resulted in an increase in the intensity of flood damage (FPCO, 1995; Paul, 1997; CPD, 2004). The lives of many millions of Bangladeshi citizens is thus reliant on these rivers, with up to 600,000 people living on the riverine islands and bars alone (Sarker et al., 2003).”[21]

In order to protect people from the fury of floods and erosion the main measure taken in India as well in Bangladesh is the construction of embankments. In Assam the total length of embankment is 4,473.83 km constructed on a total of 130 small and big rivers. But recent reports say that out this, 3376 km embankments are in a vulnerable condition and need immediate strengthening and repair.[22] As a deltaic region Bangladesh too has put its thrust on increasing length of embankments. In 1989 Bangladesh launched an elaborate flood control programme through construction of embankments which was named as ‘Flood Action Plan’. But this plan was vehemently criticized both at national and international level.

Protest against big dams – KMSS (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti) members protesting in Pandu Ghat in Guwahati against the ship carrying the turbines for the Lower Subansiri project. Source:

In order to control the floods in Brahmaputra valley one of the proposed solution is construction of multi-purpose dams. In fact flood control was one of the pretexts for hydro-development in the northeastern region. But the idea that multipurpose dams can lead to flood control along with hydro-power generation is actually contradictory and unviable as seen from experience of such projects. Studies done on some of the biggest multi-purpose river valley projects of independent India, e.g. ‘Unravelling Bhakra’ by Shripad Dharmadhikary, ‘Drown and Dammed’ done on Hirakud by Prof Rohan D’Souza, “One Valley and a Thousand: Dams, Nationalism, and Development, Studies in Social Ecology & Environmental History” on Damodar Valley dams by Daniel Klingensmith have shown how unviable this proposition is. A number of these dams have actually created avoidable flood disasters in the downstream areas due to wrong operation of the dams[23]. In case of the mightly Brahmaputra river, this is likely to prove even greater disastrous considering its characteristics described above.

Today Brahmaputra valley is witnessing severe opposition against hydro-power dams.  The struggle against the Lower Subansiri hydro-electric project can be regarded as milestone. In the Brahmaputra valley the hydropower projects have been opposed also because of the impacts which it will going to have in the downstream as well as on the biodiversity, seismicity, society and culture of one of the most ecological sensitive areas. .

Institutional Mechanism over Brahmaputra in India

The Brahmaputra Board is the foremost body on Brahmaputra established by Government of India under an Act of Parliament i.e. The Brahmaputra Board Act, 1980 (46 of 1980) under the Ministry of Irrigation which now renamed as Ministry of Water Resources. The main task entrusted on Brahmaputra Board is ‘planning and integrated implementation of measures for the control of floods and bank erosion in the BrahmaputraValley and for matters connected therewith.’ Both Brahmaputra and Barak valleys are under the jurisdiction of Brahmaputra Board. Even though this independent board was established to better manage the flood and erosion problem of the two river basins, but its activities have come under severe public criticism. Besides Brahmaputra Board, the State Water Resource Department and Central Water Commission also looks after water issues in the river basin. Recently international funding agency Asian Development Bank (ADB) has come to be associated with flood and erosion control in the Assam but from the experiences of Bangladesh, the advent such agencies must be dealt with precaution.

Brahmaputra Valley as the Point of Confluence for People and Cultures

The Brahmaputra is a dynamic river whose dynamism is not only limited to its physical characters or features of the river, but immersed in social, political, economic and cultural aspects. The Brahmaputra valley has been the space of assimilation for people from different races and the one can find large variety of languages and dialects being spoken in this valley. The northeastern region falls under the Brahmaputra and Barak River basin[24] which is home for more than 166 separate tribes, 160 scheduled tribes and over 400 other tribal and sub-tribal communities and groups, speaking a wide range of languages (Climate Change in India: A 4×4 Assessment, 2010). The northeastern region can also be considered as an ‘ethnological transition zone’ between India and the neighbouring countries of Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh. In this region one can find 220 languages belonging to three language families – Indo-Aryan, Sino-Tibetan and Austric.[25]

Relevance of Brahmaputra for Assam

For Assam, the state located at the center of the northeastern region, the river Brahmaputra paves its way through this state like the lifeline of the state. The river ‘Brahmaputra’ literally means ‘Son of Brahma’. It is also one of the few rivers in India which is regarded as a ‘male’ river. There are several myths and legends about the Brahmaputra’s origin and we will bring those together in our coming blogs.

Bogibeel, the fourth bridge on Brahmaputra is under construction between Dhemaji and Dibrugarh district. Photo – Parag Jyoti Saikia

In Assam Brahmaputra River is also known by several other names  i.e. ‘Luit’, ‘Siri Luit’, ‘Bor Luit’ ‘Bor Noi’. For the people of Assam, the Brahmaputra is a symbol of great pride due to its ‘moving ocean’ size but this also ignites fear when it rises to its strength during floods. People of Assam have faced difficult times when the river has come to its full strength. Famous singer Jayanta Hazarika wrote, when he formed ‘Xur bahini’ to gather relief for flood victims “Luitor Bolia baan, toloi koloi nu dhapoli meliso, hir hir sowode kal roop dhori loi kaak nu bare bare khediso (Oh the maddening floods of Luit, where are you heading this time. Whom are you chasing again with frightening sound of your waves)”.

But this river is also the source of strength for the people of Assam. Time and again, they have expressed their unity as ‘Luitporia’ or ‘people from the banks of Luit’. The famous cultural icon of Assam, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala wrote in 1942 during Indian Freedom movement “Luitor parore ami deka lora, moriboloi bhoi nai (we are the youth from the banks of Luit and we don’t have any fear of death)”.  For another legendary cultural icon, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika  who is known as the bard of Brahmaputra, the river’s power of destruction was the source which will awaken the people. In his famous song “Bistirno parore” he asked the river – “Sahasro barishar, unmadonar, avigyotare, pangu manobok sawal songrami aru agrogami kori nutula kiyo (with your maddening experience of thousand monsoons, why don’t you arouse the disabled human beings for struggle and progress)”.

This blog is a small step to document the various aspects of the river Brahmaputra. It is the need of the hour since a flood of dams are proposed to submerge the Brahmaputra valley. Chinese plans of dam construction is not very much in the public domain but the impacts of dam construction of in the upstream Tibet will have severe impacts on the Brahmaputra river. Besides, the bogey of Chinese threat to divert the waters of Siang is used by the Indian government to push for rapid dam construction sidelining all the social, environmental, safety, sustainability, climate change concerns and impacts on the river ecosystem. The government very shamelessly has also put aside all the democratic processes to push for rapid dam construction. Though there is no proposal for a dam on the Brahmaputra in Assam, there are proposals to dam its major upstream tributaries.  This upsurge of dams, if they do get constructed will have huge impacts on the Brahmaputra River which are yet not known due to lack of credible projects specific or cumulative impacts assessment studies. These studies should include issues like  the river ecosystem, river bio-diversity, forests and wildlife, climate change, floods and erosion and economic and socio-cultural impacts. However, we are hopeful that the ongoing struggles against such unjustifiable projects will succeed and all these projects won’t come up. Through a series of blogs we will also try to bring together all these different streams of concerns.

Himanshu Thakkar, Parag Jyoti Saikia

South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (

[1] Lahiri, S.K., Sinha, R., Tectonic controls on the morphodynamics of the Brahmaputra River system in the upper As-sam valley, India, Geomorphology (2012)

[2]EnvironmentAssessmentReport  SiangBasin In Arunachal Pradesh, Interim Report June 2012, Prepared for Central Water Commission(CWC

[3] Lahiri, S.K., Sinha, R., Tectonic controls on the morphodynamics of the Brahmaputra River system in the upper As-sam valley, India, Geomorphology (2012)

[5]GoswamiD.C., “Managing the Wealth and Woes of the River Brahmaputra” available at

[7]EnvironmentAssessmentReport  SiangBasin In Arunachal Pradesh, Interim Report June 2012, Prepared for Central Water Commission(CWC)

[9] Goswami D.C., “Managing the Wealth and Woes of the River Brahmaputra” available at

[10] An anabranch is a section of a river or stream that diverts from the main channel or stem of the watercourse and rejoins the main stem downstream.

[11] Lahiri, S.K., Sinha, R., Tectonic controls on the morphodynamics of the Brahmaputra River system in the upper As-sam valley, India, Geomorphology (2012)

[13] Water yield means volume of water drained by unit area of the basin.

[14] “The Brahmaputra River”, India  by D.C. Goswami and P. J. Das in The Ecologist Asia Vol. 11 No 1 January- March 2003

[15] ibid

[16] ibid

[17] “Water Sector Options for India in a Changing Climate” by Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP, New Delhi, March 2012

[18] ‘Stemming the Flood, Killing Biodiversity’ by Dr. Sanchita Boruah and Dr. S.P. Biswas in The Ecologist Asia Vol. 11 No 1 January- March 2003

[19] Goswami D.C., “Managing the Wealth and Woes of the River Brahmaputra” available at

[24]Barak River is located in south Assam and also an international river but smaller than the Brahmaputra.

Dam on Brahmaputra in Tibet won’t affect flow in India: China

The damming of a Yarlung Zangbo River tributary in Tibet will have no impact downstream when the river flows into Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, China said trying to assuage New Delhi’s concern that dams on the Yarlung could dry up the river system in northeast India and affect millions of lives.

China, has, in fact, gone out its way to help India with data on water flow and possible flood situations downstream and would continue to do so, the ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) told Hindustan Times in its first reaction after announcing the blocking of the tributary earlier this month.

Further, the tributary river contributes very little water flow to the Yarlung, the MFA claimed.

The Yarlung Zangbo, originating in a Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) glacier, flows into Arunachal Pradesh as the Siang River and is known as Brahmaputra in Assam

On October 1, China announced it was blocking the 185 km-long Xiabuqu River, one of many tributaries of the Yarlung Zangbo, to construct a dam as part of the Lalho hydroelectric project in the Xigase region of TAR.

The Yarlung has several tributaries and the Xiabuqu is considered a minor one but the move immediately raised the specter of China controlling the flow of water to the Brahmaputra River.

The timing added to the concern with India and Pakistan sparring over the Indus River, which also originates in TAR.

In an emailed response to HT, the MFA said that there was no need for worry.

“For long, China and India have had excellent cooperation on cross-border water issues. China has overcome difficulties to provide India with services such as hydrological forecast and emergency actions in context of the general situation of Sino- Indian friendship and humanitarian spirit,” the MFA statement said.

The sharing of the data has “…had positive influence on aspects such as flood prevention in related regions.”

Of course, the MFA pointed out that the Xiabuqu River is entirely within China and Beijing has the right to block or dam it.

“The Xiabuqu River where the project locates has been a tributary of Yarlung Zangpo River and the whole of Xiabuqu is within the Chinese territory. The water storage needed for the project has been less than 0.02% of the yearly runoff of the Yarlung Zangpo-Brahmaputra region, posing no threat to the downstream area,” the statement said.

The project is critical for “…ensuring the water safety, food safety and flood control for the region’s livelihood.”

China indicated that it will continue to exploit the resources of the Yarlung Zangbo River to develop the region through which it passes.

“China now has only exploited 1% of the water and hydro energy resource in the Yarlung Zangpo River,” the statement said.

“The quality of water flowing out of Chinese territory has been fine and generally in a natural state. (Since the) Yarlung Zangpo River is located in the economically less developed region of ethnic minority residents, the appropriate exploitation of water and hydro energy resources have been a critical part of maintaining the right to exist and development of the local people.”

But the exploitation would be done in a responsible manner, the MFA statement said.

“China has had a responsible attitude towards the exploitation of the water resource in Yarlung Zangpo River, and has been operating under the policy of combining exploitation and conservation together. The orderly exploitations have been implemented after scientific planning, full-proof and cautious decision-making, and are in accordance with the international practice,” the statement said.

“China is willing to continue the related cooperation with India through existing expert-level mechanism on the cross-border water issues,” it said.

Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Beijing

Read | Dam on Brahmaputra tributary not to affect flow to India, says China

After the flood, the Brahmaputra leaves behind a desert in Assam

In a village about 20 kilometres from Lakhimpur – the main town on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam – Kushal Das stands on the road and strains his eyes to locate dry patches in his farmland. All he sees are muck and water. Although there has been some respite from the constant rains, and the floodwaters have started receding, the farmer knows better than to smile in relief. “The river has taken away my land’s fertility,” he said, unsure of what the future holds.

Das is not alone in his predicament. As floodwaters of the Brahmaputra start receding – at least for now – the farmers are not celebrating. Instead, they are staring at what the waters have left behind – more sand than silt. Their farmlands are now infertile.

“Aagote enekua naasil (It wasn’t always like this),” said Lakhi Gogoi, another farmer in Lakhimpur. “Earlier, after the floodwaters receded, we could still plant our paddy, we could still hope for a decent harvest. But in the last few years things have changed. The soil left behind is very sandy and coarse, unfit to grow paddy.”

With the South Asian summer monsoon barely halfway, Assam has already had three floods this year. At least 49 people were killed and 4.1 million affected, Pallab Lochan Das, minister of state for disaster management, told legislators last week.

Of the 35 districts in the state, 29 are flood-hit. The minister said 41,426 hectares of crop land had suffered “massive damages”. The Kaziranga National Park was among the worst-hit. Nearly 80% of it was inundated; animals were killed or swept away.

Floods damage, but they also used to bring a boon. For millennia, the annual flooding of rivers that flow down from the Himalayas – especially the Brahmaputra – has replenished the soil of South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia with silt.

This material – in size the particles are somewhere between clay and sand – is largely mineral-rich rocks from the Himalayas that the flowing river waters have broken down into granules. The deltas of Asia – of the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong, Yangtze or Yellow rivers – are essentially made up of silt that the floodwaters left behind when they receded. This regular replenishment of silt has maintained soil fertility in this intensely farmed continent.

But the Brahmaputra has not been doing this for the past few years, in Assam or downstream in Bangladesh. “The river’s waters have started leaving behind more sand than silt,” Partha Jyoti Das, head of the Water, Climate and Hazards Programme of the Guwahati-based think tank Aaranyak, told

Effect of climate change

There are various reasons for this change of behaviour, he said. Climate change is one of them. “It has always rained a lot during monsoons, and floods have always happened in Assam. But over the last few years, the intensity of rain has increased. So now you have heavy spells of rains over a handful of days instead of a stretched-out period, resulting in flash floods. This is because of climate change.”

When it rains hard, the water flows down the hills faster – from Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh to the Assam valley. It also dissipates with more force. Scientists have measured that major tributaries of the Brahmaputra, such as Ronga Nodi and Hingora, have faster water flows than before.

“The cumulative effect of this micro seismic activity or vibration that takes place every day, combined with the monsoon, makes the Himalayan hills erode more easily,” Das explained. “This sediment goes to the river channels. Then again, with more development activities taking place in the hills, there is more digging of the soil for building dams, roads and factories. This sediment again goes to the rivers.”

He further said: “As a result of all this, the river gets laden with an abnormally large quantity of sediment. Now, normally, the river would break all this down into tiny particles, which is silt. But now the sediment load is too high. So much of the sediment remains as large coarse particles, which ultimately gets left behind in the fields when the floodwaters recede.”

Dam trouble

Some experts blame the building of a spate of dams on the Brahmaputra – more pecifically, the run-of-the-river projects – for the change in the composition of what the floodwaters carry.

In a run-of-the-river project, a dam is built in the river and the water diverted to a tunnel. The silt-laden water is first taken to a settling tank, where the silt settles at the bottom so that it does not damage the turbine blades when the water turns the blades to generate electricity. The silt-free water is then led back to the river.

Policymakers who approve these hydroelectricity projects know the importance of silt downstream, so they have ensured the silt gets back to the river through an exit at the bottom of the settling tank. The trouble is, this silt then accumulates behind the dam wall, where there is not enough water flow to carry it along. Most of the water is led back to the river up to 10 kms downstream, after it has done its job of turning the turbine blades.

But Partha Jyoti Das is not sure to what extent the dams are responsible for the deposition of sand rather than silt. He points out that the dams are a “fairly recent” phenomenon, while the silt-to-sand change by the Brahmaputra has been gaining momentum over the last two decades.

Effect of embankments

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, has another explanation – he blames the embankments that line the Brahmaputra to protect people from floods.

“Where there are embankments, sand (from the river water) gets accumulated while the silt flows downstream,” Thakkar said. “Now embankments provide temporary flood protection, and, as seen in several cases, they then get breached. The breach starts with a hole in the embankment and water flows through it, taking along the sand that has accumulated. This is also called sand casting.”

Comparing the situation with other places in India and with other rivers, he said: “I have seen similar cases of sand casting in Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh) in the early part of this millennium. It has happened in the Koshi flood plain.”

Das, the scientist from Aaranyak agreed, and added that the concrete embankments hold back sediments till they breach, and then everything mixes with the floodwaters. “Since this sediment has more sand than silt, it is sand that gets deposited in the farms,” he said.

“In some areas on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, the river is taking away the top fertile layer of soil, and started leaving behind five-six feet of sand,” Das said. “It will take at least five years, may be even seven or eight years, to reclaim this soil. Until then nothing will grow on it.” “There are places like Jiadhol in Sonitpur district where the river has left behind 10 feet of sand.”

Adaptation through new crops

Where there is an appreciable amount of silt mixed with the sand, traditional rice farmers are now growing other crops on the advice of experts – watermelons, peanuts, kidney beans, sugarcane.

Akhil Sharma, a local farmer activist, however feels that these measures are not enough. “Even when he is growing watermelons, a farmer here keeps hoping that very soon his land will be fertile enough for rice, which he will harvest in quantities large enough to both sell and consume for the whole year. And where the soil has become too sandy, the farmer can grow nothing. Until special measures for soil reclamation are introduced, the farmers are staring into an uncertain future.”

Experts also feel that there is an urgent need for a scientific study of this phenomenon.


China operationalises biggest dam on Brahmaputra in Tibet

Beijing, Oct 13 (PTI) China today operationalised the USD 1.5 billion Zam Hydropower Station, the largest in Tibet, built on the Brahmaputra river, which has raised concerns in India over the likelihood of disrupting water supplies.

All six of the station’s units were incorporated into the power grid on Tuesday, the China Gezhouba Group, a major hydropower contractor based in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province in central China told state-run Xinhua news agency.

Located in the Gyaca County, Shannan Prefecture, the Zam Hydropower Station also known as Zangmu Hydropower Station, harnesses the rich water resources of Brahmaputra known in Tibet as Yarlung Zangbo River, a major river which flows through Tibet into India and later into Bangladesh.

The dam considered to be the world’s highest-altitude hydropower station and the largest of its kind will produce produces 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

“It will alleviate the electricity shortage in central Tibet and empower the development of the electricity-strapped region. It is also an important energy base in central Tibet,” the company said.

Officials said when the electricity is ample in the summer season, part of the electricity will be transmitted to the neighbouring Qinghai province, Xinhua report said.

Investment of the hydropower station, about 140 kilometers from Tibetan capital Lhasa, totalled 9.6 billion yuan (about USD 1.5 billion).

The first unit began operations last November.

Reports in the past said besides Zangmu, China is reportedly building few more dams. China seeks to ally Indian fears saying that they are the run-of-the-river projects which were not designed to hold water.

The dams also raised concerns in India over China’s ability to release water in times of conflict which could pose serious risk of flooding.

An Indian Inter-Ministerial Expert Group (IMEG) on the Brahmaputra in 2013 said the dams were being built on the upper reaches and called for further monitoring considering their impact on the flow of waters to the lower reaches.

The IMEG noted that the three dams, Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha are within 25 kms of each other and are 550 kms from the Indian border.

India has been taking up the issue with China for the past few years the two countries reached.

Under the understanding reached in 2013, Chinese side agreed to provide more flood data of Brahmaputra from May to October instead of June to October in the previous agreements river water agreements in 2008 and 2010.

India is concerned that if the waters are diverted, then projects on the Brahmaputra, particularly the Upper Siang and Lower Suhansri projects in Arunachal Pradesh, may get affected.