Water conflicts over the Brahmaputra

Dear Editor,
The Manasarovar is the highest body of freshwater lake in the world. It is fed by the Kailash Glaciers near Mount Kailash in Tibet Autonomous Region. It is the sources of four great rivers of Asia, namely the Brahmaputra, Ghaghara (tributary of Gangas), Sindhu and Sutlej (tributary of Indus). The 2,880 km-long trans-boundary river Brahmaputra originates as the Yarlung Tsangpo. After it flows 1,625 km it enters Arunachal as the Siang River. It finally appears in the plains as Dihang and after gathering the tributaries Dibang and Lohit it becomes the Brahmaputra in Assam. The rain fed Brahmaputra gathers the bulk of its volume in India. In Bangladesh, it is Jamuna and joined by the Ganges (Padma in Bangladesh) and Meghna and forming the world’s largest delta into the Bay of Bengal.
Like Teesta for Sikkim, the Brahmaputra is the lifeline for Assam. Of late, the main tributary of Brahmaputra, Siang (primary water source) has been turning muddy and polluted by heavy cement type content. It is an unusual phenomenon. Could dam building activities across the border be a reason for that? There are sporadic reports on China’s water diversion plans by constructing barrier lakes upstream in Tibet close to Arunachal and planning a world’s largest 1000 km long tunnel system to divert waters to Taklamakan desert through the arid Xinjiang province. China already has a 5 km Dahuofang water tunnel project in Liaoning province. Chinese Zangmu Hydropower project is designed to generate 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually. Besides, the Chinese government has approved other hydropower projects along the Brahmaputra.
The findings from the preliminary study by the Central Water Commission say this pollution on Brahmaputra caused by the earthquake during mid November. Assam faced concerns of a sudden flooding during unseasonal time recently. Now China said that 6.9 magnitude earthquake in Tibet had caused turbidity in Brahmaputra waters and admitted the water quality met the standards of Class III water that is generally regarded as good for fish regeneration and wildlife. However, the results of the laboratory tests conducted on the Brahmaputra river water show it is unfit for human consumption. Reports said three lakes had been formed by landslides following the earthquake in the eastern section of the China-India border.
Whatever may be the reason nevertheless it has long term ecological and environmental impact to north east region as well as to riparian Bangladesh. India’s decade old unsuccessful track record of planning to clean the Ganga press Assam a panic button. And China continued disregard of agreed norms of Indo-China relation. After Doklam standoff, India received no hydrological data for the entire 2017. However Bangladesh continues receiving data from China. Chinese six run-of-the-river hydropower projects with storage can unleash natural disasters for seismically sensitive and geologically evolving Himalayas. Unlike Tibet, the bank of the river of Indian side is thickly inhabited. The recent unseasonal flood might be the cause of sudden burst of dam. Also such gigantic diversions of water could face China a serious financial and technical impediments. Could it be a deliberate ploy by China to prove a point against the backdrop of tense bilateral relations following the military conflict?
But every cloud has a silver lining. Now the time is to put resolve the pollution issue. Since the Brahmaputra is being fed by accumulation of sediment from erosion and channel migration for lack of vegetation on its bank. It results modification of soil forming to acidification. Urbanisation made cities like Guwahati, Tezpur, Dibrugarh the worst polluter for non-availability of sewage treatment. Encroachment resulted disposing of solid waste directly dumped into the river. Oil spills from refineries pose major threat of Oil-pollution. The recent earthquake in Tibet triggered massive landslides and blockage of water. Could Zangmu-Dam be a reason for cement-like muddy-water? UN-Water convention does not prevent basin countries from building dam upstream. India, Bangladesh should force China for International cooperation on real-time Satellite monitoring for downstream.
There has been no analysis on the topography of rainfall-depth-duration-frequency on the mighty Brahmaputra that finally led to extreme cases of loss and destruction of flood from this year. The magnitude of aftermath effect was higher than expected. A research project for long term study on Brahmaputra and its role in creating devastating flood is to be proposed. So far an empirical approach is generally followed for embankment, waterway of bridges/cross drainage structures leading disasters in plains. Moreover peak discharge of water from dam during monsoon rainfall is never considered. A rational and scientific estimation of floods is the need of the hour for safe and yet economic design of structures. Data collection on rainfall and river discharge is a critical issue. A landmark study of flood formula on mighty Brahmaputra can be brought out from a joint effort from CWC, Railways, Roads and Water Resources and Meteorological department with the support of local expert. A final finding must come out this time for this perennial problem that carries a catastrophic effect to NE development.
The International Convention and treaty distribute river water in terms of equity. The important thing is that equity does not mean equal sharing. The equitable distribution of water resources would depend on key statistics. They are population/density, catchment area, availability of water, existing use of water, availability of alternatives, geography, hydrograph & climate, and land under irrigation. There are water wars in the making around the world. Kashmir became a bone of contention since six major rivers flowing down to Pakistan from India. The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) allows India to use only 20% of the water. In case of Brahmaputra, India (Assam and Arunachal) must get the lion’s share than to China and Bangladesh since she is overwhelmingly dependent on it.
Will there be Sino-Indian war over the Brahmaputra? India’s damming of the Ganges has reduced the water flow into riparian state Bangladesh. Millions of Bangladeshis have been forced to migrate India that changed the demographic situation of Northeast India. Will a reduction in the flow of the Brahmaputra add fuel to another conflict? Analysts predict that “water wars” could break out between India and China. We do not forget that Beijing claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of South Tibet. China has begun a practice of issuing stapled visas to residents of Arunachal and two sportsmen were prevented by immigration officials from boarding a flight to Beijing Olympic in 2011. China would refuse to issue any visa to residents of the north-eastern state, arguing they were Chinese citizens and so didn’t need a visa. Is Siang the only major cause of Chinese territorial dispute of India’s Arunachal?
Kamal Baruah