Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No dams on the Brahmaputra, pleads Northeast


No dams on the Brahmaputra, pleads Northeast

Even as New Delhi downplays fears about China�s ambitious plan of
building mega dams on its side of the Brahmaputra, the Northeast
continues to express anxiety. RATNADIP CHOUDHURY finds out why

Future tense There are fears that the proposed Chinese dam will leave
the Northeast high and dry

Earlier this month, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao tried to tone down
concerns over China�s aggressive projects of building mega dams on the
Brahmaputra river, known as Yarlung Tsanpo on the Chinese side. �China
has assured us that the projects on Brahmaputra are on the run-of-the-
river projects and are not meant for storing or diverting water. We
look forward to working closely with China in the critical area of
environmental and livelihood security� was how Rao tried to explain
the situation at a seminar. Every time the Centre has been asked about
this sensitive issue, the same record has been played for the past
year or so.

To ease tension further, an internal ministry group has gone on to say
that it has found no evidence yet that China was planning to divert
the waters from Brahmaputra. But it is not clear if New Delhi has any
detailed information on China�s plan of action.

With reports that China plans to build at least 21 dams on the Yarlung
Tsanpo and several others on its tributaries, the fear is that Assam
and Arunachal Pradesh would be badly affected. Indian engineers have
raised apprehensions that China might have plans to divert the 78
billion cubic metres (bcm) of water to its arid southern part. This is
the volume of water that the river brings into the Northeast and
further flows down to the vast plains of Bangladesh. This would leave
the Northeast and Bangladesh high and dry. For Bangladesh, Brahmaputra
brings fresh water and fertile silt for farming. Added to it are
issues related to safety of construction of huge dams on an earthquake-
prone zone. A solution being advocated is institutionalising water-
related negotiations with China. While Arunachal wants speedy
establishment of user rights on the rivers, Assam wants concrete step
� a water-sharing treaty between the two countries. Experts point out
that the river balances the entire ecological landscape of the region.
It�s not only China that plans to dam the river, India is also
aggressive on harnessing the hydropower generation capacity of the
river and its tributaries. Since there is no water-sharing treaty, it
is bound to come up as a major trans-boundary issue between New Delhi
and Beijing.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational uses of
International Watercourses was adopted in 1997 and is still to be
ratified. China has opposed the convention during voting and India
chose to abstain. �This just goes to show how much level of legality
both the countries give to international guidelines on water sharing,�
says noted environmental activist Neeraj Vagholikar. �Moreover, the UN
convention will only be a soft law, it will not be enforceable either
in courts or tribunals. The best way out possibly is to engage China
in a dialogue on the Brahmaputra.�

What India has had in its kitty since 2007 is an Expert Level
Mechanism (ELM) to share data and discuss trans-boundary issues. There
is a strong political demand of establishing our user rights by
building dams on the Siang river in Arunachal. But in doing so, New
Delhi will also have to address to the massive protest voiced by the
people of Assam and Arunachal to the mega dams that India wants to
build on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. While eyebrows have been
raised at Beijing�s plan to construct the mother of all dams at the
great bend just before the river enters India, New Delhi has to ensure
that power generation does not destabilise the ecologic balance. Thus
voices against damming the Brahmaputra are growing.

�People from all over India have joined hands to raise concerns on
this issue. We will now possibly look forward to people-to-people
exchanges with China. We are sure there are people in the neighboring
countries who are opposed to such projects that also threat the
ecosystem� says KJ Roy of the Pune-based Society for Promoting
Participative Ecosystem Management.

Any adverse impact of the Chinese dam would be beyond ecology and
livelihood: the river has nurtured a whole civilisation. �Dams have
several impacts on people�s lives. The dams will not only change the
character of the river, the social impact of the projects are huge,
particularly in the catchments area,� was the insight offered by
former water resources secretary Ramaswamy R Iyer at a seminar held in
Guwahati on the issue. Reports from Beijing suggest that the Zangmu
dam project is one of the costliest in the world at $1.2 billion. The
other dam, the Jiacha project, is in its initial phase. A consortium
of five large Chinese power companies are involved in damming the
Yarlung Tsangpo. If China later plans to divert water, its flow would
be depleted by nearly 85 percent during spring and winter and the
aftereffects might turn disastrous.

What New Delhi has to realise that even a run-of-the-river project
like Zangmu can lead to severe downstream effect. Issues like
possibility of alteration in the natural flow of the river, total
quantity of flow after the construction of the dams needs to be
clarified with the Chinese. For winning the contest over Brahmaputra
waters, India will perhaps need to pull the ace out of the pack very

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