Diverting the Brahmaputra – Much Ado About Nothing?

By Isabel Hilton 9 February, 2012

Recent fuss over diverting the Brahmaputra leads Hilton to question if this is much ado about nothing

China: no agreements on transboundary river use
Potentially attractive hydropower site at the great bend in Chinese territory heightens anxiety in India
Little impact on Ganges as only 14 % of Brahmaputra’s flow is in the river at the gorge

In a recent book, the Indian security analyst Brahma Chellaney made some explosive claims.  China, he argued, Asia’s most powerful upper riparian, was in a position to hold its lower riparian states to ransom.  China in effect, has control of the tap and could, should it choose to, turn off vital water supplies to India.

Chellaney is a well-known figure in Indian security circles and his views on the China’s potential to threaten Indian water supplies are not new. This, however, was a robust and, to many critics, a provocative set of charges.

The threat of diversion

Chellaney’s case largely revolves around the highly sensitive issue of the future of the Brahmaputra, which begins its nearly 3,000 kilometre-long journey in the Chemayungdung Glacier in Tibet.  For the first part of its journey it flows generally east at an altitude of more than 5,000 metres, before executing a dramatic 360 degree turn and dropping through its huge, high altitude gorge, whence it emerges into Assam as the Dihang, eventually to combine with the Ganga to enter the vast deltas of the Bay of Bengal.

More than 113 million people live in its basin; it drains an area of more than 650,000 square kilometers and its heavy silt load sustains the riches of the delta.  Were this titanic river at any point to cease to flow, or to flow elsewhere, it would clearly be a catastrophe.   That is the threat conjured by Mr. Chellaney in Water: Asia’s New Battleground1, and widely feared in India as possible.

The choke point this thesis envisages lies within that great bend, where the river drops nearly 3000 meters as it powers through the gorge. Geologically, the gorge is one of the oldest in the relatively youthful Himalaya, older indeed, than the surrounding mountains, which lifted it up in their own moment of creation. For a set of hydro engineers as ambitious as the Chinese, it is a tempting site and the gorge has been extensively surveyed for its potential to relieve China’s chronic energy shortages.

It is not only the gorge’s hydro potential, however, that has Mr. Chellaney concerned, but the possibility, which he insists is serious, that China could divert the river’s waters north to feed the drought-stricken north China plain and its suffering lifeline, the Yellow River.  This, he argues, poses an existential threat to India and, in turn, to its lower riparian, Bangladesh.

The case of the Brahmaputra is an example of what can go wrong when water is treated as a conventional security matter and fed into the bilateral diplomatic and security jostling between India and China.  Security establishments live on the threats that shape their thinking, their budgets and their planning.  Where rivers are concerned, this is an unhelpful perspective, as a glance at the facts of the Brahmaputra reveal.

An unrealistic proposition

It is not surprising that China would wish to harvest the energy potential of the Brahmaputra. The questions that this raises, though, are more complex: could this be combined with water diversion, and what would the impacts be downstream?

It would, in fact, be staggeringly expensive and complex to divert the Brahmaputra to the Yellow River, even for a powerful country that has demonstrated its penchant for heroic engineering.  The costs in energy and finance of a project that would involve crossing the upper reaches of the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze en route are almost incalculable.

Even were this project to be pursued — and the Chinese government has repeatedly denied it — it would not turn off the tap: only 14 % of the Brahmaputra’s flow is in the river at the point at which it enters the gorge.  The other 86% per cent enters the river after it has entered India.   Were the Chinese, by some engineering miracle, to divert the entire flow of the river from within their territory, it would still only account for a small percentage of the river’s resources.

Harvesting the energy resources is a far more likely proposition: plans exist for a cascade of dams in the bend, which would involve diverting part of the flow into a canal, running it through the dams and allowing it to rejoin the river below them. Although run of river dams of this type can have disruptive effects on a river’s flow, Chinese engineers argue that there will be few material impacts in this case.

Dam building anxieties

Is this, then, much ado about nothing? Whilst the details of Mr. Chellaney’s case are fiercely disputed, the spirit of his anxiety speaks to a situation that, if not addressed, could have serious negative impacts on China’s relations with its downstream neighbours.

China has no formal agreements with its neighbours on the use of trans-boundary rivers and has shown little enthusiasm for the complex process of drawing any up.  Until now, this has not been high up China’s diplomatic agenda, but recent developments in China have the potential to change that.

Under the 11th Five Year Plan which ended in 2011, civic resistance to dam building in China and the mixed outcome of the massive Three Gorges Dam led to what some observers have described as a dam-building famine.  In the most notorious cases – that of the Nu River and Tiger Leaping Gorge in ecologically sensitive Yunnan Province, public protest led to a suspension of works on the orders of the premier Wen Jiabao. In the four years up to 2010, only 50 GW of hydropower capacity went into operation out of a planned total of 77 GW.

Under the 12th Five Year Plan, however, this is set to change: the combination of China’s energy needs, intensive lobbying by China’s major utilities and dam builders and China’s ambitions to contain to some degree its damaging dependence on coal and to increase the share of renewables in the overall energy mix to 16% by 2020, have set the stage for a new round of dam building: now some120 GW of new hydro capacity are planned to come on stream by 2015.

Since China’s dam builders have already occupied most of the obvious sites, their eyes are now fixed on the potential of the Himalaya. The further west they go, the more likely they are to build on trans-boundary rivers.

As China’s dam builders gear up for a new surge of activity, there are renewed anxieties within China about their environmental impact.  There are already plans to reduce the size of the last freshwater wildlife reserve on the Yangtze River to make way for the massive Y30-billion  ($4.75 billion) Xiaonanhai hydropower plant.

A notice posted on the website of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on January 17 urged dam builders to “put ecology first” and pay strict attention to the long term environmental impacts of their projects on rivers and communities.  The ministry was talking about communities within China, but if China prizes its international reputation, the interests of trans-boundary communities are equally important.

Being a good ‘upstream’ neighbor

Brahma Chellaney’s fears for the Brahmaputra may be exaggerated, but the anxieties of China’s lower riparian neighbours are certainly set to rise.  The health of the Himalayan rivers, already overshadowed by over-exploitation and climate change, is in the interests of all the countries of the region.

If China wants to show that it is a good neighbour, it might be wise to open discussions with downstream capitals on how the region might address the diplomatic vacuum that exists around the region’s water resources. China, as the universal upper riparian on the Himalaya’s trans-boundary rivers, is uniquely positioned to advocate source-to-sink river agreements that treat these vital rivers as full ecosystems, not just as national resources to be exploited by riparian states.

1 Published in September 2011
Isabel Hilton
Author: Isabel Hilton
Isabel Hilton is the editor of Chinadialogue, an independent, non-commercial, bilingual website devoted to the publication of high quality information and debate on the environment. She has an MA (hons) in Chinese from Edinburgh University and, after two years postgraduate work in Edinburgh, studied in China for two years, first at the Beijing Foreign Language and Culture University and then at Fudan University in Shanghai. She began her career in journalism with Scottish Television, then worked for the Daily Express and the Sunday Times before joining the launch team for The Independent in 1986. In 1992 she became a presenter of the BBC’s flagship news programme, The World Tonight and a columnist for The Guardian. In 1999 she joined the New Yorker as a staff writer. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Granta, the New Statesman, El Pais, Index on Censorship and many other publications. She has reported from China, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe and has written and presented several documentaries for BBC television. Since 2001 she has been a presenter of the BBC Radio Three’s cultural programme, Night Waves. She has authored and co-authored several books and holds an honorary doctorate from Bradford University.
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