Why India needs to remain cautious about China harming Brahmaputra river

Chinese 'scientists' have been talking about diverting the river for years now.

 |  5-minute read |   26-04-2018
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The diversion of the Brahmaputra River was reported in the Indian press for the first time in June 1997 when Outlook magazine wrote a piece titled: “A river runs through it — China proposes to divert the Brahmaputra at source to green the arid Gobi desert.”

Over the years, the issue of changing the course of the Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes the Siang as it enters India and then the Brahmaputra) has come up time and again. Today, the Chinese scientists continue to work on the grandiose scheme bound to do more harm than good, even though the megaproject is touted to one day quench the thirst of northern China.

Chinese ambition

Already in June 1996, The Scientific American had mentioned the project. The journal wrote: “Recently some Chinese engineers proposed diverting water into this arid area (Gobi Desert) from the mighty Brahmaputra River… Such a feat would be ‘impossible’ with conventional methods.” But guess what? “Chinese technologists and officials have touted the potential of nuclear blasts,” wrote the journal. The “scientists” wanted to experiment with PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion); their incredible argument was: “Why promising — and potentially useful — technology should be abandoned?”

A few years later, Chinese engineer Li Ling and retired PLA General Gao Kai seriously worked on a scheme for the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo/ Brahmaputra. Li Ling published a book called Tibet’s Waters will Save China, in which he detailed the diversion project, then known as Shuomatan Canal (from Central Tibet to Tanjing in China). At that time, most experts denounced the plans of Li Ling and Gao Kai.

In 2006, China’s water resources minister Wang Shucheng affirmed that the proposal was “unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific. There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects”. He, however, admitted that there was a plan in the drawers, but “the project involves major financial and technical difficulties”.

But the scientists’ dreams never die. In August 2017, The Global Times reported that some 20 scholars had met in Urumqi in Xinjiang to discuss the “feasibility of diverting water from the heights of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to Xinjiang’s lowland plains”. The tabloid wrote: “Experts want the government to reconsider diverting water from Tibet to parched northern regions. They claim the project will help stimulate the world economy and create a ‘second China’ in the region’s arid plain. Disagreements remain strong due to the huge cost and possible environmental damage.” For the downstream neighbours, the small mercy lies in these disagreements.

brahmaputra_042618095449.jpgPhoto: Reuters

As Ren Qun Luo, professor at Xinjiang University, told The Global Times, the point remains: “Water from (Tibetan) rivers can help turn the vast deserts and arid lands into oasis and farmlands, alleviate population pressure in the east, as well as reduce flood risks.”

Now, yet another scheme is coming up. On March 29, Chinese magazine The Southern Weekend carried an interview of Wang Hao, the chairman of the Expert Group on Dialogue for the “Red Flag River Issue”, a group of “scientists” regularly discussing issues such as the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo river. This time, the new scheme seems far more serious.

Diversion scheme

Prof Wang Hao, the main proponent the new diversion scheme, is a respected academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and honorary director of the Water Resources Institute of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. He is also a member of the Science & Technology Committee of the ministry of water resources. More importantly perhaps, he is an alumnus of the famous Tsinghua University (he graduated around the same year than Chen Xi, a member of the Politiburo and… a certain Xi Jinping).

brahmaputra-2_042618095508.jpgPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

The Southern Weekend admitted that despite the participation of a number of academicians and experts, the project raises a lot of questions. How is this scheme different from the previous plans? The Brahmaputra Valley is known for its rich ecosystem; it is also an area witnessing frequent geological disasters. What would be the environmental consequences of such a project?

Wang admitted that though a large number of ecological and environmental impact studies have been carried out, “the environmental impact assessment has not yet been completed”. However, for the Chinese scientist, the ecological issue is not the basic one, the real difficulty is political. Each province on the route is bound to create problems for handing over the required lands, prices will rise and competition between local interests will create more hurdles.

Remain vigilant

Wang Hao even argued: “(The scientists working on the diversion) are not crazy… they have a sense of responsibility.” The main issue remains: “There is no water in the southwest and in the northwest. (If the project is realised), the entire country will change, and future generations will be better off.”

There are two main differences with previous “crazy” plans; first in the past, China needed nuclear devices to open the way of the river towards the north; today it possesses “hard rock tunnelling machine and only drill and blast method would be used”. Wang observed that China is the world leader in drilling technology: “Our longest tunnel is 55km. Considering that the hard rock boring machine also needs a proper access, we have selected a (new) alignment, where it is relatively easier.”

And second, Wang is a reputed scientist, with many contacts in Beijing. It was not the case of his predecessors. Let us hope that during his visit to China at the end of the month, PM Modi will question President Xi Jinping about these dangerous schemes, though there is no doubt that it will immediately be denied by Beijing. In any case, it is worth remaining vigilant.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Writer

Claude Arpi Claude Arpi

He is a French-born author, journalist, historian and Tibetologist.

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