Upping the ante for India

Upping the ante for India

A report published in Geophysical Research Letters noted that recent samples taken from Himalayan glaciers were missing two markers that are usually...

A report published in Geophysical Research Letters noted that recent samples taken from Himalayan glaciers were missing two markers that are usually easy to find, reflecting open air nuclear tests in 1951-2 and 1962-3. The reason: the glacier apparently had lost any ice built up since the mid-1940s.

And since the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the Himalayan highlands will warm at about twice the average global rate over the next century, there is every reason to think the situation will get worse. One estimate has 1/3rd of the Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2050, and 2/3rd by 2100.

If that scenario is right, then even if all the engineering challenges of South-North water diversion that the Chinese government has planned can be resolved, and even if China takes away the water that rightfully belongs to millions of people in South and South EastAsia, the engineering fete may not last long any way. Still, why is China so resolute to divert the waters?

There is much unease in our media following an announcement by China that it has completed the dam for a hydroelectricity project at Lalho on the Xiabuqu river in Xigaze prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Xiabuqu is a tributary of the Brahmaputra, called YarlungZangbo in Chinese. Xigaze was earlier known by its Tibetan name Shigatse. Its provincial capital – by the same name – has been famous as the historic seat of the Panchen Lama.

India fears that the project will reduce the flow of water in the Brahmaputra, flowing through the Indian States of Arunachal and Assam before moving into Bangladesh. However, like other recent hydroelectricity projects in Tibet, Lalho is a run-of-the-river project, which will not reduce water flow once it is complete. The dam is for diverting the water into a tunnel. It will, however, impact the flow of silt, essential to the build-up of soil in the South Asian plains. Again, this tunnelling of water dries up the areas all along and leads to desertification.

Lalho project is well upstream of the “great bend” made by the Brahmaputra. Other tributaries joining the Brahmaputra in and around the great bend double its water flow before the Arunachal Pradesh border. Larger tributaries join the river in India, so that it carries eight times more water when it exits the country than when it enters.

The Chinese government has been defending its string of hydroelectricity projects in Tibet with the plea that the region is chronically short of energy. China's plans for larger hydro-power stations in Tibet, with total generation far in excess of projected demand tell us a different story. Their government also argues that hydro-power from Tibet will be sent to industrial hubs in southern China via long distance transmission lines in due course, helping the country shift away from dirty coal.

The Chinese government is keen to sell the excess electricity to India. This was one of the main reasons why it agreed to Indian requests for Brahmaputra flood season water flow data and expanded the agreement in October 2013. In 2015, China started generating electricity from the $1.5 billion Zam Hydro-power Station, the largest in Tibet and built on the main stem of the Brahmaputra. (Given the current realities, India may not buy the power at all).

China has achieved short-term success in its irrigation by turning the North and North West, a land of famine, into a land of grain surplus, but it has dried up its ground water faster than can be replaced. Water tables have dropped in much of North China. China is in no position to use technology to reduce water waste due to its expensive nature nor is it in a position to drive the millions to cities that strain its infrastructure. So, it prefers to steal water from the other countries.

Instead, the state has chosen a massive three-pronged effort to move water from South to North China — by far the biggest construction project in history, if it is completed. Part of the Eastern section has already begun operating and the Central section is also underway. The biggest of all is the effort to tap the water resources of Tibet which alone amounts to 30 per cent of China's water supply, most of which comes from Himalayan glaciers.

Most of Asia’s major rivers – the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Sutlej, and Indus – draw on the glaciers of the Himalayas, and all of these except the Ganges, have their source on the Chinese side of the border.

The Brahmaputra River originates in the Chemayungdung mountain ranges which is nearly sixty miles south-east of Mansarovar lake in the MountKailash range in Southern Tibet at an elevation of 5300 m.A spring called TamchokKhambab spills from the glaciers which gathers volume to become the Tsangpo, the highest river in world.

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 Brahmaputra River flows 1,625 km in Tibet parallel to the main range of Himalayas before entering India through Arunachal Pradesh as Siang.

Apart from the name Tsangpo, the Brahmaputra is also known by its Chinese name, YarlungZangbo in Tibet. There are several tributaries of Tsangpo in Tibet. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, RakaZangbo (RakaTsangpo), Lhasa (Kyi) and Nyang Qu (Gyamda) are prominent north bank tributaries whereas Nyang Qu (Nyang Chu) is a tributary on the south bank.

The RakaZangbo (RakaTsangpo) 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 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 hydro-power project of 40 000 MW capacity and also divert water from here to the North China, though China is currently denying any such plans.

India's biggest challenge will be here, in preventing China from thieving its waters as well as territory. Remember President Xi has already asked Tibetan herders to pitch tents on the borders of Arunachal. It is not just the great bend that China is eyeing. It is also Arunachal which swells YarlungZangbo by eight times with its tributaries as mentioned earlier.

So far it has been only run-of-the-river projects producing electricity as the National Remote Sensing Agency at Hyderabad points out. Twenty eight of the projects are coming up at the great bend and its downstream. But what if China diverts Brahmaputra waters, which, it feels is the only way out for it?When it comes to water, China is one country that does not learn from the past. The trail of destruction that its three gorges project has caused should have been an eye-opener to it, yet, it keeps mulling over the Brahmaputra diversion.

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