Within days of India announcing plans to assert its right within the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, China has blocked a tributary of the Brahmaputra River as part of a major hydro-electric project.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency has reported that Beijing’s decision to block the tributary of Brahmaputra River is part of its “most expensive” hydro project. The agency also reported that Beijing was building a dam on the tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo, as Brahmaputra is known in Tibet and this would be China’s most expensive hydel project.
The Lalho project on Xiabuqu River in Xigaze (close to Sikkim) is underway at an investment of USD 740 billion. Xigaze is a few hours from the junction of Bhutan and Sikkim and is also a city from where China intends to extend its railway towards Nepal. China’s first dam on the main upper reaches of Brahmaputra was built at Zangmu in 2010. Three more dams at Dagu, Jiacha and Jeixu are also under construction. In 2015, the Asian giant inaugurated the Zam Hydropower Station that is largest in Tibet and the highest dam built on Brahmaputra.
Brahmaputra, which cuts through China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh, originates from the Angsi glacier in western Tibet and flows across southern Tibet to break through the Himalayas in great gorges and into north-eastern Indian Province of Arunachal Pradesh. The 195km-long Xiabuqu River flows from Baianang in Tibet northwards and joins the Yarlung Zangbo near the region, called Xigaze. This tributary was blocked for the Lalho project that was launched in June 2014 and is scheduled to be completed in 2019. The river’s mean discharge is 25.8 cubic meters per second (cumecs), less than 0.15% of the Brahmaputra’s mean discharge when it enters India. Its reservoir was designed to store up to 295 cumecs of water and it could irrigate 30000 hectors of lands, apart from controlling floods and generating power.
Although Beijing has claimed that its dams do not restrict the flow of water towards India, New Delhi thinks otherwise. India, which has set up a study to measure Yarlung Zangbo’s contribution to Brahmaputra, says that China’s dam building overdrives a concern because there are no bilateral or multilateral treaties on the waters. While China believes that dam building on the Brahmaputra helps it assert claim over Arunachal Pradesh, India fears that the Chinese projects in the Tibetan plateau will reduce river flows into the South Asian country. India also believes that dams, canals, irrigation system can term water into a political weapon to be wielded in war or to signal annoyance with a co-riparian state during peace.
According to Indian experts, the denial of hydrological data in critical seasons when the flow in the river very high is an instance. They have expressed serious concern over Beijing’s move to re-routine of the Yarlung Zangbo northward. The diversion of Brahmaputra is an idea that China does not discuss in public, because it implies demonstrating India’s north-eastern plains and Bangladesh either with floods or reduced water flow.
India complained to China about its hydro projects on the Brahmaputra in 2013. But, the top political leadership in Beijing is yet to address India’s concern. Beijing is of the opinion that the two neighbouring countries signed two pacts in 2008 and in 2010 that facilitated India with data on water levels and rainfall twice a day from June 1 to October 15 at three hydrological stations in Tibet. So, according to Beijing, New Delhi should not be worried about the ongoing Chinese projects.