Chinese damming Brahmaputra: A slow disaster recipe for Bangladesh
Dhaka, August 9: The mighty braided river Brahmaputra, being transboundary in nature and joined by several tributaries throughout its journey, is called by different names in different regions, like Yarlung Tsangpo, Jamuna etc. Of late, it has become a source of major geopolitical contestation in the Indian subcontinent.
As an upper riparian country, China has built about eight Hydroelectric Power Projects (HPPs) on the lower reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo (while some are already operational, some are under construction and one mega dam is proposed), namely Bayu, Dagu, Jiexu, Zangmu, Jiacha, Lengda, Zhongda and Langzhen. The 9th proposed 60 GW HPP could be built at the Great Bend (Namcha Barwa) in Motuo (Medog) County of Linzhi (Nyingchi) Prefecture, Tibet as per Beijing’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025).
Being the most riparian country in South-Asia, Bangladesh is highly dependent transboundary rivers. Jamuna is one of the most important rivers of the South Asian lower riparian nation, directly impacting millions of people dependent for their livelihood.
China claims that all the HPPs constructed on the lower reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo are all Run of the River (RoR) projects and will not impact lower riparian communities of India and Bangladesh.
Mekong River’s current situation is a classic example of how lower riparian countries are seriously impacted by China’s hydro-hegemony, as Beijing considers rivers are “strategic resources” under the vague umbrella of “national security”, instead of “shared natural resources” for humanity
The Yarlung Tsangpo – Brahmaputra – Jamuna River System hosts fragile biodiversity hotspots, housing rare species of flora and fauna. River issues are a relatively new addition to the SinoIndian dialogue agenda, but it appears that riparian issues are becoming yet another source of contention rather than cooperation.
Differences and misunderstandings could have spill over effects in amicable consultations between the riparian states for responsible sharing of hydrological data and equitable distribution of water resources in future.
File photo of Yarlung Tsangpo by EditQ via Wikimedia Commons
Despite several agreements, hydrological information from China comes at a colossal price for India i.e. about ₹158 million approximately! New Delhi shares hydrological data with Kathmandu free of cost. Dhaka’s bilateral ties with Beijing could nosedive, if Chinese damming of Brahmaputra on its lower reaches forces New Delhi to make countermoves, thus further deteriorating pertinent issues like illegal migration, water-sharing etc.
There have been growing suspicion and just concerns voiced regularly by Bangladesh and India towards Beijing’s plans for water diversion of Tibetan rivers (including Brahmaputra/ Jamuna) to arid Northwest China through Red Flag Canal, under the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP).
Bangladesh is heavily dependent on external sources for water and Jamuna is the largest source of external water for the riverine nation.
According to statistics, at least 60 percent of Bangladesh's population relies on the Brahmaputra's catchment basin. Construction activities, landslides and mining (for precious metals and Rare Earth Elements) by China in the region seriously impacts sedimentation, siltation, river quality and rate of flow towards downstream, as evident from recent blackening of Siang and Kameng tributaries.
As Bangladeshi officials remark that they could experience heavy water flow when they do not require, and least or no water during dry season when they require it the most.
The comments in the light of upstream riparian countries with China in particular having leverage to withdraw or release water as per their requirement.
Professor Emeritus at Bangladesh’s BRAC University, Dr. Ainun Nishat, a leading expert on environmental issues comments that while he is not against construction of dams, he stresses that such development should not cause serious harm to ecology and local communities dependent on Brahmaputra – Jamuna for their livelihood.
The expert expresses apprehension that Chinese diversion of water, apart from generation of electricity, could prove detrimental to the millions of lower riparian communities of Bangladesh and India.
He suggested that Dhaka should work in close coordination with New Delhi in ensuring that the issue could be mitigated.
Md. Golam Samdani Fakir, Professor and Vice Chancellor, Green University of Bangladesh remarks that the possibility of assessing the long term environmental impact of HPP in Brahmaputra/Jamuna is a dilemma. Backed by the human population growth, setting the governments priority is another dilemma; whether to secure the environment or to fulfil people’s basic needs.
Sheikh Rokon, secretary general of environment campaigners Riverine People, said multilateral discussion should be held before China builds any dams in future.
Bangladesh Army Brigadier General Mohammad Shaheenul Haque remarks that as a lower riparian, water sharing with India is crucial for achieving food security and sustainable livelihood in Bangladesh.
He further remarked shaping up right attitude in treating co-riparian countries, sharing of equitable benefits, sub-regional cooperation and basin-wide approach will go a long way in maintaining a sustained riparian relationship.
Dam building overlaid with border disputes and lack of political trust is exactly the type of problem that international observers predict will exacerbate resource competition in developing regions.
File photo of Brahmaputra River by 500px via Wikimedia Commons
Management of Brahmaputra is woefully under institutionalized. Due in part to the river passing through disputed territory, there remains no multilateral water-sharing accord between China, India, and Bangladesh. Instead, bilateral cooperation is limited to periodic expert meetings and hydrological data-sharing agreements, and even these have been subject to failure, such as in 2017, when China withheld data from India during the Doklam standoff.
There is a high possibility that Bangladesh and Brahmaputra could serve as undesirable proxy in Sino-Indian conflict in future.
Few rivers have been left in their natural, wild, meandering state. Growing demand for hydropower, irrigation and inland navigation is driving rapid expansion of dam building and other river infrastructure, disrupting and fragmenting rivers.
The Chinese construction of dams in the Brahmaputra River Basin deserves serious attention from Bangladesh and India, as it continues to impact millions of people living in one of Asia’s most densely populated regions.
Beijing should also allow Bangladeshi and Indian officials and hydrological specialists sustained access to government plans as well as construction sites.
Hydro-hegemonic activities by China on Brahmaputra, without genuine consultation involving local people and authorities of Bangladesh and India could prove counter-productive, and further cause irreversible damage the fragile flora, fauna already reeling under the much larger issue of climate change.