The Brahmaputra: Water hotspot in Himalayan Asia | Global Water Forum on JUNE 2, 2012 Â· in ENERGY, WATER SECURITY Analysts around the world increasingly have their eyes on the Brahmaputra River, a transboundary watercourse with headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau of the Himalayan mountain range. The three riparian states sharing the Brahmaputra â€“ China, India, and Bangladesh â€“ are the worldâ€™s first, second, and seventh most populous countries. All three face severe problems of water scarcity. All three also face steeply rising demand for power generation. The possibility of serious resource conflict involving these demographic giants stems from plans, some already being implemented, to put the riverâ€™s thus-far relatively unexploited waters to greater use. The combination of burgeoning populations, rapid economic growth, and intensified global competition for energy resources is putting increasing emphasis on hydropower. India, already the worldâ€™s sixth largest energy consumer, ranks seventh globally (2008) in current hydropower generation. However, only about 20% of Indiaâ€™s hydropower potential has been developed thus far. With its untapped potential standing at 95%, the lopsided importance of the Brahmaputra is clear. In 2010 China consumed 20% of the worldâ€™s primary energy supplies; overtaking the US to become the worldâ€™s largest energy consumer. With its installed hydropower capacity reportedly having reached 213,000 MW by the end of 2010, it was by far the worldâ€™s leading producer of hydroelectricity. It plans to lift the proportion of non-fossil fuel use in the countryâ€™s energy sector to 15% by 2020, and half of that is expected to come from hydropower. That means that China aims to have 430,000 MW of hydropower capacity hardly a decade hence, the equivalent of one new Three Gorges Dam each year over the current decade. Given the overall vast leap in anticipated energy consumption, this converts to a truly major surge in hydroelectric dam building. China is now predictably casting its eyes on the Brahmaputraâ€™s hydropower potential on Chinaâ€™s side of the border. According to Tibet researcher Tashi Tsering, China has already constructed 10 dams on tributaries of the upper Brahmaputra, with 3 more under construction, 7 more under consideration, and yet 8 more proposed.1 Those dams already built are small in scale and, since none are on the Brahmaputra itself, have stirred little interest outside China. However, Chinaâ€™s plans apparently include building 5 major dams directly on the Brahmaputra mainstream. Completion of construction on the first of them, the $1.18 billion 510 MW Zangmu hydropower project in the middle reaches of the river, is expected by 2014. More worrying yet was the possibility that Chinaâ€™s aggressive search for promising hydropower dam sites in Tibet might ultimately drive Beijing to focus on the so-called Great Bend in the Brahmaputra, the point in the Himalayas where the river curves south onto Indiaâ€™s Assamese plain. It was reported in May 2010 that research had indeed been carried out for a massive project at the bend.2 Tsering predicts that China is likely to construct a 38,000 MW hydropower station and large storage dam near Motuo3 and, if built, â€œChina will gain significant capacity to control the Brahmaputraâ€™s flow. Basically, India will become dependent on China for flow of what is now a free-flowing international riverâ€.4 Diversion of the Brahmaputraâ€™s waters is another â€“ and much more portentous â€“ potential use. Planned diversion of this riverâ€™s waters from Indiaâ€™s water-surplus northeast to drought-stricken western and southern states, though at least temporarily on hold, is the key to Indiaâ€™s River Linking Project (RLP). Chinaâ€™s diversion plans, on the other hand, are lodged in the mammoth and already underway South-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP). If currently discussed proposals to include the Brahmaputra in an extended version of the still pending Western Route of the SNWDP were implemented, the consequences for downstream India and, even more so Bangladesh, might be disastrous. Chinaâ€™s southern belt has historically been a water surplus region while its north and northwest have been increasingly water scarce. Chinaâ€™s north, with 42% of the countryâ€™s population in 2003, had only 14% of available fresh water supplies; while its south, with 58% of population, held 86% of fresh water supplies. A similar pattern of spatial variability in water supply also exists in India, whose north and northeast regions have been water surplus while large portions of its west and south are water scarce. About 62% of annual fresh water availability in India is found in the river basins of Indiaâ€™s north leaving about 67% of the country â€“ mainly its west and south â€“ with water availability of about 38%. Chinese and Indian hydrologists have naturally been giving attention to the prospects for water diversion â€“ for transferring major quantities of river water from south to north in China, from north to south in India. China launched the massive SNWDP in 2001; India gave official sanction to its equally massive RLP in 2002. It is of course where Indian water diversion plans meet up with Chinaâ€™s that trans-boundary concerns emerge; and it is the distinct possibility that they may meet up on the Brahmaputra that is currently exercising the imaginations of the regionâ€™s strategic analysts. Unknown presently is whether Indiaâ€™s RLP will ever get off the ground. Also unknown is whether the RLP, if fully implemented, will include the Brahmaputra in its Himalayan component. Clearly, however, Indiaâ€™s future diversion of the Brahmaputraâ€™s waters remains a live possibility â€“ even a probability should the more threatening projections of the countryâ€™s coming water scarcity prove correct. Moreover, should China move towards the Brahmaputra in coming years with an eye not just on hydro-power but also on diversion, pressure on New Delhi to match Beijingâ€™s with an aggressive plan of its own would likely become irresistible. As for Beijingâ€™s plans in this regard, we are confronted with towering uncertainty. Official denials of any Chinese plans to divert the Brahmaputraâ€™s waters are common. Of late, however, there have been a number of proposals floated indicating Chinaâ€™s interest in diverting massive amounts of water to Chinaâ€™s arid northeast from the Brahmaputraâ€™s middle reaches. Brahma Chellaney, one of Indiaâ€™s foremost strategic thinkers, has argued that it is not a question of if but when China will go ahead with the proposed diversion of Brahmaputa waters to its parched north. And such a diversion, he warns, â€œwould constitute the declaration of a water war on lower-riparian India and Bangladeshâ€.5 The relations between India and China are driven, of course, by much more than water; and even water cannot be confidently said to be driving things relentlessly and unalterably in the direction of violent conflict between them. Still, Chinaâ€™s dire water circumstances, combined with its impressive economic strength, military power, and uniquely advantageous upper riparian position, give us little reason for optimism when it comes to river sharing agreements with lower riparian countries. There are today no formal agreements at all between China and India in regard to water sharing of the transboundary Brahmaputra; and one should not expect any grand cooperative interstate scheme to develop any time soon in regard to that river. On the contrary, mounting tensions and at least verbal skirmishing between China and India over the Brahmaputraâ€™s contested waters seem more likely. There will surely be water woes impacting their relationship, in other words, even if water wars never materialize. References: 1. A map showing the locations of the 28 existing or proposed dam sites is given in Tashi Tsering, â€œDamming Tibetâ€™s Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra and Other South Asian Riversâ€, Tibetan Plateau blogspot, 24 May 2010, The TIbetan Plateau Blog: Damming Tibet's Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra and other South Asian rivers, accessed 3 December 2010. 2. Jonathan Watts, â€œChinese Engineers Propose Worldâ€™s Biggest Hydro-Electric Project in Tibetâ€, The Guardian, 24 May 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/24/chinese-hydroengineers-propose-tibet, accessed 10 July 2011. 3. Tsering, â€œDamming Tibetâ€™s Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra and Other South Asian Riversâ€, op. cit. 4. â€œChinaâ€™s Himalayan Plan: Dam on Brahmaputraâ€, The Hindustan Times, 26 May 2010, Chinaâ€™s Himalayan plan: Dam on Brahmaputra - Hindustan Times, accessed 3 December 2010. See also: Kevin Rafferty, â€œChinaâ€™s Disturbing Dam Planâ€, The Japan Times, 14 July 2010, http://www.search.japantimes.co.jp/print/eo20100714a1.html, accessed 7 December 2010. 5. Brahma Chellaney, Water: Asiaâ€™s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press, 2011).