Is China behind the Brahmaputra turning black?

 

Wasbir Hussain

A UN report says although China has 21 per cent of the world’s population, it contains only seven per cent of the world’s freshwater supplies.
It took a political leader from Arunachal Pradesh to bring the latest issue of the Siang waters turning “black” to the national limelight, with the media’s help, and then, of course, a spate of letters followed from government leaders in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. (Photo: PTI/File)
It took a political leader from Arunachal Pradesh to bring the latest issue of the Siang waters turning “black” to the national limelight, with the media’s help, and then, of course, a spate of letters followed from government leaders in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. (Photo: PTI/File)
On March 1, 2012, the Siang river went dry at Pasighat, the headquarters of Arunachal Pradesh’s East Siang district, on the Chinese border. Three years earlier, on June 9, 2009, the same town of Pasighat saw floods like never before. The Siang was in spate and the floodwaters rose up to 30 metres, submerging almost the entire town. And now, the same Siang river is full of slag, making its water so turbid that the authorities in the frontier state have declared it unfit for human consumption after tests in laboratories. The impact is also being felt on aquatic life with fishes dying or disappearing, perhaps into clearer waters somewhere.
It’s a good time to find out what’s going on in the Siang, and whodunnit! We’re talking about the Siang because it originates in the Tibetan Himalayas as the Yarlung Tsangbo, enters Arunachal Pradesh at the “great bend”, flows down into the Assam plains as the Brahmaputra and empties into the Bay of Bengal via Bangladesh, where it flows first as the Jamuna and then merges with the Padma. It took a political leader from Arunachal Pradesh to bring the latest issue of the Siang waters turning “black” to the national limelight, with the media’s help, and then, of course, a spate of letters followed from government leaders in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
The letter from Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu to Union home minister Rajnath Singh earlier this month talked of the Siang waters turning “unusually turbid” for the past two months, He sought a Central investigation. This was followed by concerns expressed by Mr Khandu’s Assam counterpart, Sarbananda Sonowal, who said: “The Brahmaputra water is contaminated with bacteria and iron with laboratory tests declaring it unfit for human consumption.” The Assam CM went on to say: “This is a very serious issue and I and my counterpart in adjoining Arunachal Pradesh state have urged the Indian government to take up the matter with China.”
Several questions arise here: first, it took the state governments in Arunachal and Assam two months to react to a phenomenon that is extremely unusual — the waters of the Siang and downstream in the Brahmaputra turning turbid. Not one but several laboratories declared after tests that the iron content was unusually high. The locals showed visiting television reporters soil along the riverbanks that looked like cement slabs.
Was China carrying out certain major “artificial interventions” which may have caused the turbidity downstream or cement-like substances flowing down into the Siang and the Brahmaputra? For long now, reports have been doing the rounds that China was harbouring plans to divert the Yarlung Tsangbo near the “great bend” just as it enters India to take water to its arid northern areas. Was China then actually engaged in massive tunnelling activity? Locals have even sent off memoranda expressing just these fears to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “The Chinese may seek to deny it, but we suspect that there is massive tunnel-building activities to divert Yarlung Tsangbo (Brahmaputra) to Xinjiang province, particularly the Taklamakan desert region,” Lungkang Ering, president of the All Bogong Students’ Union, in the border district of East Sing, said in a letter to Prime Minister Modi.
What came as a shock, and actually explains New Delhi’s tentativeness on issues relating to trans-boundary rivers, particularly those originating in China, was the initial response of Indian government leaders. Union minister of state for water resources Arjun Ram Meghwal said turbidity of the Siang waters could be a natural occurrence. Giving a virtual clean chit to the Chinese, he said the Siang’s waters could have turned black after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Tibet that struck the Nyingchi region on November 17. The Union minister’s statement appeared premature and unconvincing, but the incident has exposed differences within the ruling BJP on water-related issues between India and China. Top Northeast BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, for instance, said China could be engaged in certain activities in the upper reaches, a development that needs to be thoroughly probed.
A UN report says although China has 21 per cent of the world’s population, it contains only seven per cent of the world’s freshwater supplies. It is forecast that by 2030, China’s water demand will surpass 800 billion cubic metres. However, China’s supply is severely undermined by the worsening water scarcity and pollution. A 2013 report published by the Chinese authorities says the number of rivers in China has decreased from at least 50,000 over a period of 20 years to almost 23,000 in 2011. This means that in the past two decades, China has lost more than 28,000 of its rivers. Besides, the country’s wetlands have shrunk by nearly nine per cent to make way for massive agricultural production and infrastructure projects since 2003.
Does this increase the chances of China actually diverting the Yarlung Tsangbo or the Brahmaputra? India is worried that China really has a plan to divert the Brahmaputra river, to be more specific, the western route of China’s South North Water Diversion (SNWD) projects. This is, however, a misperception. The Grand Western Water diversion Project (GWWDP) originated from the Shuotian Grand Canal Idea. When the GWWDP was first suggested, it did trigger heated discussion among Chinese scholars and government officials. Nonetheless, this radical plan is not the same as the western route of the SNWD project. The GWWDP intends to divert water from the upstream sections of six rivers in southwest China, including the upstream of the Mekong, the Brahmaputra and the Salween, to dry areas of northern China through a system of reservoirs, tunnels and natural rivers.
The operationalisation of the first generating unit of the $1.5 billion Zangmu plant, located 3,300 metres above sea level, before the scheduled 2015 start date, indicates that Beijing means business in tapping the resources of the Yarlung Tsangbo. At least four other dams in the area are under various stages of construction. It’s time that New Delhi puts some direct questions to the Chinese, although the answers may be hard to come by.