As soon as India had indicated that it was planning to assert its rights within the Indus water treaty versus Pakistan, China went public with its plan to build a large dam with an investment of $740 million on Xiabuqu river close to the city of Xigaze.
Xigaze is a strategic location close to Bhutan and Sikkim and is the town from where China intends to extend its Beijing- Lhasa railway line up to Nepal.
Work on this dam started in June 2014 and will be completed by 2019. But what has not been highlighted in India is that China is planning to build 55 reservoirs on the rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau.
Already, they have completed the Zangmu dam built on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in 2010. Three more dams at Dagu, Jiacha and Jeixu are presently under construction while In 2015, work started on the Zam Hydropower station which will be the largest dam built on the Brahmaputra.
Another ambitious Chinese project is to build a dam on the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) before it enters Assam.
The origins of the river are from a glacier in western Tibet close to the origins of the Indus and Sutlej rivers, all of which emanate from the holy land of Lake Mansarovar and Mount Kailash. Medog, which has been selected as the site of this mega project as the river, makes a huge bend inside a giant canyon which is around 198-miles-long and 3.1-miles-long. Medog incidentally is located just 30 km north of the Indian border.
The Chinese have moved the entire team which built the Lhasa-Beijing railway line to execute this mammoth project which will involve the construction of massive tunnels and reservoirs and turbines in order to generate 40,000 MW of power.
The first hint of this scheme emanated from an official Chinese newspaper in the 1990s pointing out that the Chinese wanted to exploit the spectacular 2,000-metre-drop in the river to generate electricity.
This will be constructed before the river flows into Arunachal Pradesh and the water of the Tsangpo is expected to be diverted to water the vast, arid areas of Xingjian region and the Gansu province.
Water experts insist the ministry of external affairs and the ministry of water resources must start negotiations for an international treaty on the Brahmaputra before north-east India is subjected to major water scarcity.
Dr. Chandan Mahanta, an expert on the Brahmaputra river basin who heads the Centre for Environment at IIT Guwahati, believes the ministry of water resources must set up the Brahmaputra River Valley Authority (BRVA) at the earliest.
Mahanta pointed out that with China building four dams on the Brahmaputra, it was imperative for such an organisation to undertake a comprehensive study of the Brahmaputra basin.
“There is no clarity about the nature of dams being constructed by the Chinese who claim they are building run-of-the-river dams. The Indian government is going by that assurance but the people in Assam have serious doubts about the Chinese plans,” said Mahanta.
“We need to undertake a sound scientific investigation about both the lean flows of the river and how the dam construction by the Chinese will affect the river. We feel that once the dams are in place, the Brahmaputra will become a seasonal river causing water scarcity in our region,” he said.
“Such an apprehension is being expressed by people throughout Asia who want to know just how much water the Chinese plan to divert across Asian rivers,” Mahanta said demanding that a bilateral collaborative study between the two countries will help allay these fears.
Mahanta pointed out, `No proper flood mitigation measures are in place and as a result, the excess water in the Brahmaputra is not contained in any reservoir. This is in contrast to the river Ganga which has several reservoirs being used to irrigate canals.”
India too is trying to fast-track the construction of 200 mega and small dams in the Brahmaputra basin in Arunachal Pradesh so it can lay claim to these waters as a lower riparian nation. One of its biggest hydro projects is the construction of the 800 MW Tawang 2 hydro project in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Assam government has expressed apprehension over the fallout of the construction of dams in Arunachal Pradesh. India and China have an agreement on sharing the data of the Brahmaputra water but do not have any treaty similar to India and Pakistan on the sharing of the river waters.
China has not officially communicated about the construction of the three dams, Dagu, Liacha and Jiexu on the Yarlung Tsangpo river (as the Brahmaputra is called in Tibet) to India.
In 2013, India complained to China about the hydro projects on the Brahmaputra. Union water minister Uma Bharti has expressed her reservation about these Chinese moves as she believes this can adversely affect both India and Bangladesh .
It is for this reason that the Indian government is pressuring China to set up a joint water commission or work towards having a joint water sharing treaty following an inter-governmental dialogue on this subject.