Recently, China announced the opening of the “central route” of the South-North Water Diversion Project, which is to transfer water from the Yellow River to the country’s arid north. The project, costing $33 billion, is supposed to carry 9.5 billion cubic metres of water (BCM) annually to meet the demands of Beijing and other areas. The “eastern route” of the project was opened last year to transport water north from the Yangtze River to Shandong province. According to Chinese officials, the entire project, which is slated to have three routes, namely, the eastern, central and western, would be able to address the chronic water shortage in the northern states.
China has uneven spatial distribution of water. As a result, for decades, the country has grappled with water and power shortages. During the 1970s, a Chinese general, Guo Kai, is even reported to have proposed that 200 nuclear warheads be launched at the Himalayas to blast a two kilometre-wide air tunnel that would divert the Indian monsoon and meet China’s water needs. Subsequently, he had even toyed with the idea of using Tibet’s waters, particularly from the Brahmaputra. The plan was to divert water from the “Great Bend” of the river.
With its burgeoning population, increased industrial development, higher demand from agriculture and pollution in the rivers aggravating its woes, the country turned its attention to exploiting the huge potential of the water-rich Tibetan region to overcome the looming crisis.
The proposal to divert waters from the south to the dry north was borne out of these compulsions and studies that grew out of them.
Of the three links envisaged by the the South-North Water Diversion Project, the central and eastern routes have already started functioning. At the moment, China is contemplating taking up the western route. This last route is a modified version of Guo’s dream project, which involved the construction of a mega structure at the Great Bend and a tunnel through the Himalayas to divert water and generate power, which could also be used to pump water. In 2003, the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, had detailed plans for the Tsangpo (which is the Brahmaputra in Tibet) Water Diversion Project. These plans had two components — first, a power plant with an installed capacity of more than 40,000 MW in the Medok area of the Nyingchi Prefecture to use the potential of the river at the Great Bend, where it takes a sharp u-turn before entering India, and second, diversion of water to the provinces of Xingjiang and Gansu.
Also, according to recent reports, China has constructed a highway, stretching 141 kilometres and linking Bome to Medok city, to facilitate the movement of heavy construction machinery and materials. It has also completed an airstrip in this prefecture, at an altitude of 2,949 metres. Though China has denied, all along, any plans for the diversion of the Brahmaputra, the fact that the South-North Diversion Project is slated to ultimately have three routes, with a total estimated cost of $81 billion, is indicative of the Chinese intention to take up the western route next. The State Grid Corporation of China’s map for 2020 also shows the Great Bend area connected to the rest of the country’s power supply.
Though our neighbour had been assuring us that its projects will not have any impact on Indian projects downstream, we should not rest easy with these assurances. India has to act fast to ensure that its riparian rights and other interests are protected.
Unfortunately, in spite of experts recommending the construction of a high dam across the Siang (or Brahmaputra) downstream to contain the impact of Chinese projects on our habitats and our development schemes, Indian authorities have been going slow on implementing this project. They cite the objections raised by a new breed of activists and environmental groups, which wage a relentless war against the project to protect their interests. But we should not lose sight of the strategic importance and disaster mitigation aspects of the Siang project just to appease these groups. We have to complete the project on a war footing in order to be prepared to meet any situation that arises from China’s plan to divert the Brahmaputra.
The writer is former member secretary, Indian National Committee on Irrigation and Drainage