The Son Has Turned Black


Photo: AP

There is an interesting theory about China: that it follows a policy of de-securitisation particularly for water related issues. It means, China shifts the matter from a security issue towards a political issue. It is happening once again with India and it is China’s way of maintaining a semblance of stability with India and Bangladesh, while at the same time, pursuing conflict with India.

Brahmaputra is one of the ten largest rivers of the world and it flows from Tibet into India and Bangladesh. It is variously known as Yarlung Tsangpo and Siang. While most rivers in India have a feminine name, this river is known as the “Son of Brahma (the Creator)”. Its transboundary character makes it vulnerable to political conflict between two countries that have perennial disputes – China and India.

Brahmaputra is a lifeline for the north-eastern state of Assam. It also flows in another north-eastern state, Arunachal Pradesh, the borders of which are a constant source of Indo-Chinese tensions. China lays claim to parts of Arunachal Pradesh that it terms as “South Tibet”.

In this Monday, Dec.11, 2017 photo, students from India's northeastern Assam state hold hands by the Brahmaputra river during a protest against the contamination of the river in Gauhati, India. Officials in India's northeast are complaining that Chinese construction activity on the upper reaches of one of the largest rivers that flows into India are likely turning the waters downstream turbid and unfit for human consumption. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Students from India’s northeastern Assam state hold hands by the Brahmaputra river during a protest against the contamination of the river in Gauhati, India. Photo: AP

Recently, the waters of Brahmaputra became blackened, leading to much concern. Local ministers began writing to the central government and the Prime Minister. Soon after, the Home Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, assured that the matter would be taken up by the Ministry of External Affairs. There is still no official statement from the latter, a signal that India is yet looking for an appropriate manner in dealing with the issue.

Meanwhile, water from over 15 different locations down the river have been collected and sent for testing. Initial tests at the local level have revealed that the turbidity level has hit over 480, while safe limits are between 0-5. The iron content has also increased to 1.65 mg per litre. Both these factors make the water unfit for human consumption and will greatly affect aquatic life.

Presently, there is a lot of speculation regarding the reasons that have led to the turbidity of Brahmaputra. It is therefore important to understand the context.

With 20% of the world’s population, China has only about 7% of freshwater resources globally. The distribution of this scarce water is also unequal. Tibet has more fresh water than northern China.

(141007) -- LHASA, Oct. 7, 2014 (Xinhua) -- Photo taken on Oct. 7, 2014 shows an autumn view of the Brahmaputra River in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Liu Kun) (mp)

Autumn view of the Brahmaputra River in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. (Photo: Xinhua)

In early 2000, China embarked upon an ambitious project to carry water from the south to the north. It included rampant dam-building that would also provide hydroelectricity to the northern regions. Dam building on a river that flows across boundaries is potentially disastrous for downstream communities found in India and Bangladesh. There have already been large-scale incidents of heavy flooding that have affected thousands of people in the area surrounding Brahmaputra’s flow.

On the Indian side, Brahmaputra accounts for 29% of the country’s river run-off. It is crucial to India’s river-linking project, and the Brahmaputra basin has over 40% of India’s hydropower potential. For these reasons, it needs constant monitoring and updating of all relevant data.

China is obliged to share its hydrological data with India, for which India has always bought for a price. In its spirit of de-securitisation, China has mixed this up with a recent border issue with India, the Doklam Conflict. According to an Indian government spokesperson, this year, China has not shared its hydrological data. While it has done so with Bangladesh.

In the meantime, allegations and denials fill the air. Seeing the cement-like substance in the waters of Brahmaputra has led to speculation about suspected construction activities in Tibet. There has been talk about a 1,000 km-long tunnel to divert water from Tibet to water-starved regions like the Xinjiang province. China denies this and instead, talks about an earthquake in Tibet that blackened the river water. Some experts mention the occurrence of an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude in the Tibet region in mid-November.

Local people say the blackening is most unnatural and must surely be linked to some heavy human activity. They consistently site the cement-like content of the water. People have also reiterated that between November and February, the water of Brahmaputra is always crystal clear.

Until now, India and China managed cordiality on water matters through its MoU and expert level committee. But there is no binding agreement or official dispute-settling mechanism between the two countries. Indeed, the Brahmaputra has been a point of conflict between India and China for over a decade. The key issue has been dam-building by the Chinese on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Tibetan part of Brahmaputra.

With increasing demand for water and electricity, China has its plans chalked out to address those needs. India will be at a loss as to how to cope with a blackening Brahmaputra—particularly since China cleverly mixes up border and water issues with politics.

Attention will now be fixed on how the Ministry of External Affairs of India responds to the attention drawn by its Home Minister. Meanwhile, a large population spread across the length of this river are at risk, along with dense aquatic life and its endangered species.

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