Is China Really Diverting the Brahmaputra’s Waters?

The Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper stream of the Brahmaputra in Tibet. Image Credit: Jiang Jianhua/ Wikimedia Commons

A former army intelligence officer claims China has built a 900-metre-long tunnel that could divert some of the Brahmaputra’s water from its course through Tibet. He also suggests that the material that darkened the river’s waters in India recently might be an artificial resin released by the Chinese during construction activities.

The claims were made in ThePrint by Colonel Vinayak Bhat, a retired satellite imagery analyst, and regular author for the web site.

Using commercially available satellite imagery of the Brahmaputra’s course through Tibet, Bhat concludes that a ‘new 200 m wide dam that seems to have completely blocked the water of the Brahmaputra.’

‘The entire river seems to be forced into two inlets of almost 50 m width each towards the west of the river. The water flow comes out after around 900 m downstream in two outlets very similar to the size and shape of the inlets.’

Bhat believes the purpose of this possible diversion may not be hydroelectric power. Instead, China may be redirecting the water more than a thousand kilometres away to the bone dry Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang.

‘The height difference at the project site and the point of Taklamakan desert suggest that a clear downslope will be available for the water to flow naturally without any additional constructions for large storage wells in between,’ Bhat writes.

There have been many intermittent reports and rumours for years that the Chinese are planning to divert the Brahmaputra. If Bhat’s analysis is correct, it would be the first solid evidence of such a plan.

Besides a potential diversion of water, Bhat believes the Chinese could be using a polymer resin adhesive at construction sites on the Brahmaputra to tamp down dust- and that this may be responsible for the curious blackening of the river’s waters downstream in India.

No one else has yet backed Bhat’s claim about the cause of the contamination. Earlier this month, a preliminary finding by the Central Water Commission suggested it could be the result of the November 17 earthquake in Tibet.

However, the government is still trying to figure out what’s happening. Late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly asked the ministries of water and external affairs to investigate the contamination.

‘This was conveyed at a high-level meeting chaired by the prime minister and attended by Union ministers Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitely, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal besides others,’ PTI reported, citing a statement from the Assam government.

The Ministry of External Affairs has also contacted Chinese authorities about the contamination.

Managing the Brahmaputra

Bhat’s analysis suggesting diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is likely to be met with skepticism from many observers in India. Occasional claims about Chinese plans to siphon off a portion of the river ‘are invariably met with sustained overreactions in India,’ wrote Swaran Singh, an expert on India-China relations at JNU, last week in Mint.

Tibet, Singh pointed out, only accounts for a quarter of the total basin discharge of the Brahmaputra. ‘So, it is not China’s water diversions, but intentional flooding or contamination that should be a major concern for India.’

Others have argued that diverting the Brahmaputra is not a priority for China at the moment and that the darkening of the river’s waters may well be due to ‘deforestation and road construction activities in Indian side’.

While there’s certainly much room for skepticism about a large-scale diversion of water, there’s also little doubt the Chinese have been uncooperative on matters connected to the Himalayan rivers. For instance, the country is supposed to provide India hydrological data on the Brahmaputra between 15 May and 15 October every year, but this year it hasn’t. First China cut off communication on hydrological issues during the Doklam faceoff, then claimed it could not provide the information because it was upgrading monitoring stations. But as Singh points out, ‘these excuses fall flat as Bangladesh continues to receive the same data.’

China’s actions relating to the Brahmaputra are going to remain under intense scrutiny on the Indian side. But India’s protestations will have greater credibility if it is careful in assigning blame and gets other downstream countries like Bangladesh on its side.

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