The Brahmaputra is in danger. Delhi and Dhaka must challenge Beijing
In recent weeks, reports of China’s plans to build the world’s largest dam project in the greatest gorge on the face of the earth has shaken many of us. For this is the heart of the river which we know as the Brahmaputra. It has flowed unimpeded for millennia, carving and clawing its way through rock, sand and ice, as the Yarlung-Tsangpo, through the Tibetan plateau and meadow, before rushing through the hidden gorge and entering India at the village of Gelling in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Chinese had earlier planned to build a series of 11 dams on the river, of which several are complete. Most of these were cascade dams without pondage or reservoirs but used the fall of the river to maximise the gravitational surge of power through the turbines.
China’s hydro engineers and political and economic establishment have now set their eyes on the heart of the river in the Namcha Barwa gorge, where it gathers its phenomenal pace and power on its way to Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bangladesh and eventually the Bay of Bengal.
While infrastructure building is not a new development on either side of Himalayas, there has been a huge push on the Chinese side with a surge of roads, railroads, bridges, tunnels and power plants. What is the impact of noise and dynamite blasting, excavators and heavy drills on such sensitive ecosystems? Trains thunder through once silent gorges and valleys where only the chants of monks or rumble of occasional trucks, or the gurgle of the flood in summer and the cries of birds would pierce the air. But there are limits to the knowledge of engineers. We also do not know of any assessments by either Chinese or independent experts on the damage to permafrost, the vast volume of water trapped in ice form below the earth’s surface.
Thawing permafrost alters natural ecosystem; makes soil vulnerable to landslides and erosion; introduces new sediment to waterways, which may alter the flow of rivers and streams; degrades water quality; impacts human life, livelihoods, and aquatic wildlife; and introduces new threats of ancient microbes.
India says that issues of trans-border rivers with China are discussed through “an institutionalised expert-level mechanism which was established in 2000” as well as through “diplomatic channels”. Does exchange of data contain the impact of these huge interventions? India and Bangladesh, which is also enriched by the Brahmaputra, must take up the issue robustly.
China’s decision represents a strike at the heart of a sacred and ancient land and tampering with forces we do not fully comprehend. The recent disaster in Uttarakhand is testimony to our limited knowledge. To Assam, the Brahmaputra is folklore and legend, home to a myriad of communities, cultures and faiths, the endangered Gangetic dolphins and the great balladeer Bhupen Hazarika. It is sacred to the Buddhists and it has its origins near Mount Kailash. The gods do not wish to be disturbed; they want respect.
These massive interventions are an invitation to disaster downstream. Of course, we need power and energy. But dams clean the waters of nutrients; the water to enter the turbines must be wiped clean of all sand, rocks and sediment to produce hydro-electricity. Yet, it is this sediment which gives the Brahmaputra and its tributaries their nourishing powers as they reach farms and river-dependent human and non-human populations downstream. It is not the volume of the water that flows into India that matters as much as its quality.
The Dhaka-based scholar Imtiaz Ahmed says that states and people should guarantee rights on the river for these impinge on the right to life. Such rights exist for seas and oceans under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea.
I stood once at the foot of a small gorge in Tibet and looked up. That view was enough to establish the scale of infinity between the landscape and the river — and our own puny existence. A little humility goes a long way in understanding our world.
Sanjoy Hazarika is international director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and has worked extensively on rivers and water issues.