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Controlling disaster

Countering Chinese game plan on Brahmaputra river

Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepared to leave for talks in Beijing there were disconcerting reports that China would not put the dam over the Brahmaputra river on the agenda. It topped it up with, once again, issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh. India will have to temper its diplomacy to deal with such gauche behavior and stop accepting at face value whatever the Chinese may have told its diplomats and politicians about what it is doing with the water of the Brahmaputra.

Indian sources have said that there is not much to complain about since the Zangmu dam is a “run-of-the-river” type which does not stop the flow of water even while permitting the generation of electricity within the coffers.

Much depends on whether the known flow of the river is maintained as per records of the past ten or fifteen years. India has been setting up run-of-the-river projects on rivers that lie within its jurisdiction under the Indus Water Treaty of 1960. These projects have been challenged by Pakistan time and again and it has taken recourse to an independent international tribunal (a Neutral Expert) to try to have them annulled.

In most cases the tribunal has upheld India’s contentions and engineering, on one occasion suggesting a redesign of the sluice gates of one of the projects. But India’s sovereign right to exploit to the full the waters of the Beas, Ravi and Satluj was always upheld because India scrupulously adhered to the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty.

Pakistan’s fears

Pakistan has very strenuously opposed every river project India has proposed to improve electricity supply to the northern grid; or navigation or irrigation. Every project, be it the Salal, the Baghliar or the newest one over the Neelam river has been objected to with a game plan in mind: Cause delays so that Pakistan can finish its own projects and create a caveat whereby India will have to cut down the capacity of its project to satisfy the lower riparian demands.

The Baghliar project in Doda district was particularly contentious and Pakistanis have not reconciled to the verdict of the Neutral Expert and have threatened to launch a terrorist strike to damage the dam so that the designed pondage cannot be achieved.

Pakistan has charged that some design parameters went beyond what was needed for feasible power generation and could provide India with excessive ability to accelerate, decelerate or block flow of the river, thus giving India a strategic leverage in times of political tension or war.

The final report of the Neutral Expert takes care of these Pakistani fears by clearing a lower pondage, raising the level of the intake ducts and slicing a meter and a half from the top of the dam-all of which India had agreed to during the pre-arbitration period. A reading of reports in Pakistani media tend to underscore the worst case scenario even though the world acknowledges that the Indus Water Treaty is just to both countries and had not been abrogated even at the height of the several wars the two countries have fought.

With China there is no agreement like the Indus Water Treaty over the “sharing” of the Brahmaputra river water. The distinction between the Indo-Pak and the Sino-Indian situations is that whereas the World Bank-sponsored Indus Water Treaty has a built-in mechanism of consultations and an adjudication machinery there is no such thing vis-à-vis China.

It raises fears of a unilateral Chinese attempt to divert the waters of not just the Brahmaputra on a south-north axis where the water situation is grim but also all the major rivers that serve the whole of South East Asia, the lifeline of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. All the major rivers of south and south-east Asia originate in the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau and are amenable to manipulation by China. Vietnam has long been at loggerheads with Beijing over several issues and has once been attacked by China.

India needs to build its own intelligence on what is happening all along the Brahmaputra (Chinese name Yarlung Zangbo) because Beijing has already been caught out with a blatant lie. For quite some time it has been maintaining that it is not building dams on the river; after it was confronted by a growing body of evidence it finally admitted that yes, a “small project” was underway and it was a run-of-the-river scheme that would not affect lower riparian rights of India and Bangladesh. The use of satellite imagery can give a precise idea of the progress of river control and utilization schemes. It is not as if a satellite needs to be positioned in an orbit that gives hour-by-hour images but once in 24 hours will do.

China’s dams

As it turns out the Chinese have planned to build three dams during the current plan period. The Zangmu Dam is a gravity dam currently under construction on the Brahmaputra River 9 km (5.6 mi) northwest of Gyaca in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The purpose of the dam is hydroelectric power production using run-of-the-river technology. It is part of the Zangmu Hydropower Project and will support a 510 MW power station. Construction began in 2009 and is expected to be complete in 2015. It will be the first dam on the Brahmaputra/Yarlung Zangbo River and has caused controversy in India, which lies downstream. In India, the Brahmaputra traverses the States of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in the north-eastern corner of the country. The dam is being constructed after the Gya Chu falls into the Brahmaputra and it lies about 200 km north of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Two other dams are proposed to be built, one to the west of the Zangmu and one to the east.

In fact China has planned 28 such dams to create electricity. In this context the run-of-the-river format cannot be objected to by the lower riparian States. However, the worry arises when China constructs the off-take canals to divert the water within the pondage area to its dry northern region for cultivation.

In the absence of any flow chart of the Brahmaputra during winter and in summer, it will be difficult for the downstream nations to raise objections when the water level during the lean season falls. The off take channels could cause the river to fall dangerously below the survival level. That scenario is not far-fetched because China has destroyed the water ecology of the northern region by misuse and pollution and is desperate to divert the Brahmaputra water northwards.

Returning to the threat of a terrorist attack on Baghliar dam in Jammu and Kashmir, the only point where disruption can occur is at the sluice gates. The destruction of the sluice gates would reduce the head of water required to run the turbines within the dam. However, the disruption can be quickly plugged and operations resumed.

India’s options

The experience of World War II in dam-busting can be educative. The British used “bouncing bombs” to disrupt the dams along the river Rhine. The bouncers were needed to avoid the heavy anti-torpedo net laid across the river upstream of the dams. To avoid these nets the bombs were made to bounce over them, hit the dam at the water level, sink and explode with the help of a specially designed fuze. While several dams were thus busted causing flooding downstream, the ruptures occurred only at the crest and were plugged within four months by the Germans even as the war continued and there were almost daily visitations by Allied bombers.

In the context of the Chinese dams any attempt by India to bust the dams on the Brahmaputra would mean a full scale war with China. The production of electricity could be disrupted for a short period and then the breaches can be plugged and operations resumed.

A costly full-scale war would suggest that the dams must be permanently disabled. This can only be done with the help of a low-yield nuclear warhead that must be designed to sink below the waterline and explode at the base of the gravity dam (so described because of its shape of being broader at the bottom than at the crest).

The nuclear warhead should have sufficient yield to rip out the foundations and pulverize the concrete coffers within which the electricity is generated. The mass of water behind the dam would cause a phenomenon similar to a depth charge explosion below a ship-a huge bubble of air that will blast it way through the structure, its kinetic energy accentuated by the mass of water behind the dam. The dam will disappear but the effects of nuclear contamination downstream would have to be taken into account.

Instead of letting things come to such a pass it would be better for India to generate world public opinion and bring pressure to bear on China to hold talks on the proposed dams and ensure that there is no diversion of the flow of the river.

Bangladesh has already suggested a trilateral series of negotiations. India too, instead of belittling the consequences of a series of run-of-the-river projects on the Brahmaputra push for greater transparency and the involvement of the lower riparian States to prevent an ecological disaster downstream.