As the Brahmaputra bends
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India must use the upswing in ties with China to secure a legal agreement
China has caused some confusion in India over its Brahmaputra (Yarlung-Tsangpo) diversion plan. Recently, Water Resource Minister Harish Rawat allayed fears about Chinese projects affecting India's water usage. Yet an inter-ministerial panel report asked the government to closely monitor China's plan for a series of cascading run-of-river projects in the middle reaches of the river. It also cautioned that China might replicate the same sort of project at the Great Bend at Shuomatan Point. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposed a joint mechanism for verification at Durban last month, Xi Jinping gave no clear answer except reiterating that China would bear in mind its responsibilities and the interests of riparian states.
India's heightened edginess stems from China's opaque position. The latter's official organs deny the diversion project but its hydro power lobby is pressing for a mega project at the Great Bend that would meet China's water woes. So far, there is no evidence of diversion except for China's plan to build a series of run-of-river projects at Zangmu, Dagu, Jiacha, Jiexu, Zongda, Lengda, and Langzhen. But the issue needs to be analysed in a broader perspective.
China is entitled to take up these projects, so long as the existing flow of 79 billion cubic metres (BCM) water into India remains unimpeded. Most of the Brahmaputra's catchment area, providing over 600 BCM average runoff, falls within Arunachal Pradesh. The volume becomes 10 times higher during the monsoon. Allowing China to divert a constant volume of water during that period could help mitigate floods in India and Bangladesh. Non-consumptive exploiting of water by China for power generation may also be beneficial for India, as the flow is expected to increase by 10-20 per cent during the dry season. China selling surplus electricity to India may not be a bad idea.