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    Let the Brahmaputra Flow

    India finally expressed concern over China’s plans to divert the Brahmaputra River. In November 2003, several Indian news reports carried a story that the Indian state of Assam’s Union Ministry of Water Resources asked their foreign affairs counterparts “to seek factual details” about the project. India’s concerns became real after China’s official news agency, Xinhua, confirmed China’s intentions. According to Xinhua, preliminary studies of the water diversion project were conducted at the proposed construction site in mid-2003, followed by another round of feasibility studies in October. It would not be surprising if China denies having such plans, as did Tibet Autonomous Region’s Chairman, Xiang Ba Ping Cuo, at a press conference last August.

    Construction of this mammoth multi-purpose project is tentatively scheduled to start in 2009. The main structures are planned in Tibetan areas of Pema Koe, near India’s northeastern border. The area is also known as the “Great Bend” of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Tibetan name for Brahmaputra) where the river takes a sharp U-turn to enter into India. At the Great Bend, the Tsangpo River descends over 3,000 meters in approximately 200 km, constituting one of the greatest hydropower potentials anywhere in the world. China hopes to build a hydroelectric plant there that would generate twice the electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest dam. Plans also include diverting the waters thousands of kilometers across the Tibetan Plateau to the “thirsty” northwestern parts of China, into the provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu.

    If undertaken, the project is bound to raise some serious transboundary issues. Claude Arpi, a Tibet-China-India analyst, called the project “a declaration of war” by China. “When it comes to a transboundary question, where the boundary is not even agreed upon, it seems practically impossible to find a workable understanding,” Arpi said. In addition to border disputes, the project would make India and Bangladesh dependent on China for release of water during the dry season, and for protection from floods during the wet season. Not to mention the adverse impacts on the millions of people living downstream when nutrient rich sediments and fish will be blocked by the dam. Arpi believes the most serious issue to be the fact that the Great Bend area is located in a highly earthquake prone area. “A huge reservoir and a few PNEs [“Peaceful Nuclear Explosions,” as proposed by Chinese scientists to make tunnels through the Himalayas for the project] could provoke new earthquakes even more devastating than in August 1950 when thousands died.”

    Such massive water control projects are clearly a state (central government) undertaking--without the economic and political support of the state, these projects cannot proceed. Unfortunately, and often ironically, national leaders prefer to marvel at their engineering accomplishments in controlling nature to serve economic development rather than addressing issues of transboundary and socio-environmental responsibilities. In fact, China’s plan to divert the Brahmaputra would impair India’s own plan to link approximately thirty of its own rivers, a project that is bound to affect the downstream riparian state of Bangladesh.

    Such international transboundary river development projects raise many important issues--from the comparative importance of national economic development to issues of social justice, from the primacy of territorial sovereignty to the merits of international cooperation. As important as these intractable topics of debate are, policy makers ought not to forget the real issue--the concern expressed by the affected people. After all, states exist to provide material and physical security to the people. The goal of development policies should be to benefit the people first, not powerful interest groups like corrupt bureaucracies and businesses.

    While the Brahmaputra Diversion Plan will bring sizeable benefits to China in the form of construction jobs, electricity, and water for the “thirsty north,” the price that the affected people and the environment must pay is clearly unacceptable. For the local Tibetans, the project is an imposition on their land and their birthright by the occupying Chinese government. The beneficiaries of the project are “foreigners” while "locals" are made to bear its price. If China is genuinely committed to human rights and sustainable development as it claims to be, then the Brahmaputra Diversion Plan should not be undertaken.

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