Slag in Brahmaputra water. Photo credit: Times of India
The issue of Brahmaputra river pollution comes at a time of deteriorating ties between India and China. Following a tense border standoff between the two countries over the Doklam trijunction, there comes a news that China has stopped sharing hydrological data of the Brahmaputra River with India which China agreed to share. Before the situation is settled, the South China Morning Post published a report about the possible diversion of the Brahmaputra to Xinjiang through a 1000 km tunnel. This further increases misunderstanding between the two countries. Then came the more worrisome news of Brahmaputra River that rises in Tibet turning unnaturally black and murky for more than two months. With all these changes in the river, China is still silent or denying the factors affecting the international river. On the other hand, India is always afraid of China using the river as a strategic tool against itself.
With the unsettled disputes between India and China on Tibet-India border, the Brahmaputra River has also become one of the major sources of concern between the two countries.
The recent standoff between the two countries started with China’s road-laying effort in the Doklam plateau and India’s support for Bhutan which has sovereignty over the area and to halt China’s motorable road construction in the region. The dispute that began on 16 June 2017 and the standoff ended in August. Both sides gave contradictory statements for the border disengagement.
Meanwhile, during the confrontation, China stopped sharing hydrological data of the Brahmaputra River, which could have helped India to mitigate the impacts of this year’s flood in Assam. China shared data with Bangladesh while claiming the renovation work (data collection stations) as a reason for not giving data to India. The Doklam standoff between the two countries could be the reason for China’s denial to share hydrological data with India.
The situation became tense when the news of water diversion to Xinjiang came up in the Chinese media. According to a report from the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, Chinese engineers were testing technologies that could be used to build the water-diversion tunnel. Though Beijing rejected these media reports as “false and untrue”, but the water diversion news still continues to haunt India.
China’s lack of transparency over the Brahmaputra River and India’s suspicion of China using Brahmaputra water as a leverage against India will lead to further escalation of tensions between the two countries.
With the water of the Brahmaputra River turning unusual muddy, people who live along the river basin believe that it has been caused by Chinese activities on the upper part of the river. Ninong Ering, a member of parliament of the Indian National Congress from Arunachal Pradesh, wrote to the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and raised concerns about the issue of the Brahmaputra River turning black, and requested the Prime Minister to take up the matter with the Chinese government. He further opined that the changes in water quality, which is unusual during the winter season, could be due to a possible diversion of the river in Tibet.
With the water sample collected on 27 November 2017, the East Siang Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department has found that the waters of the Brahmaputra River are high in iron content. Bimal Welly, executive engineer, in a report states that Nephelometric Turbidity Unit (NTU) of the Brahmaputra River is 425 NTU. Whereas, the permissible range is 0-5 NTU. The report further states that the NTU of the Brahmaputra River “is very high and if exposed for a long period of time, may affect aquatic lives.”
The source of this pollution could be natural or due to man-made factors. Some river pollutions occur naturally, originating from earthquakes, volcanoes, dust storms and forest and grassland fire. Human activities, such as construction, burning of fossil fuels, power plants and various industrial processes also generate significant amount of particulates.
With so much of construction works going on in both India and Tibet, the contamination of water may have emanated from these construction sites. The surface water runoff and the ground water close to any construction sites become polluted with various material used in the construction work such as diesel, oil and other toxic material and cement. So some speculate that the reason could well be local construction of roads while other says that it might be from the Chinese construction of the Lhasa-Nyingtri railway line, extending its railway track all along the Yarlung Tsangpo.
According to Tage Rupa, a geomorphologist at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University “Arunachal is seeing hectic construction, so maybe it’s just that.” She further added that “A lot of construction is close to the river, so it’s possible it’s just run-off from construction sites.”
Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen, research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute states that “If the Brahmaputra River running black from the entry point of the river into India at the Indo-Tibet border as reported, then the source of the river pollution has to be from Tibet. If that is so, then there are a few possibilities as already reported, such as an earth quake or dam construction. But i think there is one more possibility that hasn’t been raised yet, that is construction of railway tunnels or stations along the Yarlung Tsangpo or Brahmaputra River in Tibet, most probably construction of a huge railway station near Nyingtri city”.
He further added “The Lhasa- Nyingtri section of the railway line crosses Yarlung Tsangpo 16 times, piercing through the mountains with 21 tunnels and 34 train stations. Nyingtri city is located close to the confluence of Yarlung Tsangpo and Nyang Tsangpo. Therefore any construction of a major railway station near the city could seriously muddy the river. With the lowering of river volume as well as fewer tourist traveling to the region during the winter, it’s an ideal time for any major construction.”
Meanwhile, responding to the report on the muddy Siang River (the Brahmaputra), The Global Times attributed a statement of Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of International Relations. He stated that “India should not point its finger at China on hydrological issues to incite anti-China sentiment, which cannot help repair the ties of the two countries.”
“This time India has made a mountain out of a molehill challenging China by citing slag. India should look for problems on their own side, otherwise, Sino-Indian ties can hardly improve”, he added.
There is not enough information yet to ascertain the reason behind such phenomena. Beijing’s denial and silence on the issue creates an unhealthy misunderstanding between the two countries. If the source of pollution is from the Chinese side, then it would be bad for China’s reputation. It is Beijing’s responsibility to protect the source of the river on which millions of people are dependent on for their livelihood. So it is pertinent for both the countries to find the source of the pollution and rectify it rather than arguing over who is causing the pollution.
Beijing’s silence on the issue makes it difficult to find the actual source of the pollution and if the river remains polluted for a longer period it would affect the ecosystem, putting at risk the flora and fauna of the region as well as the health of human beings.
India can’t ignore the fact that the water pollution from the source in Tibet could ruin the whole water system of the Brahmaputra River. So it is necessary for India to raise the issue with China and take a pragmatic approach towards preserving the sources of the major Asian rivers.
Beijing needs to improve its transparency over the shared river to fulfill the great Chinese dream of peaceful development and to be a responsible stakeholder in the international arena in the new era of China’s peaceful rise. This will further help China to enhance trust and reduce the risk of dangerous miscalculations.
The author Dechen Palmo is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.