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Yarlung Tsangpo river is a living ecosytem, not just a source of hydropower

Any agreement on sharing the waters of the world's highest river must involve the people who depend on them

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Yarlung Tsangpo snakes across the Tibetan Plateau before flowing into India and Bangladesh (Image by Yang Yong).

This is part of a special series of articles produced by our sister site thethirdpole.net on the future of the Yarlung Tsangpo river - one of the world's great transboundary rivers - which starts on the Tibetan Plateau before passing through India and Bangladesh.

Also read:
- It's time for a new era of cooperation on the Yarlung Tsangpo
- Why India and China should leave the Yarlung Tsangpo alone
- World's largest hydropower project planned for the Tibetan Plateau

When India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and China’s president, Xi Jinping, met in March last year, one specific item on Singh’s agenda was the need for a joint mechanism to look at China’s hydropower projects on the Brahmaputra, the river called the Yarlung Tsangpo in China.

Clearly aware of the many fears these projects raise in India, Xi was quick to assure Singh that China was aware of its responsibilities towards lower riparian countries, and that he would ask his officials to consider a joint mechanism. 

The conversation has now been eclipsed by the row over Chinese soldiers building a structure 10 kilometres into what India considers its territory in Ladakh, near the western edge of the border between the two countries. Multiple meetings between military officials have failed to resolve the standoff at the disputed border, though both countries have so far been careful not to let the matter escalate.

Meanwhile, Manmohan Singh, and India’s water resources minister, Harish Rawat, have repeated that the Chinese projects will not reduce water flow in the Yarlung Tsangpo, as they are run-of-the-river hydropower projects: a part of the river is being diverted to run past electricity generating turbines, and then the water is going back to join the river. But the Indian government’s own panel of experts has expressed worries that the projects will reduce water flow in the Yarlung Tsangpo, especially in the lean season.

A few weeks before Singh’s meeting with Xi, the expert panel asked the government to intensify monitoring of construction projects by China on the Yarlung Tsangpo. It also expressed the fear that similar projects may come up at the “Great Bend” of the Yarlung Tsangpo, just before it flows from China to India.

Fears and old habits fester

Such fears are growing, but they are not new. Independent experts studying the Yarlung Tsangpo, as well as other transboundary rivers around the world, are now convinced that chasing an agreement based on fears of what the upper riparian country may do, is a zero sum game at best. The way policymakers look at a river and a river basin must change, they argue.

Rohan D’Souza, of Shiv Nadar University in Uttar Pradesh, is one of those voices. He says a river must be seen as a “collection of pulses, not a quantum of water flows.” Sociologists who study the people dependent on the river waters, and ecologists who study fish and other forms of life in the river, say that the “hydrocracy” – the water bureaucracy  – that has dominated official discussions, is like the blind person who touches an elephant’s tail and thinks he knows the entire animal.

Policymakers in both India and China defend their own projects in the Yarlung Tsangpo basin, saying they are run-of-the-river hydroelectricity generation projects that will not affect total water flow. But a river is not a uniform flow of water. It changes during the day and during the year, especially with regard to annual flooding patterns. For a dependable electricity supply, engineers have to smooth out this variation to suit power demand during peak hours.

But the fish downstream require the flood pulse, and any change affects them adversely, says Sangeeta Boruah of the University of Dibrugarh, on the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Independent economists point out that changing the flow and flood pulse has a devastating effect on the fishermen downstream, an effect already seen in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Assamas the first of India’s 168-odd projects on the upper reaches are being built.

Rivers are ecosystems not water pipes

The essential problem, says D'Souza, is that the “hydrocracy” treats a river as a water pipe, when it is actually a living ecosystem. “Rivers are full of muscle, skin and cartilage, which makes a definite case against pure engineering solutions," he says. "The transaction cost between megawatts and protein must be computed.” Traditionally, fish has been the main source of protein for people in this, and many other parts of the world.

These arguments are being ignored by the majority of hydrologists, power engineers and policymakers. For them, the silt carried in river water is a major nuisance that breaks turbine blades and should be filtered out. For farmers downstream, this silt provides fresh soil. For the fish, it carries their food. Neither has entered official cost-benefit calculations in China, India or any other country.

Under sustained pressure from NGOs, the Indian government has now agreed to leave part of the river water unaffected, calling it “environmental flow”. However, on average this accounts for no more than 20% of the flow.

D'Souza believes the only thing that will work is a paradigm shift in how a river is viewed: “Treat the Yarlung Tsangpo as a heritage integral to cultures and identities. It’s a civilisational question. Negotiations between two governments will not work because they deal with only a part of the river. What we need are debates and discussions about civilisation, heritage and lived knowledge in the entire river basin.”

Old rhetoric proves hard to shift

None of this has entered the consciousness of Indian policymakers, whose main worry is that China is right now building and planning a number of hydropower projects on the main stem of the Yarlung Tsangpo, upstream of the Great Bend. Two run-of-the-river projects are under construction at Zangmu and Jiexu and another is planned at Jiacha.

The Indian government has said these may be followed by projects at three other sites where the kind of construction that is usually related to hydroelectric projects is gathering pace, including four new bridges.

The panel’s report adds that India has noticed heightened industrial activity at Nangxian, along with constant improvements in the Bome-Medog road that passes through the Great Bend area. The panel members said that Dagu and Jiexu, along the main stem of the river, were likely to become industrial centres. All this will need more electricity and water, both in short supply in Tibet. Indian officials complain that there may be about 30 other projects in the Brahmaputra basin, about which China declines to share any information.

Officials in India’s water resources ministry are now studying riparian treaties to decide what they should recommend, first to the rest of the Indian government and then to China. Officials in the ministry said they were exploring options on the basis of bilateral and multilateral environmental treaties and conventions around the world.

Demands downstream in Bangladesh

A major problem the bureaucrats have is that the Yarlung Tsangpo does not end in India – it flows on to Bangladesh. India is now building and planning just the same kind of projects on its stretch of the Yarlung Tsangpo as China is upstream. So if India can demand a joint mechanism with China, Bangladesh can demand just the same with India, something that bureaucrats in New Delhi are loath to concede. In fact, due to this fear, India is now hastening construction of the 800-megawatt Tawang 2 hydroelectric project on the Brahmaputra, as well as many smaller projects in the basin.

India’s way of assuaging fears in Bangladesh is to offer the lower riparian country a share in the electricity generated by a project, in one case even offering a shareholding in the firm set up for the project. Indian officials have also been taking their Bangladeshi counterparts upstream in the Yarlung Tsangpo and showing them how these projects are supposed to reduce the prospect of flooding in both countries. They have also been discussing how they can do some joint dredging in the river and build embankments together. But Bangladesh will continue to press for a multilateral agreement, as its commerce minister, Mohammed Habibur Rahman Khan, made clear during his recent visit to India.

So at the level of politicians and bureaucrats, all countries are stuck in the old rhetoric. It is now clear that unless the farmers and the fishermen, the factory owners and the workers, those who row the ferries and those who ride them, are all involved in the conversation, there is little chance of a meaningful agreement. And the situation will keep getting worse as long as rivers in the basin are seen as water pipes rather than living ecosystems.

D’Souza sees only one way out: “The principles and premises of riparian treaties need to be re-organised. River basins must be seen as interconnected and integrated ecosystems where all stakeholders must have a say.”

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