Believe the Dragon with a Pinch of Salt

New Delhi, of late, has raised a legitimate concern over Beijing’s plans to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo river, known as Brahmaputra in India, for providing water to northern China. The Yarlung Tsangpo originates in south-west Tibet and enters Arunachal Pradesh through deep gorges in the Himalayas, after flowing down south Tibet. Thereafter, the river flow south-west via the Assam valley enters Bangladesh as Jamuna and joins the Ganga to flow southwards to the Bay of Bengal.

The Brahmaputra is over 2,900 km long and has an average depth of 124 feet. Its maximum depth is 380 feet and it’s over 20 km wide in certain places. The magnanimity of the river could be gauged from the fact that it discharges about 19,300 cubic metre water per second. No wonder that the river is so destructive in every monsoon, causing colossal floods in several parts of Assam. Despite its regular rampages and the fact that its has gulped several thousand hectares of farmland, emotional bonding of each Assamese to the Brahmaputra is exceptionally strong.

China, for the record, has already constructed a dam, on the middle-reaches of the river, at Zangmu for generating electricity. The hydel project is not that much concern for India as it won’t store water and is almost certain not to affect the downstream region in India. Besides, satellite imagery has revealed no visible indication of water being stored at Zangmu.

The real worry is about what could happen should Beijing reroute the Yarlung Tsangpo which boasts of the world’s highest navigable river channel at an altitude of 12,000 feet. And it’s not for nothing that the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao is often called the world’s most powerful individual as he can even alter the course of rivers!

Last week, external affairs minister SM Krishna assured Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi that there’s “co cause for immediate alarm” over Zangmu and Beijing is unlikely to divert  the Yarlung Tsangpo. His assurance seems to come from the fact that Brahmaputra has enough waters to cater the combined demand of both Bangladesh and India; that Beijing, twice daily from June to October, shares water flow data on three rivers that flow into India from China, namely Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Indus and that a large portion of the Brahmaputra catchments is in India.

Notably, though there’s no Sino-Indian water sharing agreement in existence, annual meetings between officials of the water resources and foreign ministries of both the countries are held regularly and there have been no reported instance of any major difference. Most importantly, Beijing is aware that New Delhi will never look favourably at any decision to divert Yarlung Tsangpo and will vehemently protest any such move in bilateral as well as international forums.

However, characteristic to the Chinese, they can never be trusted. Their aggression in 1962, despite assurances to the contrary, is a stark reminder to that. Moreover, Beijing’s issuance of stapled visas to Arunachal residents, frequent troops build-up along the McMahon line and their alleged patronage of Maoist and North East insurgents, should keep New Delhi wary of every Chinese promise.

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