China Changes Plans for Trans-Boundary Brahmaputra River


The Chinese government announced on June 23 that it plans to increase tourism and create a national park in Tibet near the Brahmaputra River, rather than pursue construction of a massive and controversial dam.

It will spend $63 million USD to improve tourism in Nyingchi, as well as $317.5 million to create an “international tourism town” there.

Hydropower proponents wanted the region to be developed with as many as 28 proposed dams. However, the Chinese government has only signed on to one dam, which is considered a run-of-the-river dam and is not expected to disrupt downriver flows.

Brahmaputra River basin (and the Ganges).

India has long been concerned about these possible dams, particularly the massive project at Motuo on the river’s great bend, which was proposed by China’s state-owned hydropower company, Sinohydro. This project was expected to be larger than China’s Three Gorges Dam.

India wants to use the "excess" water from the Brahmaputra in the northeast to boost irrigation activities in areas above the Ganges and below the Himalayan ranges, as part of its large-scale river interlinking project,  Federal Minister of State for Water Resources Vincent H. Pala said earlier this month.

The Brahmaputra’s great bend is highly coveted for power generation, because it naturally falls over 1,000 meters, which could supply enough energy to reduce coal consumption by 100 million tons, according to Zhang Boting, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Society of Hydropower Engineers.

The Chinese announcement comes just a week after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao discussed trans-boundary water issues at a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro last week.

As a result, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said the Chinese government had agreed to establish an information transfer mechanism on shared rivers.

"The [Indian] prime minister said that we would like this to continue so that there is a greater confidence in our country. The Chinese agreed, and in fact they said they would agree to strengthen the communication with the Indian side on this issue as well as on the trade issue,'' The Times of India quoted Mathai as saying.

Although the two nations do not have a water-sharing treaty, an agreement to exchange information and keep communication open on trans-boundary issues was developed several weeks ago in a meeting in Beijing. Wen had first suggested it on a December 2010 trip to India, Mathai explained.

Earlier this month, both sides agreed to continue talks in July to address India’s concerns about water levels in the Brahmaputra River, which starts in China and flows through India on its way to a Bangladeshi delta. India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jeichi, also discussed these issues on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in Beijing the first week of June.

“Krishna observed that the relationship is going on (more) smoothly than before and Yang agreed with it,” Indian officials were quoted by local Chinese sources as saying.

Yang acknowledged “some minor differences” between the countries’ policy ideas, but said he was sure these could easily be resolved with no ill effects on their working relationship.