Where is the dam?

Print edition : December 04, 2009

The placid Siang or the Dihang, as the Brahmaputra is called in Arunachal Pradesh, flows quietly under an old-style swing bridge just before Tuting.-PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROMESH BHATTACHARJI

ONLY seven rivers that rise in Tibet flow through India. They are the Indus, the Satluj, the Karnali (through Nepal), the Subansiri, the Brahmaputra and the Lohit and its large tributary, the Dulai. All are formidable rivers and all of them increase in size four to 10 times after they enter India. On the Indian side there are dams and bunds and several hydroelectric projects, just as there are on the Chinese side.

From mid-October, anxious reports have been appearing in Indian newspapers about Chinese perfidy in stealthily building a dam on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) at some place called Zangmu, somewhere in the Nanshan region in Tibet, China (Indian Express, October 15 and November 4). No map has yet been given, nor has the location of the dam been specified. The photographs that appear in the newspapers show a site that not only does not have a dam but cannot have one that is 160 metres high as alleged.

The northern side of the Brahmaputra at the so-called Zangmu (it is not Zangmu, the first town in Tibet on the Kodari Highway from Nepal) has precipitous mountains and the southern side is almost flat with large cultivated fields. It is impossible for a dam 160 m high to be built here as the reports claim, as it would flood the lower areas. Where is the location? Tibet has seven prefectures, and none of them is called Nanshan.

It is possible that China is making plans to build a moderate-sized hydroelectric dam project at a site about 40 to 60 km east and down the Tsangpo from the famous monastery town of Tsedang (Chetang of old) in a long gorge. This gorge is situated at an aerial distance of about 100 km ESE from Lhasa. The Chinese had prepared plans to electrify Tibet more than 50 years ago by setting up run-of-the-river dams over the Indus, the Satluj and the Brahmaputra and their tributaries. Unlike the border regions in India, those in China are very well developed with central heating, bright street lights, tourist accommodation and round-the-clock electricity which is still denied to Leh, the largest town in Ladakh.

Tsedang is the famed monastery site first described to the Western world by the most famous of Pundit explorers, Kishen Singh (AK), in 1878. He returned from there to Darjeeling convinced that the Tsangpo was the Brahmaputra. It was then mentioned by Sarat Chandra Das, the Survey of Indias defiant explorer, in 1882. He could probe the Tsangpo for only 30 km or so further east from Tsedang. Sarat was the inspiration for Kiplings Hari Babu in Kim.

At around the same time the redoubtable Kinthup, a Sikkimese lad, was throwing marked logs into the river from Tsedang until the Marpung monastery, where the Tsangpo turns into India. The recovery of these in Upper Assam proved that the Brahmaputra, the Dihang, the Siang and the Tsangpo were the same.

This hanging bridge on the Siang is between Jidu and Tuting, about 35 km from the border with China.-

Tsedang and the vastly developed town of Shanan (headquarters of Lhoka prefecture) a little to the south of it are unrecognisable from the wind-swept, bleak trading posts of the 19th century when they were described in detail by British surveyors, explorers and authors Sir T.H. Holdich (1843-1929) and T.A. Wadell (1854-1938). Tsedang in the 19th century was known as the gateway to the trade routes to Padam (Upper Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh), Tawang and then Assam. Instead of reading evil intentions in every Chinese developmental effort, it could be more profitable to think of ways of benefiting from them reviving old trade routes, for instance.

Tibet, too, suffers from floods along the Tsangpo, and that is why these dams are necessary. The Tsangpo valley has for centuries been very fertile, as can be seen from the vast number of large monasteries on its banks. Irrigation, and thus diversion of waters, is not the main reason for building dams along the Tsangpo. As the Lhasa-Sinkiang road often hugs the banks of the Tsangpo, dams cannot be built everywhere, and certainly not very high dams. To help meet the galloping electricity requirements of eastern and south-eastern Tibet, which is the most populous and fertile region of Tibet, such run-of-the-river dams are necessary. Besides, minor irrigation channels have been diverting some waters of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries for centuries. There need be nothing objectionable about such a construction more than 1,000 km from our border and especially when most of the waters are added to the Brahmaputra after it enters India.

Another ignorant allegation is that 80 per cent of the waters of the Brahmaputra emanate from the north side of the Himalayas in China and that that country cannot be the sole arbiter of its international waters. This is not right. Eighty per cent of the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra are picked up after it enters India.

The Brahmaputra as it makes an S bend while entering India below Spur Top is a smallish river. After that it adds to its size immensely by gathering waters from the Yangsang Chu at Jidu, the Siyom and the Sipi at Yembung and several others before it leaves the hills at Passighat. Around this place, it more than doubles its size with the waters from the Lohit and the Dibong. After that its right bank gets the Himalayan rivers such as the massive Subansiri, the wide Kamala, the Rong, the Kameng (Bharoli), the Aie, the Saralbhanga and about 40 others. Its south bank, too, gets waters from rivers such as the Burhi Dihing, the Namdang, the Dhansiri, the Kalang, the Kopili, the Digaru, the Bajbala and 30 others. These make the Brahmaputra the size that it is. Not Chinese waters.

The Chinese government is attempting to electrify and develop every part of this more-crowded-than-other prefectures in Tibet. What is wrong with that? Water is the most readily available resource. In fact, Indias north-east used to suffer from four floods annually. Now it is not as bad. There is a surfeit of water, and if we are not deprived of most of it, what is the harm?

The misinformation spread by some newspapers has whipped up a frenzy in the north-east of India. Bamang Antony, chairman of the Arunachal Citizens Rights, Domin Loya, vice-chairman of the NEFA Indigenous Human Rights Organisation, and Tony Macro of the Idu Mishmi Students Union (Assam Tribune, November 8) have now begun condemning Chinas attempt to divert the Brahmaputra. This is an utterly impossible task. A look at the topography will show that not all the money and expertise in the world can divert the Brahmaputra in any direction. There is a very good three-lane highway that goes from Marpung directly to Lhasa, avoiding the long and often treacherous river route. This is built along the old trade route from Lhasa to Marpung and thence to Padam.

The shallow Indus at Umling before Demchog. The left bank is in India and the right bank in China. The international border is the ridge line in the distance. The pass is Jara la.-

On the Indian side, there is a slowly improving road until Tuting. This is the second lowest crossing (after Lohit) into China and the two roads are separated only by about 80 km. These roads, if joined, can foster economic regeneration and trust and would benefit the people of Yingkiong (Upper Siang) and Pasighat (East Siang) districts of Arunachal Pradesh most. Maybe this is what India should do instead of fostering suspicion.

Even though India and China do not have any water-sharing treaty, and nor has China signed any United Nations treaty on the responsibility of riparian states, there is the test of reasonableness which could be applied in this context.

In India we get apoplectic whenever China develops Tibet. Everything is given a military colouring. Be it the Lhasa railway or roads and dams. Our China experts, intelligence agencies and journalists can see only aggressive intent behind these progressive activities. Recently, I came across a paper written by a well-known China scholar, P. Stobdan, in which he anticipates worriedly that once the Shiquanhe dam (actually it is the Ngari dam) over the Indus comes up it will pose a threat to Ladakhs water security. This he wrote on October 23, but this dam was built in 2004 and no one has yet noticed any decrease in the waters of the Indus in Ladakh. Nor, as far as I know, are many people even aware that there is a dam over the Indus less than 100 km from the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh at Demchog.

The Chinese part of Demchog, across the border from Ladakh. The Chinese have built a large covered market here, hoping for trade to start with India - some day!-

The Indus, like the Brahmaputra, swells up only after it enters India. From the picture on Google Earth it is obvious that this 33-metre high dam is also providing water for irrigation apart from electricity. Western Tibet has become a prolific producer of grain and vegetables because of such developments.

We in India are afflicted by an overdose of suspicion and needless anxieties of any development activity in Tibet.

Our journalists scrape their barrel of fears to find reasons to damn any modernising activity in Tibet. Perhaps they do not want any improvement in that tradition-wrapped land, just as our administrators prevented good roads from being built on the borders until very recently.

This dam over the Indus has a more sinister implication that of ineffective intelligence collection. Apparently we do not have any. In Ladakh our forces and agencies ask the Changpas, the nomadic shepherds of the High Desert in the south-east of Ladakh to collect information when they frequently cross the border to shop at the large Chinese markets set up just across or not far from the Line of Actual Control or the international border. They do pick up useful information but it is doubtful whether much of it is ever used. The Chinese, too, debrief these innocent players, but more cleverly.

On the right bank of the Indus and across the river from the Indian airstrip of Fukche is the Chinese market of Dumchulle, just inside the Line of Actual Control. It is about 20 km to the south of the international border that runs along the watershed ridge of the Chang or Dumchulle la. Here, at the foot of a spur, the Chinese have allowed a market of about 25 shops to come up, selling all kinds of goods and also buying Indian rum, mutton and medicines.

The Dumchulle flats as seen from Fukche in India. Across the river is the Chinese market of Dumchulle, just inside the LAC.-

In October 2003, several Changpas told me that the Chinese are building a dam on the Indus to the east of Ngari in the Ngari Khorsum prefecture. I thought that soon a hue and cry will be raised at this Chinese perfidy. But nothing happened. A year ago, I saw on Google Earth that a dam had been built on the Indus at that spot.

More recently I found a reference to this dam in an over-romanticised book called Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia, published in 2008. In Tibet this river above Tashigong has very few villages to promise any history or drama or even a small fiefdom. But she is the first author to have mentioned this dam, though kind of critically, echoing the prejudice of her Western upbringing.

That such a big project so close to our borders had eluded detection is worrying. If one has the happy fortune of standing at the lookout point near the Army camp in Kibithoo (Anjaw district, Arunachal Pradesh), a mini hydroelectric turbine can be easily seen just across the border in Tibet in a small yellow building on a tributary of the Lohit. There are many such run-of-the-river projects in Tibet on rivers that flow into India. How many can one protest against reasonably? None. Live and let live. And our communities on the border could flourish economically if these developments are taken advantage of by imaginative and progressive minds. Is it reasonable to expect that only the countries downstream can exploit the rivers and not the ones upstream ?

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