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Diverting Brahmaputra: A Rational Choice? – Analysis


By Jesper Svensson

As the Yangtze – Asia´s biggest river – is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, there are sound reasons to wonder whether the western lifeline of the South-North Water Transfer Project will transport enough water for feeding the thirsty Northern China Plain. In this light, Chinese scientists – spearheaded by Wang Guangqian, an academic at CAS – have proposed to go beyond diverting the tributaries of the Yangtze and also diverting Yarlung-Tsangpo, along a course that follows the Tibet-Qinghai railway line to Golmud, through the Gansu corridor and, finally, to Xinjiang in north-west China.1 Diverting Yarlung-Tsangpo/Brahmaputra not from its Great Bend but from further upstream is, however, an old Chinese plan dating back to red nationalist Li Ling, author of Tibet´s Water Will Save China. From the Indian point of view, it is important to recognize a fundamental element in these proposals that will likely extend for the foreseeable future. At the core of these proposals is the advantage of diverting waters upstream, because it has an altitude of 3,600 metres above sea level, thereby reducing the need for pumping uphill. Diversion schemes that highly depend on pumping and storage will not be given a green-light by Beijing if they do not make sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

It’s economics, not geopolitics

Against this background, China’s water policy is neither driven by geopolitics nor by ideology, rather by rationalism. Beijing´s logic is that if national interest demands major water diversion projects on the Yarlung-Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river, China will undertake such a project if the price of transferred water is cheaper than conservation or getting water from the sea. Even if the plan so far has failed to secure the backing of the Ministry of Water Resources, Wang Guangqian insists it is “feasible” and has described the proposal as something “everbody gets really excited when they hear about it”. But not everyone is enthusiastic. A friend and colleague of Wang, who wishes to remain anonymous, dismisses the proposal as unfeasible: “the far west routes will not be feasible, mainly because of the high cost of water diversion compared with alternatives”. Moreover, the diversion of the Brahmaputra is in competition with another diversion: to drop a pipe into the Bohai sea in China´s east, draw more than 340,000 cubic metres of seawater a day into a complex of coastal desalination plants, and then pump this water 1,400 meters uphill for more than 600 km to Xilinhot, where it will be used for coal mining while conserving the region’s scarce water resources.2

If the former proposal were to be selected, the Chinese government will deliberately package the diversion scheme in a scientific light in order to create a “story-line” that justifies exploitation of transboundary rivers. The fact is that such use of a “story-line” provides China with a medium through which it can try to impose on others its view of reality while discrediting the views of the others. This behaviour can be seen in a newly published article on information extraction of Himalayan rivers, where Chinese scholars argue that surface runoff, population, cultivated area and GDP within the territory of China occupy a very small proportion in three river systems. According to “Information Extraction and Analysis of the Himalayan International Rivers” by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the natural surface runoff of the Indus river, the Ganges river and the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river are 207km3/y, 550km3/y and 828km3/y respectively, and of which only 10km3/y, 14km3/y and 121km3/y are produced in China, accounting for 4.83 per cent, 2.55 per cent and 14.61 per cent separately. For the Ganges Delta drainage system, which includes the Ganges river, Brahmaputra river and Meghna river, water from China makes up only 8.8 per cent of the total natural runoff. Whether this data is manipulated or not is difficult to prove, but it demonstrates a bitter truth to India: China may argue that activities upstream have no impact on India or Bangladesh because water quantity from the Yarlung-Tsangpo river within China makes up only a very small part of the total water of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna system. More importantly, it will be difficult for India to make an effort to persuade to the contrary given the scientific advantage China has over India in terms of the Himalayan region. As B.G. Verghese emphasized in an interview in 2010: “We are locked in ignorance, they have knowledge and we are not aware of the implications and we are not aware of the geography, the hydrology and the topography. The degree of illiteracy on this is frightening.” However, two things complicate any major intervention in the river.

Did you say public pressure?

First, China’s leaders acknowledge that the Three Gorges Dam is facing geological, human and ecological problems. Even if China plans to build a 38 GW dam at Motuo on the Indian border, the decision to make an official statement admitting the negative impacts of the 18 GW dam gives the public a “structural hole” to put pressure on high-risk industrial projects. Elizabeth C. Economy, Director for Asia Studies in New York, argues in her blog that it gives more ammunition to environmentalists and Premier Wen Jiabao who have been arguing against aggressive plans for large-scale hydropower plants. Economy sees the acknowledgement by the Party that mistakes have been made as an important step toward the public´s right to question future policies.3 Second, China´s engineering policies are facing backfire in neighbouring countries as well: its 3,600 MW hydropower plant at Myitsone along the Irrawaddy river carries conflict-potential on its border with Myanmar if the negative impacts of the project are not fully addressed. The project abuts territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), one of a plethora of ethnic insurgencies that have battled the central government for decades. Last year several bombs exploded at the dam site and in May the KIO warned that if the dam were not stopped it would lead to civil war.4 In June, a bloody clash between government troops and the KIO broke out, which was partly caused by Chinese dam-activities, killing dozens of people in northern Myanmar.5 But these external and internal problems will not fundamentally change Beijing’s intention of quietly building large dams on the Yarlung-Tsangpo/Brahmaputra.

What might deter China, however, would be sky-high political costs if India, along with Bangladesh, were to proactively engage China within a river-basin-framework which seeks to safeguard the river basin. In that light, External Affairs Minister S. M. Kirshna´s decision to set up a task-force at the Indian mission in Beijing and take appropriate diplomatic steps are encouraging.6 Without timely action, India cannot complain about reductions in flows after a dam has been built.

1. ”Diversion Debate,” China Dialogue, June 13, 2011, available at
2. ”Bohai Sea Pipeline Could Open China´s Northern Coal Fields,” Circle of Blue, April 5, 2011, available at….
3. ”The Truth about Three Gorges Dam,” Elizabeth C. Economy, May 24, 2011, available at
4. ”Chinese takeaway kitchen”, The Economist, June 9, 2011, available at
5. ”Dozens killed in Burma amid clashes over chinese dams”, The Guardian, 16 June, 2011, available at
6. ”India seeks report on China diverting Brahmaputra waters”, Indian Express, 13 June, 2011, available at

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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