Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Study on China dams brings the Brahmaputra into focus


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Mekon River

Mains level : India-China Relations

A new study highlighting the impact of China’s dams on the Mekong River has raised fresh questions on whether dams being built on other rivers that originate in China, such as the Brahmaputra, may similarly impact countries downstream.

Make a note of:

1) Tributaries of R. Brahmaputra

2) Countries swept by R. Mekong

3) Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (reminds us seeing R. Mekong)

China’s dams on the Mekong River

  • The Mekong flows from China to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
  • The Mekong River Commission, which comprises Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, has said more scientific evidence was needed to establish whether dams caused a 2019 drought.
  • While China’s southwestern Yunnan province which usually has above-average rainfall, there was “severe lack of water in the lower Mekong.

Mekong dams raise some questions

  • The Mekong study was not conclusive on the question of how China’s dams had affected the quantity of flows.
  • To state that the basin had less water because of activities in China alone is misleading, mainly because that only considers the water flowing into the lower basin at one station in Thailand.
  • The study did not consider other dams and water-use along the course of the river.
  • The lower basin isn’t entirely dependent on flows from China but also receives water from tributaries in all four countries, which the study did not account for.

Concerns for India

  • India does not have a water-sharing agreement with China, but both sides share hydrological data.
  • India has long expressed concerns over dam-building on the Brahmaptura.
  • In 2015, China operationalised its first hydropower project at Zangmu, while three other dams at Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha are being developed.
  • India need to raise the issue of river waters in the Brahmaputra with China, as that appears to be the only methodology to ensure what happened on Mekong does not happen on Brahmaputra.

A management problem

  • The dams are not likely to impact the quantity of the Brahmaputra’s flows because they are only storing water for power generation.
  • Moreover, the Brahmaputra is not entirely dependent on upstream flows and an estimated 35% of its basin is in India.
  • However, India concerns more about activity in China affecting quality, ecological balance, and flood management.

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