China blocks Brahmaputra tributary, impact on water flow in India not clear


India will keep a close watch on the flow in the Brahmaputra river in coming weeks after China announced it was blocking one of its tributaries in Tibet to construct the country’s most expensive hydroelectric projects.

On Friday, China said it was blocking the Xiabuqu river, one of the many tributaries of the Yarlung Zangbo, (which is how the Brahmaputra is known in China) to build a dam as part of the Lalho hydroelectric project at Xigase in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The Brahmaputra, one of India’s major rivers, originates in Tibet and flows into Arunachal Pradesh and Assam before going into Bangladesh.

The impact of the blocking of the river wasn’t immediately clear – or whether it would have any impact at all – but coming against the backdrop of the spat between New Delhi and Islamabad over the Indus Waters Treaty, the news is expected to ruffle more than diplomatic feathers in India.

Like the Brahmaputra, the Indus too originates in the Tibetan plateau in China.

“Tibet on Friday blocked a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo River as part of its most expensive hydro project,” the official Xinhua news agency reported. The project is located in an area close to Sikkim.

“The Lalho project on the Xiabuqu River in Xigaze involves an investment of 4.95 billion yuan ($740 million),” said Zhang Yunbao, head of the project’s administration bureau. “The project was scheduled to be completed in 2019. Construction began in June 2014.”

The report added, “The reservoir was designed to store up to 295 million cubic metres of water and help irrigate 30,000 hectares of farmland.”
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It wasn’t immediately clear what impact the dam will have on the Brahmaputra when it enters Arunachal Pradesh. There is no evidence so far to suggest that the blocking of the river will have any major impact on water flows downstream.

Since the 185-km Xiabuqu river isn’t a trans-border one, it doesn’t fall under the ambit of a bilateral mechanism to discuss rivers between China and India.

The two countries have a memorandum of understanding on flood data sharing.

India and China have had several rounds of talks on the water issue since 2007 and Beijing has always attempted to play down New Delhi’s fears that it could use strategically positioned dams to regulate water flows into India.

India provides money for maintaining three hydrological centres on the Chinese side. Data on water flows is provided from May 15 to October 15 each year.

Keeping a watch and measuring the flow of water is important for India as it would give an idea about what could happen if China holds water and releases it suddenly.

In 2015, China operationalised the largest dam in Tibet located on the Yarlung Zangbo river. All six units of the Zam hydropower station on the middle reaches of the river were switched on in October. The operatioanlisation of the project caused concern in India.

“The cooperation and communication we have (with India on trans-boundary rivers) is sound, and we are bearing in mind the bigger picture of the China-India good relationship,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had said at the time.

“We have been providing hydrological data and emergency management to the Indian side, which has played an important role in flood prevention and disaster relief of downstream areas. The facts have shown that our assistance in these areas is effective, and the channels are smooth,” she had said.