Flooding Brahmaputra : Geopolitics & ecological management
The flooding in Assam's Brahmaputra valley is not just a national issue, but also a transboundary, transnational and hydro-ecological issue which can only be resolved through bilateral cooperation between its stakeholders
India's major transboundary river of Yarlung-Tsangpo-Brahmaputra that originates within Chinese territory faces a real threat of being diverted to the Yellow River (Huang He) in Southern China. An estimated 206 billion cubic metres of water from the Yarlung-Tsangpo basin could be transferred to Yellow River as China has completed massive channels through tributaries of Tsangpo such as Dadu that would take the water to the drought-prone region of Northwest China. To add to the woes of India, China has operationalised 500 MW Zangmu dam located on the 1,700 km long channel of Yarlung-Tsangpo before it enters into India. Indian Prime Minister's recent China visit did not see any progress on transboundary river management and cooperation centring the Brahmaputra, India's longest river. The diplomatic row surrounding Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh constrained the Indian side to raise this contentious issue of diversion and damming on the Brahmaputra unilaterally by China.
Within this complex geopolitical scenario, recurrent floods in Assam caused a lot of human, animal and natural losses. Central Water Commission's alert that Brahmaputra water level may fall by 5 cm might bring some relief in the already ravaged Guwahati city and its outskirts, but a huge population remains displaced. Starting from Upper Assam's Sadiya to lower Assam's Dhubri through which the might Brahmaputra slices through creates floodplain pool of waters along the course. Indeed the course of the main Brahmaputra river basin and it's north and south bank tributaries constitute such a plurality of channels and basins across Assam that there are hardly any breakwaters. In the usual level of discharge of the entire Brahmaputra measures at seven lakh feet per second itself carries with it an impact of floodlike flow, creating the condition of possibility of flooding the developing floodplains and also creating several sedimentary fluvial deposits across Assam. One of the major questions related to flooding is, how the depth of water breakers on the floodplains and the flow of sediments in river levees could be maintained in an ecologically sustainable way so that effects like flooding and subsidence could be reduced to a minimum. What is now left as merely 'natural' requires an adaptive intervention that manages both animal and human lives and the life of a river on its floodplain.
When all the tributaries on the North bank and South bank are simultaneously overflowing and cross the danger marks, one really looks at short term and long terms measures. Purely engineering solutions that afflict flood policy in terms of embankments and reinforcements are proven only as temporary, as such measures only add up to the miseries inflicted by cumulative channel migration and overflow affected floodplains. Especially water levels at Nematighat (Jorhat) to Tezpur to Dhubri is an indicator of the overflow. At this moment a huge area of almost 1.25 lakh hectares of cultivable land is under floodwater affecting nearly 40 lakh people in Assam. Almost a lakh of people are sheltered in various shelters in entire lower Assam and also in some places in central and upper Assam, while almost 100 people died. More than 100 animals have died in the marooning of Kaziranga national park and road accidents and some animals reportedly could also be rescued.
Assam floods are attributed to climate change and the fast meltdown of glaciers at Northern Tibet. There are also blockages that are created on the way to the Brahmaputra in China. China's operationalisation of Zangmu hydropower dam on Tsangpo in 2015 has caused serious concerns about Chinese intentions about the diversion of the water of Brahmaputra to its industrial region of Western provinces. An imminent plan of diversion of two-third of the water flowing into Tsiang/Brahmaputra by diverting it to three gorges reservoir has also been an Indian concern in recent past. The sudden flash floods in Assam during September-October in previous years also have been attributed to China's sudden release of excess water due to heavy rain upstream. Overall, the river Brahmaputra remains at the receiving end of both natural and man-made calamities from the upstream Tibet/Chinese side, which cannot be foretold.
The question of river sustainability and lower riparian rights has been an emerging concern for the whole of Assam and Northeast India. It is often stated that Indo-China bilateral relationship goes through many hiccups because of Northeast India's vulnerability in the case of China's unilateral decisions to construct many more dams at the upstream of Zangmu. China is exercising a kind of conspicuous hold over water of Tsiang/Brahmaputra upstream and uses it as a handle to tickle India's foreign policy establishment from time to time. Add to this, the raging controversy by China over the territory of Arunachal Pradesh and its rejection of Mac Mohan Line as the border between India and China.
As China and India are not signatories to UN watercourse convention and also to the UN Law of Non-Navigational Uses of Watercourse, the water of Brahmaputra turns out to be the site of the assertion of unequal power relations that does not create conditions of reciprocity and mutual co-operation. If India has planned to create a network of hydropower dams across Arunachal Pradesh ignoring its impact on the course of the river and argued for run-of-the-river technology, China, being an upstream possessor has the greater advantage of using these rivers before they flow into India and downward. Seemingly there is a competition of utilisation of river systems flowing through Tibet from respective national sovereignty point of view that ignores the disadvantage of the other side.
As is well known, river systems are largely viewed as 'commodities' and concerned state parties enter into mutually beneficial negotiations to settle for use of river systems, it turns out that rights of the lower riparian parties are always at the risk of being a loser. Especially China's track record of respecting lower riparian rights has been pretty dismal in most cases. One is reminded of China's massive project of hydropower called Mong Ton Dam in the Shan state of Myanmar and Hatgyi dam in Karen state, while China called off 13 proposed dams over the river Salween in Yunan province yielding to the demands of ethnic groups and environmental opposition groups. The double-edged Chinese diplomacy in Myanmar speaks volumes about how China develops a strategy of a pay-off game from damming rivers and then wielding direct and indirect control of other natural resources in relation to Myanmar. In relation to India, such a strategy takes a more direct intervention in the Tsiang river system as India cannot constrain China from tinkering if major economic and security interests of China in South Asia are not manoeuvred by India. India can bamboozle China in allowing it certain access to Northeast India and its vast natural resources, but that will definitely require a mutually beneficent and just framework of co-operation. China fears India's manoeuvring abilities in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, which directly impacts Chinese strait-laced policy of using the Brahmaputra as a watercourse of one-upmanship.
As the Brahmaputra flows downstream to Bangladesh and China has a strategic depth of relationship with it, any negative repercussion on Bangladesh from Chinese tinkering on the Brahmaputra can work in constraining China to some extent. This would require Bangladesh's common and shared interests with India and a common perspective between the two, which is already somewhat problematic because of drought and shortage of water caused in Bangladesh by India's Farakka barrage. Another tricky issue is the proposed Teesta river sharing agreement, which is perceived to be much attenuated because of shrinking water reserve. In effect, India does not have much on the platter to offer to Bangladesh, as the latter continues to lodge complaints about the desertification effects of Farakka barrage and minimal discharge of the river Padma in Bangladesh at Ganga diversion point show the already cumbersome play of ecology and diplomacy. India is not in a position to neutralise the negative effects of its river diplomacy with Bangladesh and this is where China can cause further heartbreak. It is also to be remembered that Teesta meets the Brahmaputra at Fulchori of Bangladesh and the meeting is supposed to augment an already contained Teesta by the barrage upstream. But unfortunately, the meeting of two contained rivers does not result in minimal expected flow. What rather emerges is the possibility that water stored in dams in upstream locations falling within zone-5 might surge to create flooding in lower riparian areas.
This inaugurates a policy paralysis on the riverfront. The recent plan of dredging in Brahmaputra as well as in River Barak by the Government does not lead anywhere near the maintenance of clean flow of water. It rather contributes to turbidity and discolouration of both the major rivers of Assam by churning out mud and debris. The Brahmaputra in this lean season being so discoloured poses a larger threat when during rainy season debris start flowing in greater quantum and one has to prepare for a joint Sino-Indian mechanism at the upstream of Brahmaputra to clear debris over the river system. It is absolutely urgent that India initiates a dialogue and scientific and technical co-operation with China to protect the river Brahmaputra from further degradation. As far as India's proposed national waterways number six on river Barak is concerned, movement of shipments on the upstream and proposed dredging work run the risk of weakening the bedrock of the river leading to erosion of its banks and other such unmitigable disasters.
Possible devastating effects on local subsistence driven economies, livelihoods of many communities being already affected, any plan that India draws on rivers systems of Northeast needs careful weighing of pros and cons. In the context of transboundary rivers, the delicate balance between ecology and economy needs to be augmented by India on the principle reciprocity based scientific and technological co-operation with rival China and somewhat unpredictable Bangladesh and Myanmar. Careful framing of a law of equitable utilisation plus a well-rounded river conservation plan can reduce India's current stress level with its lower riparian status.
Present flooding in Assam's Brahmaputra valley, is not just a national issue, but it is a transboundary, transnational and hydro-ecological issue. Unless the life of a river is secured by a mix of non-interference as well as by way of adaptive strategies, it would be a hydrological mess. The flow of Brahmaputra and Barak river systems into Meghna basin of Bangladesh makes it necessary that river ecosystems such as zones of cloud formation and floodplain maintenance are protected in an ecologically sustainable way. What needs to be evolved at the policy level is traditional and time tested conservation practices related to a place. One good example had been how traditionally Kukis, Nagas and Hmar tribes have preserved the catchment of river Barak at Tipaimukh by preserving the rocks, ravens and forests that are intimately connected to their life-worlds. In the biodiversity hotspot of Arunachal Pradesh, scores of rivers like Dihing, Dibang, Lohit, Subansiri, Dikrong etc., present a distinctive topography and ecologically evolved agricultural, fishing and conservation practices. Management of flood is not just flood control through engineering means, but it is rather protection and sustenance of the whole hydro-geological reserve that lies both under and overground in the form of forests, taverns, caves and rock formations. If we are not able to map them in relation to river hydrology, mere floodplain management for flood control is no way to contain a river like the Brahmaputra.
The future of the Himalayan hydro-geological strata could arise as a major concern for both the states, as all the major river systems such as Tsangpo, Yangtze, Salween etc., are fed by Himalayan glaciers. A common agenda for preserving the fragile underground glacial depositions as well as overground water ecology could turn out to be a major area of transboundary river cooperation bilaterally between Indian and China, the two major powers of Asia. How does one draw up a common agenda of sustainability in river systems is the question for Assam and the entire lower riparian areas.
The writer is a philosopher and a political analyst. The article is based on his ongoing research on river ecologies from an ethicists' standpoint and bases on previously published works