Tuesday, October 20, 2009

China and the Brahmaputra

As a follow-up to the previous post on the need for cooperation among the nations dependant on the rivers from the Himalayas, I've come across a report, "Dammed Rivers" from The Economist's Asia columnist, Banyan saying that Gezhouba, a Chinese construction company, had begun work on a dam across the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, near the India-China border. When it enters India, this river is known as the Brahmaputra, emptying through Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal.

Related, there is a story in yesterday's Times of India about Indian concerns over the beginning of a plan to divert water from the Yangtze River at the border of the Hubei and Henan provinces in Central China. The Yangtze is a river entirely within the borders of China, so at first glance it would appear that India should not be worried. However, an elaborate network of canals, resevoirs, and dams could concievably connect the rivers to the Yarlunch Tsangpo before it crosses into India. This would divert India and Bangladesh's water north to China.

Earlier this year, I had asked a geologist who specializes on the glaciers of Himilayas whether China could dam or divert the headwaters of any of their major rivers that begin in Tibet, like the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, or the Mekong. He said that such an engineering project would be impossible, because the area is so geologically active and the threat of earthquakes is too great. However, the Chinese are faced with a long-term, dire drought in the North, and they may think that massive engineering projects could get them out of that.

Certainly, diverting the flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo would provoke anger downstream in both India and Bangladesh. The question remains, though, to what extent would they go to stop it? Could conflict ensue over dwindling water resources?

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to make sure you saw Admiral Lee Gunn's (President of the American Security Project) op-ed in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – Gunn examines the regional implications of climate change, including water scarcity in Asia and the Middle East, and he argues that climate change will become one of the most pressing national security challenges in the years to come: http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/op-eds/climate-change-could-be-the-next-great-military-threat.


    “Climate-intensified conflict between mobile populations seeking fresh water amid wanton state instability may prompt future policy makers to deploy U.S. forces not only to combat extremism in the region, but also to provide aid to the hungry and displaced.”

    He believes that the U.S. government must plan – as soon as possible – for the new contingencies associated with climate change, including increased humanitarian crises and mass migrations, conflict over increasingly scarce resources, extremism, and government weakness and failure. Admiral Gunn cites the situation at Diego Garcia as just one example of how military logistics and strategies will be effected by climate change:

    “ The British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia, for example, is home to a critical staging facility for U.S. and British naval and air forces operating in the Middle East and Central Asia. But this atoll sits just a few feet above sea level. If sea levels rise as projected, the facility could be lost, forcing the U.S. and British militaries to adapt and adjust their logistics and operations throughout the region.”

    He recommends the following actions:
    • “Prepare military officers and troops to address the security and humanitarian needs of resource-stressed populations and climate refugees;
    • “Expand global public health programs (e.g., malarial eradication);
    • “Negotiate an agreement with Canada and Mexico to govern the use of fresh water in North America;
    • “Lead the world in developing conflict-resolution mechanisms to mediate between climate change's winners and losers.”