After a meeting in June 2006 in Beijing, Guo said that Jampa Phunsok, the chairman of Tibet Autonomous Region, believed that the project could benefit rather than harm the plateau’s ecological environment.
During the same meeting, Wang Hao of the CAE said that trans-provincial water diversion should be the last choice, as it may also trigger ecological and relocation problems: “We are now conducting the South-to-North Water Diversion Project simply because we have no alternative, but we should bear in mind the lessons of the past and learn to avoid water diversion as we have learnt to avoid war.” His conclusion was “Grand as Guo’s scheme sounds, it may prove to be a castle in the sky.”
The generals consider the Great Western Route scheme as a relatively easy project compared to the railway engineering feat which laid tracks at attitudes above 5,000 meters. They believe: “We have gained a great deal of experience in building dams, digging tunnels, protecting local ecology”.
One cannot help thinking that in 1960, when tensions between India and Pakistan were high, the two nations found the wisdom and the courage to sign the Indus Water Treaty. Some may say it was not an ideal document, but at least it had the merit of simply being in existence. Why cant India and China sign a similar comprehensive treaty?
The conclusion of the Southern Weekend was, “A strategic perspective, the Great Western Route offers a tentative plan for the solution of the water shortage problem. However, neither side is able to present convincing data based on meticulous field surveys.”
The day after President Hu Jintao left India after his State visit in November 2006, the Chinese Minister for Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, declared that the proposal was “unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific.” He added that it had no government backing: “There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects.” He however admitted: “There may be some retired officials that support the plan, but they’re not the experts advising the government.” For the first time, it was not a point blank denial.
The main issue remains that even if the project is not undertaken under its present form, the problem of silting and pollution of the Yellow River remains. On June 30, 2005, the CAS academician Ma Zongjin had already called a meeting of 40 experts and officials in Xiangshan (Fragrant Hill) to access the scheme. There was only one point to which everyone agreed: “All attendees agreed that water shortage is fast becoming an issue of national security, requiring urgent and immediate action.”
How China will solve this problem depends on the political and economic situation in the country and on its relations with its neighbours. Today the slogan is ‘the peaceful rise of China’. Development is the first priority, but this very development depends on water and also the ability of the leadership to feed its people. It is a tough proposition. But in ancient China, did not the term ‘Zhi’ mean both ‘to regulate waters’ and ‘to rule’?
The Arunachal Floods
An event which occurred in June 2000 could be an illustration at a very reduced scale of what could happen if the Tsangpo project is some day completed. At that time, the breach of a natural dam in Tibet led to severe floods and left over a hundred people dead or missing in Arunachal Pradesh. It is not difficult to understand that areas downstream in Arunachal or Assam are extremely vulnerable to what takes place upstream in Tibet.17 At the time of the incident, Rediff.com reported: “The flash floods that hit the border state of Arunachal Pradesh in June has made officials at the Central Water Commission sit up and take notice. As officials pour over the technical data, a new dimension that the Chinese Army in Tibet, as part of an experiment, may have deliberately blasted the dam has been added to the already hazy picture.”
A few weeks later, a similar mishap took place on the other end of the Himalayas. The Tribune in Chandigarh reported this strange event18: “Even three days after the disaster, the mystery of the flashfloods in the Sutlej, which wrecked havoc along its 200-km length in the state, remains unresolved.” It added: “Experts are at a loss to understand where the huge mass of water came from.”
Imagine a 50-ft high wall of water descending into the gorges of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh! In a few hours, more than 100 persons died, 120 km of a strategic highway (Chini sector) was washed away and 98 bridges destroyed.19 The details of this incident were similar to the Arunachal Pradesh’s one.
Although this time the Chinese government informed the Government of India about the impeding mishap, Beijing remained completely mum to New Delhis request to send a fact-finding team to Tibet.
A detailed study carried out a few months later by ISRO scientists confirmed that the release of excess water accumulated in the Sutlej and the Siang river [the Tsangpo] basins in Tibet had led to the flooding. Nearly a year later, the weekly India Today commented20: “While the satellite images remain classified, officials of the Ministry of Water Resources indicate that these pictures show the presence of huge water bodies or lakes upstream in Sutlej and Siang river basins before the flash floods took place. However, these lakes disappeared soon after the disaster struck Indian territory. This probably means that the Chinese had breached these water bodies as a result of which lakhs of cusecs of water were released into the Sutlej and Siang river basins.”
I remember some Indian ‘experts’ telling me at that time that ‘natural’ landslides happened everywhere; that it was no big deal.
Four years later, the ‘natural’ process occurred again.
In August 2004, as India and China were celebrating 50 years of the Panchsheel, an artificial lake on the Pareechu River appeared in Tibet. According to the Chinese authorities, it had been created by seasonal landslides. The Survey of India Institute at Dehradun estimated that the lake was 60 metres deep on a total area of 230 hectares.
With thousands of human and animal lives under threat with a breach of the Tibetan dam, a red alert was issued by the Himachal government, and armed and paramilitary forces were put on a war footing. The Rs 8,500 crore (Rs 8.5 billion) Nathpa Jhakri project employing more than 1,000 people had to be closed.
The matter had another aspect: national security. Would one of the most strategic roads on the Indo-China border again be washed away?
Although this time the Chinese government informed the Government of India about the impeding mishap, Beijing remained completely mum to New Delhi’s request to send a fact-finding team to Tibet.
Asked about the steps Beijing had taken to address New Delhi’s concerns, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said: ‘According to information available from the Tibet Autonomous Region, we know that landslides in surrounding hills caused clogging of the course of a river.’ Kong refused to answer if China would give its clearance for the trip to Tibet of the four Indian experts.
One cannot help thinking that in 1960, when tensions between India and Pakistan were high, the two nations found the wisdom and the courage to sign the Indus Water Treaty. Some may say it was not an ideal document, but at least it had the merit of simply being in existence. Why can’t India and China sign a similar comprehensive treaty? The Sutlej, like the Indus or the Brahmaputra does not belong to China alone, there are hundreds of millions of stake-holders in South Asia, who should also have a say. One of the problems is that Indian officials never dare to speak up for fear of ‘jeopardizing’ the warming up or the border talks with contentious issues.
Why cannot a river-water Treaty between China, India and Bangladesh, be signed to assure a decent life for all in the region?