By Ashis Biswas
India urgently needs to work out new agreements with China and Bhutan to save its Northeast region from floods, land erosion and ecological destruction. Policymakers and economists in Assam feel this more strongly than ever, especially after experiencing the most recent spate of devastating floods. This year, according to Assam-based media reports, at least 100 people were killed, while the loss to property was assessed conservatively at Rs 5000 crore. The biggest state in India’s Northeast shares major international rivers like the Brahmaputra with Bangladesh. It is also fated as a downstream state, to receive the excess water flowing down the rivers in Bhutan.
Assam gets ravaged by the floods two or three times a year. Many of its woes can be reduced if only China and Bhutan join India in crafting an effective water management mechanism for the Brahmaputra and other rivers during the rains.
Such a pathbreaking trilateral regional arrangement in South Asia would help Bangladesh, similarly prone to devastating floods, as well. Surplus water flowing from the swollen Brahmaputra and the rain-fed Ganga also wreak massive havoc annually in Bangladesh. Kolkata-based analysts feel that as an active sponsor of the BIMSTEC grouping, Bangladesh could join , if not play a leading part , in such a new regional arrangement.
Assam’s Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma outlined the dimensions of the problem while referring to the floods earlier this year. In 2019, nearly 100 people have been killed, while an estimated 8000 hectares of agricultural land have been lost because soil erosion. He suggested that China might have released its excess water from the Brahmaputra river at short notice, but stopped well short of sounding accusatory.
However, Assam officials contacted Bhutan authorities pressing for adequate advance warning before releasing excess water whenever it rains heavily, from the dams which have been built in upper Himalayas as part of major hydroelectric projects.
This July, as Kurichi Hydroelectric project authorities in Bhutan released excess rain water from a 55 metres high dam along the Beki and other rivers, several districts in Assam lying downstream were flooded, including Baksa, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari and Kokrakjhar. There were complaints in Guwahati that State officials received no prior notice, so they could not arrange advance evacuation or take other preparatory measures. The heritage Manas National Park, boasting a unique eco system and a major tourist attraction, faced a major threat.
Old timers argue that Assam had seen worse. In 2004, one of the dams in Bhutan actually burst because of torrential rains, resulting in an existential threat to Manas, not to speak of further damage and losses downstream.
Experts say during the last decade, over 100,000 families had been forced to shift bag and baggage because of soil erosion, as around 120,000 hectares of land had gone under for good. An OXFAM report spoke of at least 5 million people facing acute distress in Assam.
As for the Brahmaputra river, there have been widespread fluctuations in its condition after the Chinese built several dams on the upper reaches of the Himalayas in Tibet, periodically reported by experts in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. In winter the level of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Chinese) goes down much more than before, resulting in the emergence of ‘char’land. This affects navigability, and marine life, seriously threatening livelihoods related to fishing and transport.
Some time ago, large parts of the river began to go dry and instead of the normal water flow, there were large tracts of black mud! Official inquiries made by India elicited the Chinese response that nothing unusual had happened in the upper reaches in terms of the weather, nor had any experiments been carried out! The matter ended as inexplicably as it had started, no one being any the wiser! The giant Three Gorges dams have been built already, overriding international protests and protesting environmentalists. But the Chinese have further plans to build more dams, some three times higher than the ones already up, near the area of origin of the Brahmaputra!
Given the limited nature of information sharing Indo-China protocol on Brahmaputra –related issues, there is not much that downstream countries like India or Bangladesh can do. Beijing provides only information regarding the weather and rainfall on its territory.
Therefore, it is of the urgent importance for India to work out with China and Bhutan a comprehensive, equitable water management treaty that will address the negative impact of hydro and infra projects in the downstream states and countries.
Ironically, observers feel that it could be more problematic for Assam to persuade Delhi first to appreciate its geophysical vulnerabilities before seeking to bring China and Bhutan on board for a larger initiative. Guwahati and Delhi may be ruled by the Bharatiya janata Party, still the job may not be easy.
The Modi-led Central Government is firmly committed to (a) increase India’s footprint and involvement in its eastern neighbourhood and (b) determined to go for large scale ‘green’ energy production to combat global warming. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, making his second visit to Bhutan, inaugurated the Mangdechhu hydropower project, scheduled to produce 720 megatwatts of ‘green’ environment-friendly power on completion. Bhutan’s aggregate power production would increase from 1606 MWs to 2326 MWs, a 44% leap.
Bhutan sells part of its excess power to India, where the electricity consumption has increased substantially in recent years. There will be need for even more power in the years ahead. India has major a stake in ensuring that it can use any surplus power that may be produced in the region. An added sweetener is that hydropower projects that Delhi is sponsoring in the region do not contribute to environmental pollution.
India is pushing ahead with implementing hydropower generation not only in Bhutan. It is doing the same at home in a major way — in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. A few hydro electric generation projects are already operational. Many more including are on the anvil, targeting power production exceeding 50,000 megawatts eventually.
The question arises, how far can Delhi accommodate the justified demand of its own Northeast region for environmental and economic protection, without compromising its own quest to emerge as an industrialized giant in the new millennium? Finding a balance will not be easy. (IPA Service)