China defends dam on Brahmaputra, India hits back

India on Thursday said China must ensure its hydropower projects don’t infringe on the water rights of lower riparian states, even as Beijing asserted its right to build a dam on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

China’s plans to build a “super” dam on Yarlung Zangbo in Medog county of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have triggered fears about far-reaching consequences for water security in India’s northeastern states. The trans-border Yarlung Zangbo, which originates in TAR, flows into Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, where it is known as the Brahmaputra and plays a crucial role in the local economy.

“As a lower riparian state with considerable established user rights to the waters of trans-border rivers, the government has consistently conveyed its views and concerns to Chinese authorities and urged them to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.

The development, coming against the backdrop of the dragging border standoff in the Ladakh sector of the LAC, has the potential to further complicate bilateral relations.

India has noted reports of China’s plans to build a super dam and the government carefully monitors all developments on the Brahmaputra river, Srivastava said. The Chinese side has informed India on several occasions it is “only undertaking run-of-the-river hydropower projects which do not involve diversion of waters of the Brahmaputra”, he said.

“We intend to remain engaged with China on the issue of trans-border rivers to safeguard our interests,” Srivastava said. Issues concerning trans-border rivers are discussed with China through an expert-level mechanism, set up in 2006, and diplomatic channels.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying brushed aside apprehensions about the project while asserting China’s “legitimate right” to build projects on the lower reaches of Yarlung Zangbo. She held out the assurance that any project will account for the interests of downstream states such as India and Bangladesh.

“When it comes to use and development of cross-border rivers, China always acts responsibly. We have a policy featuring development and conservation, and all projects will go through science-based planning and assessment with due consideration for its impact downstream and taking into account interests of upstream and downstream regions,” she said when asked about the project.

“The development of lower reaches of Yarlung Zangbo is in early stages of planning and assessment. There is no need to read too much into that,” she said.

China, India and Bangladesh have for long had “good cooperation” in sharing hydrological information, flood reduction and contingency management, and Beijing will continue communications through existing channels, Hua said.

International experts said that although details about the massive project are not publicly available, it could impact lower riparian states and the environment of TAR once completed.

Ameya Pratap Singh, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, who has written on India-China relations, said India needs to be on alert. From India’s perspective, the risks are flooding, water scarcity, diversion of water and consequent unrest in the North-east, he said.

Liu Xiaoxue of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, said the dam was an opportunity for China and India to cooperate but New Delhi’s apprehensions will remain.

“My opinion is that it will surely benefit both sides, leading to mutual prosperity. But given the huge deficit of political mutual trust between India and China, there is no doubt it will result in a strong resistance from the Indian side,” she said.

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