As China, India announce plans to dam Brahmaputra, experts weigh the risks for Bangladesh

With their diplomatic ties at a nadir, both China and India have announced competing plans to build hydropower projects culminating in the construction of dams in the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra River.

The river, also known as the Yarlung Tsangbo in China, flows from Tibet into India's Arunachal Pradesh state and down through Assam to Bangladesh.

While some analysts warned that the moves could potentially develop into another flashpoint between the regional heavyweights, from a Bangladeshi perspective, it is important to weigh the ramifications of damming the Brahmaputra on the downstream country amid concerns of flash floods and water shortages.

Experts have so far remained cautious in their assessment of the possible impact of the projects for Bangladesh. They believe that an environmental study is needed first to find out the kind of impact the projects could have on the Brahmaputra basin.

According to Chinese state media, the state-owned hydropower company POWERCHINA had last month signed “a strategic cooperation agreement” with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government to “implement hydropower exploitation in the downstream of the Yarlung Zangbo River” as part of the new Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

In India, environmentalists and experts fear the new project authorised by China could cause significant environmental damage, including a water crisis in the country's northeast region.

Shortly after China's announcement, the Indian government indicated that it, too, is considering building a dam in Arunachal Pradesh to counter the Chinese project.

Caught up between the diplomatic scuffle between India and China, the consequences of damming the Brahmaputra could be serious for Bangladesh but the picture will become much clearer once more data is available, say experts.

Mahmudur Rahman, director of the Joint River Commission, Bangladesh, told bdnews24.com that Bangladesh has not yet received any information about the Chinese project on the Brahmaputra.

“China is at the very tip of the Brahmaputra. We don't officially know what they are doing there. We learned about the construction of the dam through media reports. We don't have any data on this issue. Without that, it's hard to gauge the impact of the project."

"It won't be right to say anything without conducting a survey on this issue. That will require data from China to find out how much area will be used by the dam. If water is diverted through a dam, there could be consequences. However, those issues are not yet clear to us as we do not have all the information available.”

After reports of the hydropower project began to emerge, Chinese officials said the country will take into consideration the interest of other countries before firming up any plan to develop a dam on the Yarlung Tsangbo river.

Downstream development of the river was at a "preliminary planning and demonstration" stage, Ji Rong, an official at the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

"Any project will undergo scientific planning and demonstration with full consideration for the impact on the downstream areas and the interests of both upstream and downstream countries," she said in a statement.

Around 200,000 square kilometre of the Brahmaputra flows through India, with 39,000 square kilometers passing through Bangladesh, said Mahmudur.

But as Bangladesh is farther downstream, he believes the country has less reasons to worry than India if the river is dammed.

"If there is any impact, it will feel it India first. Then it will fall on Bangladesh. If they do hydropower projects, then there should be no problem. Because the theme of the hydropower project is, you can't hold on to water. As a result, they'll be forced to release the water.”

However, Malik Fida Abdullah Khan, acting executive director of the Centre for Environment and Geographic Information Service (CEGIS), said the project will affect all four countries in the Brahmaputra basin.

"Whatever happens with the hydropower project, the rainwater that accumulates during the monsoon is crucial, but the amount will be reduced. On the other hand, water levels which are typically low during winter, could rise. As a result, it will impact the whole basin area. China, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh will definitely be affected."

“Water is withheld for the purposes of hydropower projects. It is then released for power generation. Since it has to be released evenly, its flow will increase more than usual in winter. Even then, nothing can be said without looking at the potential and actual environmental impact. ”

Photo courtesy of India Today

As such, Malik, a member of the National River Protection Commission, believes that China should share details of its plans with the other countries.

"How much of an impact it will have, whether any major upstream activity will have an impact on the entire basin - these need to be assessed. That assessment needs to be shared with downstream countries. If China does that, it should share it with Bhutan, India and Bangladesh."

"If the potential and environmental impacts of any dam is shared with downstream countries, we will be able to assess it scientifically. It's an unwritten agreement that upstream countries will share (detail) when they go for massive interventions."

Professor Rezaur Rahman, of BUET's Institute of Water and Flood Management, also believes that a Chinese dam will have consequences for Bangladesh.

"Every dam has an effect. It will have an impact on Bangladesh as well. But the impact will be less here than in India, because we are much further below.”

On the consequences that Bangladesh could face from the tussle between India and China, Rezaur said, “Most of the water we get comes from India. India is building dams on the rivers we share but they don't want to admit that."

"Now, if the two countries compete for water and control the flow of water, we will be the loser."

According to a report by Chinese newspaper Global Times, POWERCHINA chairman Yan Zhiyong said the project, which is awaiting implementation, has created "a historic opportunity for China's hydropower industry."

However, Prof Rezaur stressed the need to keep an eye on whether China diverts water through the construction of a dam under the guise of the hydropower project.

“If there is a hydropower project, the impact will be a little less because they have to let go of the water. They can't hold on to it."

"But China has said before that they will not build a dam or pursue hydropower projects. But now they're doing it one after another. In 2015, they stopped the flow of water to Mongolia through a dam.”

Although the impact of the Chinese dam may not be as pronounced in Bangladesh compared to India, Rezaur nevertheless urged the government to be proactive about the matter.

Stressing the need to discuss the issue with both China and India, he said, "We will suffer less than India but that doesn't mean we should sit still."

"As a country at the downstream of the Brahmaputra, we will be affected here as well. We have to keep an eye on that."