A mistrustful neighbourhood

BG Verghese is an Indian water expert, political commentator and professor at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. Here, he talks to Isabel Hilton about the trans-boundary rivers of the Third Pole.

Isabel Hilton: How would you assess the state of cooperation in the Himalayan watershed?

BG Verghese: It’s very limited. There has been a lot of political mistrust; water arouses great emotion and is sometimes viewed in nationalist terms. There have been misunderstandings about the idea that countries “own” water, rather than it being a shared resource. There are different views about prior appropriation as against equitable apportionment, so problems between earlier developers and late starters are cropping up in various places.

IH: Could you expand on the early developer/late starter questions?

BGV: Take the Nile, for instance. Egypt, as a lower riparian, developed what was virtually a virgin, untapped river for its own purposes. That is prior appropriation. When other countries later wanted to develop hydropower, irrigation or flood control, Egypt said they couldn’t pre-empt what Egypt had done. Pakistan has developed the Kabul River. Now Afghanistan is asking about its rights, since the river flows through Afghanistan, but Pakistan is arguing that its development can’t be pre-empted.

We have similar problems on rivers in India, but the internationally accepted principle is equitable apportionment.

IH: What is the basis for assigning the shares?

BGV: There are various principles: The Helsinki Doctrine laid down certain guidelines, including the contribution to the water flows made by various countries and populations. There is no hard water law as such, but it’s a shared resource and everyone must get a fair deal. Upstream countries have no right to pollute the waters, even if they don’t interfere with the flows. These problems take on different characters in different regions.

In this region, India and Pakistan have the Indus River agreement, which is not an optimal solution. With Bangladesh, India has the agreement on Ganges [water sharing] and is trying to reach understandings on the other 53 trans-boundary rivers on the principle of no harm to the lower riparian.

IH: But there are problems between India and Bangladesh?

BGV: There is political mistrust. I don’t want to sound very Indian but Big Brother (India) tends to take the rap because of the psychology of small countries where there is mistrust. The classic example is the Farraka Barrage, which India built after independence to divert water into the dying Bhagirathi stream, on which the port of Calcutta stands. Bangladesh argues that the abstraction of the headwater flows by India is causing serious effects in Bangladesh – drying up of the mangroves, affecting drinking water, agriculture, salination, corrosion of industrial plant and so on.

But the reality is that there have been geo-morphological changes in the river. It is moving eastwards and the delta is drying up on the western side and, as the river changes its mainstream course, it deposits silt, which builds up into little silt dams. Bangladesh has the right to water but is unable to use it during the lean season because of the siltation of the Gorai Hump – a huge silt dam, about 18 feet high [5.5 metres] and 30 kilometres long. When the river starts dropping after the flood season, it cannot cross the Gorai Hump. The lean season is from January 1 to the end of May, and the historical records show that no water used to flow into the Gorai after November. So this is an old problem, but it remains an issue for a lot of people.

On the Barak River, which joins the Ganges and Brahmaputra, there’s a storage project in India proposed at Tipaimukh, in Manipur, where various streams join. There’s a narrow gorge and it’s a good site for a dam. When the Indo-Bangladeshi treaty was signed in 1972, Bangladesh proposed that the Joint River Commission do something about the Barak flooding. After several joint surveys, India proposed Tipaimukh as a probable site [for a dam], but for various political reasons in India, the project did not move ahead.

Now it’s being taken forward. It’s a 1,500-megawatt installed-capacity dam with eight to nine million cubic metres of water storage, which will moderate flooding and improve navigation downriver. But now there’s agitation in Bangladesh to the effect that it will leave the Meghna River high and dry and cause saline intrusion and summer flooding.

Any dam stores the peak monsoon flood and releases it year-round. It would reduce peak floods by 20% to 25%, benefitting both counties, and augment lean season flows by 30% to 40%, so in the summer there would be more water. But the issue is whipped up by the opposition parties in Bangladesh on the grounds that it is a sell-out to India.

I can understand Bangladeshi fears: about 95% of Bangladesh’s waters enter the country from India, though they may originate in Bhutan or China. You could say that, for Bangladesh, India controls the taps and can turn them off. But that is certainly not the intention.

Between Nepal and India, there are also problems of asymmetry: Nepal has no real water problem because it only has three to four million hectares [30,000 to 40,000 square kilometres] of arable land, of which the irrigable area is perhaps two million hectares [20,000 square kilometers] in the Terai, bordering India. India says that Nepal has the right to use as much water as it wants since there is a limit to how much it can use and much of it will regenerate in India, through underground flows, unless the water is polluted. For some time, however, Nepal has had the idea that it “owns” the water. One of their chief engineers wrote a book about how hydroelectric power in Nepal was really a by-product of selling water to India. But, in international law, flowing water is like the sun and the air: it belongs to everybody. You are entitled to use it, but not to pollute it. The only charge you can make is for any added value in flood prevention and drought alleviation through storage.

IH: Does that charge only apply to barrages, or does wetland restoration also count?

BGV: No, that is still a natural process. In the Columbia River for instance, in North America, the value of flood moderation is commuted, like a pension. The United States paid Canada around US$50 million [341 million yuan] as the commuted value of flood moderation, though in today’s terms that would be more like US$500 million [3.4 billion yuan] or US$1 billion [6.8 billion yuan].

In the pricing of hydroelectric power, if a dam is wholly in one country, the power is sold on a commercial basis. On the Mahakali, which is a boundary river between India and Nepal, the benefits of the dam are shared 50:50 between India and Nepal. If Nepal can’t use its 50% share, it will flow to India. Since it is stored water, India paid a notional commuted value in a higher proportion of the capital costs of the dam.

IH: China has very large infrastructure projects and some people in India feel extremely
nervous about China’s intentions on the Brahmaputra. Do you share these concerns?

BGV: I think they are exaggerated and uninformed. First, the Brahmaputra doesn’t exist north of the Himalayas. It comes into being in Assam [a northeastern state of India], where various rivers meet. The scare is that if the Chinese divert the Brahmaputra north, it will leave the Brahmaputra in south Asia high and dry. But more than 70% of the Zangbo, the main stem, is generated south of the Himalaya, so it would not greatly affect India.

Second, you can divert water, but how much? When we talk about the Tibetan plateau most people think we are talking about a billiard table, but the general topography is at 10,000 feet [around 3,000 metres] and the mountains rise to 16,000, 18,000, 20,000 feet. So you are talking about superimposing an Alpine situation onto the Tibetan plateau. If you imagine that you can pump the Rhone across the Alps into Hungary, you haven’t understood geography or considered the hydrology, the cost effectiveness or the environmental impacts, which are horrendous at high altitudes. Secondly, the theory seems to be that, since the Chinese built the Grand Canal in the fifth century BC and have now built the Three Gorges dam and the Golmud-Lhasa railway, they can do anything. But if you want to transport this water uphill and down dale, you have to store a large quantum of water and be able to move it.

People say that the Chinese will use the power of the great bend of the Brahmaputra. The maximum drop would be from Tibet to India. Assuming that it could be done, you have to drop the water 2,500 feet to generate 40,000 megawatts. Then you have to lift it back again, 2,500 feet, to get it onto the Tibetan plateau, after which you have to lift it again, several times over, to get it to the Gobi Desert or Beijing. If you generate 40,000 megawatts of power then use it all to send the water back again, you are digging holes in the ground just to fill them up again.

The Chinese have said they intend to use the elevation further north, towards the head waters, where these gorges are already at 12,000 to 14,000 feet and where there is only a 500-metre hump to cross. But the further north you go, the less water there is because you are missing out on the tributary streams and the glacier melt. They are talking about linking the Yarlung-Zangbo River, the Mekong River and the upper Yangtze and moving the water north, which is a very different ballgame. They argue that this would help China to meet its needs and would provide a flood cushion for south Asia. In times of drought, as a good neighbour, they would open the gates and let the water flow. But this is not a very practical proposition either because there is less water if you go north – and if you go south, you have the energy costs.

There seems to be a debate in China about the south-north water transfer project: the water-resources ministry opposes it as utopian and cost ineffective. It is an order of magnitude and scale greater than anything that has been attempted.

In any case, let’s assume some diversion on the Yarlung-Zangbo. Even if they divert up to 20%, so what? It won’t affect India and south Asia. It is pointless to get everyone worked up over a non-starter. Nepal and Bangladesh are pleased about the controversy because they think that their local bully (India) is being hit by a bigger bully (China). There are uninformed people in the Indian parliament asking ignorant questions. I think it’s a non-starter, bordering on nonsense, but I have no legal or moral quarrel with it. In fact, we could encourage them to get bogged down for 100 years in an unrealisable project.

Isabel Hilton is editor of

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Also in this series:
John Briscoe praises Chinese finance abroad
Peter Bosshard urges smart infrastructure
Graeme Kelleher defends dam building
Joydeep Gupta looks at tension in south Asia