Bangladesh, China and India Could Have Conflicts Over the Brahmaputra River

The Brahmaputra River starts in China and runs through India and Bangladesh and there are serious concerns for regional stability in conflicts over the water of the Brahmaputra River. China and India are actively constructing dams and considering water diversion plans. Bangladesh faces human security pressures that will be magnified by upstream river practices.

China completed the Zangmu dam in October 2015.

The Indus and Ganges basins have dominated the current study of river systems. For the Indus, the India-Pakistan conflict has elevated the importance of understanding the full spectrum of threats in the region, including water insecurity. The Ganges basin also has
been a critical area of importance, given the hundreds of millions of people
who depend on that river.

The Brahmaputra basin has been comparatively underexamined, despite the complex geopolitics involved and potential threats to regional stability. The Brahmaputra basin covers 580,000 square kilometers across four countries. 33.6 percent of it lies within India; 50.5 percent in China; 8.1 percent in Bangladesh; and 7.8 percent in Bhutan. The river is the fifth-largest in the world by flow but there is no water-sharing agreement or management accord in the basin.

In September 2016, China announced that it would temporarily divert the Xiabuqu, a tributary of the Brahmaputra located on the Tibetan Plateau, to begin the construction of two major hydroelectric dams. They want to increase electricity production and to contribute to a rising standard of living in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

India has plans to build hundreds of dams in the Northeast region but most think only a fraction of these dams will be built.

China may seek to divert the Brahmaputra river to meet domestic needs, especially for irrigation.

In 2017, there were reports in Indian media that Chinese engineers were testing techniques that could be used to build a 1,000km long tunnel to divert water from the Brahmaputra river to the Xinjiang region. China denied those plans.

Diverting the Brahmaputra river to the Yellow river would be very challenging. The Yangtze riverbed lies between 80 and 500 meters lower than that of the Yellow River. A series of dams would be necessary on the Tongtian, Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu rivers, as well as many tributaries, to raise the water to a point where it could flow naturally to the Yellow River. Most of these dams would need to be 150 meters or more in height, with the highest 292 meters. It would also be necessary to build a series of tunnels across watersheds – the longest of which would be 164 kilometers.

China had the details of the tough engineering challenges for the diversion. This means that China went to the trouble of scoping out the diversion project before abandoning it for now. China could make local diversions of the river for other water needs.

China does have plans to build three more dams along the Brahmaputra in Tibet. There are plans to construct hydroelectric dams along the river at the nearby towns of Jiacha, Jiexu, and Dagu.

Water shortages in northern China are not as severe as some claim. Some parts of northern China are semi-humid, and even in some arid and semi-arid areas glacier melt creates fertile zones, such as the Hexi corridor and Xinjiang. Many water shortages are due to environmental damage, often arising from inappropriate human activity or misuse of water resources.

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