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Panel allays China water diversion fear

New Delhi, Dec. 11: An inter-ministry group has said it had found no evidence yet that China was planning to divert Brahmaputra waters from India despite the 21 dams it’s building on the river and its tributaries but asked Delhi to remain alert.

The tentative conclusion and the advice to monitor the situation, especially the tunnels the Chinese are building, followed a recent meeting of the high-level group chaired by the water resources secretary.

The recommendation came amid fears that the dams on the Brahmaputra, Assam’s lifeline, could slash the 78 billion cubic metres of water the river brings into the subcontinent in winter and spring by almost 85 per cent.

Indian engineers had earlier said the Brahmaputra waters could be diverted to China at some points like the Great Bend where the river, called Yarlong Tsangpo in Tibet, turns from travelling eastwards towards China to south-west into the Assam valley.

But the inter-ministry group said it had found no evidence yet to support such alarmist talk that China was trying to divert the Brahmaputra at the Great Bend.

The group accessed data and satellite images to pinpoint the position of two dams at Zangmu and Jiacha on the Brahmaputra and the 19 others on its tributaries, which flow through the Tibetan plateau into the mighty river.

However, except for the two big dams on the Brahmaputra, the rest are what is called “run-of-the-river” projects meant to generate electricity for the districts through which the tributaries flow.

Satellite images for the Zangmu site show a wall, two tunnels and a substation. Tunnels, normally required for hydel projects, can also be used to divert water. News reports indicate the project could cost as much as $1.2 billion, making it one of the costliest hydel projects in the region.

The reports show the work at Jiacha, about 15km downstream, began recently. Eighteen of the remaining 19 dams on the tributaries are either complete or nearly ready for use.

The fear that the dams could leave parts of the subcontinent dry has been compounded by the fact that India and China have no water-sharing treaty.

Last month, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi told reporters: “We are taking up the issue very seriously… I will request the Prime Minister to consider signing a water-sharing treaty with China.”

There is also the fear that water stored in the dams could be suddenly released to unleash floods in the Northeast.

Uday Bhanu Singh of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses said besides the boundary issue, water was “the one hot topic that India needs to resolve with China… though we don’t see it being done overnight”.

But India, he added, should approach water-sharing talks only after gathering “more data” for “a better understanding of what we should achieve”.

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