Posted by: shipbright | February 24, 2010

The Brahmaputra River…China, India and Bangladesh: The Dragon is at the headwaters. Tibetan Plateau series #5

[photo courtesy of:]

The Brahmaputra…

The world’s fourth largest river in the world…Born in rarified air of Tibetan plateau from the Jima Yangzong Glacier near Mt. Kailash in the northern Himalayas, the Brahmaputra flows almost 2,900 Km [1,800 miles] to join the Ganges River in Bangladesh to form the world’s largest river delta in the Bay of Bengal.  The Brahmaputra drains an area of approximately 9.4 million square kilometers…combined with the Ganges River these rivers sustain more people than all the people in western Europe and North America combined.

The Brahmaputra goes by a number of names during its journey to the sea.  It begins as the Yarlung Tsangpo in southwestern Tibet and becomes the Dihang in China, then the Brahmaputra in India and finally the Jamuna in Bangladesh.  Named for the son of Brahma from Hindu mythology this sacred river is the focus of great concern for the countries of China, India and Bangladesh.

There has been speculation for years that China may build a dam in the area of the Great Bend to divert water into China’s Gobi desert which covers half of China’s landmass and yet has only 7 percent of its freshwater.   Here is an excerpt from an article from the Hindu Business Line:

China’s attempt to divert the Brahmaputra has reared its head again. The Chinese are apparently eyeing about 40 billion cubic meters, out of the annual average inflow of 71.4 billion, of the Brahmaputra’s waters. The river skirts China’s borders before dipping into India and Bangladesh. China has a serious need to feed water to its north-west territory, the Gobi Desert, which contains almost half the country’s total landmass, but only seven percent of its freshwater. The Gobi occupies an area of 1,300,000 making it one of the largest deserts in the world. Desertification of Gobi since 1950s has expanded it by 52,000 and it is now just 160 km from Beijing. It is said to expand by 3 km per year.

China has the will and the necessary resources — manpower, technology and, above all, large foreign currency reserves in excess of a trillion dollars — to take the Brahmaputra diversion project forward; the country’s economic stimulus in infrastructure could create employment potential for more than a few million people.

The Brahmaputra flows 2,900 km from its source in the Kailash range of the Himalayas to its massive delta and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The river drains a vast area of nearly 9,36,800 sq. km. This river system forms the largest river delta and the third largest free water fall out into the Ocean in the world — next only to the Amazon and the Congo rivers. More people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin than Western Europe and the entire North American continent.

This river system is of critical interest to all the four countries, including Nepal. China is an upper riparian state and, therefore, has the freedom and capacity to divert the river. Should that happen, the irreparable loss will result in destruction of a large part of the North-East and Bangladesh. This step will also drive millions of refugees from Bangladesh into India for their livelihood. There is thus an urgent need to address this issue trilaterally.

Water sustains life, environment and our culture. With global demand for water on the rise, we cannot be surprised if one country responds to its needs unilaterally; it is for us to take adequate steps before such disaster strikes.–by S. Padmanabhan

China says it has no designs on the Brahmaputra.  In a story reported by the Times of India this past fall China’s Minister for Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, stated in the China Daily that the proposal to divert waters of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra had no government backing and “there is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects”.

…Maybe…Just this past month another issue has come to the surface that may play a role in what China does in the future about the river.  China has very dirty water.  In a story published by the Washington Post on February 10th the Post reported that China’s water pollution levels are more than twice the amount officially reported in 2007.   China neglected to account for agricultural runoff and pollution which is a MAJOR factor in any freshwater basin area.   China has very smart and capable people…to suggest that they just forgot to account for it invites skepticism and speculation as to why…

China’s own freshwater resources have become more strained as population grows and pollution ruins available freshwater.  China has water issues…and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra river is a tempting source and solution for their issues.  If you are downstream from China on the Brahmaputra River you have every right to be concerned about the Dragon upstream…

[graphic courtesy of Flyinureye]

Commentary: I don’t believe that China is totally dismissing or abandoning the project.  The Chinese government states that the idea of the Great Western Route Water Transfer Project was merely floated as an idea by a group of retired government officials in a book, “Tibet’s Water Will Save China”.   China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao is quoted as saying, “there may be some retired officials that support the plan, but they’re not experts advising the government”, in an attempt to soothe the fears of India and Bangladesh.

China’s government controls what gets published in China [try publishing a book critical of the government and see where you end up…].   This sounds an awful lot like the government floating a trial balloon of the idea and seeing what surfaces in opposition.  By placing the initiative on “retired officials” the government has deniability as far as official policy, they get to see what the reactions and objections are in order to work the issues early, and the government can claim “grassroots support by the People” if they move ahead since it wasn’t an “official idea”.  This isn’t a grassroots idea-it’s Astroturf—manufactured and manipulated to look like popular support to create political cover.

Some of the reasons given for dismissing the project by Mr. Liu have been listed as “expensive, technologically unfeasible and controversial”.  Sounds reasonable on the surface…BUT China has foreign currency reserves in the trillions–they have the money [if you’re an American reading this a lot of that money is yours]; it would create a massive economic stimulus and employment program; China has always been smart,  innovative and technologically savvy-if they want to do it they can; and finally China has shown that controversial policies and actions don’t effect them the way a democratically elected, transparent government with a free press is.

They are a central government dominated by a few that rules the many and one cannot accept at face value what government spokespeople say.  They are beholden to the Party and that doesn’t necessarily mean the truth.  There is no free press, no toleration of dissent and no way to verify what is political “spin”, lies, or half-truths.

To be fair China is initiating more environmentally responsible policies.  They’re seeing that in a centrally planned economy where the focus is on output the environmental costs, or “externalities”, in the production of a good is actually a cost that society bears whether it is in human health or ecosystem degradation for example.  Polluted water from industrial discharge, agricultural runoff, and human waste reduces available freshwater resources for an expanding population that is also urbanizing [congregating].  China is seeing that a healthy economy and a healthy environment go hand-in-hand and not at the expense of the other.  It may have been embarrassing for China to have its pollution issues exposed for all the world to see as they were for the summer Olympics, but they addressed it and they’re better for it.  It is a  problem when a government is too insecure to be able to accept or be responsive to legitimate criticism…resentments build until an unarmed student needs to stand in front of a tank in order to be heard.  It’s even more of a problem in the international arena…

So, thumbs up for China addressing its environmental issues that they have created and thumbs down on the Party’s insecurity in not being transparent and tolerating dissent as part of human discourse.  You earn trust–you’re not given it just because you demand it.  India and Bangladesh are smart to be wary of the Dragon, we all should be.  There is opportunity for cooperation in all of this but China will act in its own self-interest…

There is much at stake downstream from the roof of the world.  The Brahmaputra is one of the storied holy rivers of the Plateau and when combined with the Ganges supports a vast array of life in its course and as it empties out into the Bay of Bengal.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta is the largest delta in the world and is home to the Sundarbans–the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.  The Sunderban and the delta supports the people and wildlife of Bangladesh.

Diminishing the water that flows downstream from the Tibetan Plateau glaciers places all life downstream at risk.  This is a serious issue for hundreds of millions of people and it is a geo-political flash point for conflict.   So far we humans have shown that we can negotiate and settle these issues in about half of the conflict cases, BUT the new variable that is being introduced in Asia’s water security challenge is climate change.  The Plateau’s glaciers are shrinking and seasonal flows of water from the Tibetan Plateau glaciers are being effected.

Next on the Tibetan Plateau River issues will be the legendary Mekong River…and here more countries are involved and it becomes a case study in trans-boundary hydro-politics.

Being an informed global citizen makes us all better local and global stewards of our freshwater resources.  It makes us individually and collectively more effective and makes for better national and international policies.

We all need to pay attention to this…no water…no civility…no humanity…no civilization



  1. Greta Article man!

  2. Why India is not breaking the Indus Waters Treaty to teach lesson to Pakistan?

    Breaking or walking out of Indus water treaty does not make sense and there are international ramifications in India’s relation with Bangladesh, Nepal and to some extent China. I will give few reasons : A. Eastern rivers Sutluj, Beas, Ravi were given…

    • Even breaking the Treaty will hardly help India. No advantage India will be able to get. As on date India is not able to get any advantage, unless India wishes to bear a huge cost, only for disadvantage of Pakistan and not an iota of benefit to India.

  3. I would like to point out that Brahmaputra is known as Dihang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. In China the river is known as Yarlung Zangbo. Reference –
    I was born and raised in the Indian state Assam. Brahmaputra is our lifeline like you rightly mentioned. In the state of Assam, for most length of the river, it is known by different names.

  4. I proud-fill born in Bangladesh.

    Khulna is my home town,but current city in Dhaka.I am a student.My study in B SC in civil Engineering in STAMFORD UNIVERSITY.Every years visits in SUBURBANS.

  5. You`re a good writer,Easter

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