The New Horizon

A new world explored with a rational view

Dam on Brahmaputra : Consequence and Reality Check

with 50 comments

I have been reading about Chinese dams in Brahmaputra in Indian newspapers. As a typical lower riparian alarmist, most of the reports also add that China is planning to divert some of its water towards Eastern region, in addition to generation of 40,000 MW of electricity.

Great Bend of Brahmaputra

Great Bend of Brahmaputra

The Brahmaputra river follows an odd channel to flow to the sea. It flows towards east for almost half of its length in mountainous Tibet and then takes a U-turn (photo) to enter plains in Assam. Ultimately, it enters Bangladesh towards South and meets the Ganges before reaching the sea.

The place where it takes a U-turn, is known as Great Bend of Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. At the same place, the river forms the deepest canyon of the world (Grand Canyon??). Only in 1998, a 30 mt waterfall was discovered nearby and since then China is planning to build a huge hydroelectric dam having an installed capacity of  40,000 MW.

The media reports also claim that there are proposals in China to divert some of rivers water too through the same dam to Eastern region. The author also claimed that China is planning to divert 40 BCM of water out of 71.5 BCM carried by Brahmaputra each year. One must remember that the water calculation is based on what it carries from Tibet to India. The same river has a runoff of an average of 550 BCM of water when it reaches Bangladesh. Where from this additional flow comes? There are two answers – the first is the Monsoon waters and the other is the water carried by the tributaries. The monsoon flow of  Brahmaputra is almost 10 times that of its dry season flow (Source : Page 39-40, Rivers and Riverine Landscape in North East India By Sutapa Sengupta).

Now let us look at the possibilities. The first is only the hydro-power generation. This does not change anything for India. Hydro-power generation is non-consumptive usage of water and should end up increasing the dry season flow by 10-20% – which should be good for irrigation usage in Assam and Bangladesh. The success of this plan depends on how the irrigation planning is done. I am hopeful that China will also sell some of the electricity to India since it may be a cheaper option for them.

The next topic to discuss the feasibility of this project. There are basically three different ways to implement the project. The first is to build hydro-dam only. The second is to divert water only during monsoon. The third is to divert a constant volume of water throughout the year.

The first sounds feasible and I have already discussed it. The second should also cause no harm to India. It is understandable that during Monsoon, it’s the excess water that causes the problem as it floods vast area in India and Bangladesh. It’s good for China as well since it is diverting the water to an area that does not get rainwater at the same time of the year. It will get water for 3-6 months when India or Bangladesh does not need it.

Chinese river-linking plan

Chinese river-linking plan

The third one could potentially have dire consequences for both India and Bangladesh. It could be completed as the second phase of Chinese plan to interlink their rivers (this is how the first phase is). For India, the North-East is both food-surplus and water-surplus. After the diversion starts, the dry season flow could diminish by 20-30%. For a sandwiched Bangladesh, it’s time to share water with both Asian Giants – China and India. India is already taking 50% of Ganges water in the East. If Brahmaputra (Jamuna in Bangladesh) is compromised, it would virtually be a dry Bangladesh in lean season. A lot of alarmist authors also mentioned reduction in Hydro-power potential of North-East India due to Chinese diversion. I do not agree to them. First reason is most of planned hydro-power potential is actually in Brahmaputra tributaries. The lack in dry season flow would only block any “run-of-the-river” projects, but not anyone with a plan of reservoirs.

There are ways to cushion against the third problem as well. If Indians build reservoirs in Arunachal to hold the excess monsoon water, the condition should not be that bad. However, the loss of vast forest area and displacement of tribals from their land is regretted. The Indian Govt has already stepped a foot towards this (another post, news).

One thing to keep in mind that if India can not show any meaningful use of Brahmaputra waters, China has a right to divert them. This is why the first two plans has to be accepted by India even if it harms India. India does not “use” monsoon water, neither does it use the gradient of the Great Bend. The International law (though neither India nor China signed it) indicates the existing use as a parameter for equitable water sharing. China has already built a dam (photo) on Indus tributary. The first Chinese dam on Tsangpo is also coming up. So we don’t know what’s coming next.

Chinese diversion of Brahmaputra water

Chinese diversion of Brahmaputra water

Before signing off, I would like to do a reality check on how this plan would work. If a viewer can identify the river Brahmaputra (Yarlong on the map) on top of India, he can see the red marked channel (or the dotted red line on the map above) from the same river passing a string of rivers to reach the Yellow river. The rivers crossed includes Salween, Mekong and Yangtze – three of the largest in Asia. In the first phase, the plan is to build a connector between Yangtze and Yellow river as a part of Western routes.

It is logical to believe that China cannot divert water from Yarlong (Brahmaputra) before it does so from Salween and Mekong. [Adding later to clarify – because taking water from those rivers involves much less effort than what it takes to move Brahamaputra water]. So far, China has built three dams on Mekong, two are under construction and there are four more to come (map). However, there are no plans to divert Mekong water yet. Once it starts diversion of Mekong, a series of political conflict is expected – especially with ASEAN states – something that China could hardly afford. This could potentially delay the plan to add further water in the channel. Therefore, in my opinion, even if China diverts Brahmaputra, it won’t be soon. Literally, there is no such possibility in next 30 years in my opinion. By that time, energy-hungry India should “tame” the Brahmaputra and have sufficient control over it. If India fails to do that, it would be our problem because we would fail to meet our goal despite the mitigation plan is available. It’s better not to be the “Cry Baby” if we know the problem beforehand.

I can’t term the projected dire consequences of the diversion plan anything other than a mere Conspiracy theory at this point of time. The importance that Indian media attaching to it – proves that lower riparian alarmist nature is Universal. The last thing I want is a political conflict over water. India needs good relationship with China. Alarmist media should do a reality check before they push forward their agenda to inject fear in common Indians.


Written by Diganta

June 28, 2009 at 3:31 am

50 Responses

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  1. A nation’s history and future is not a matter of a few decades , or even a century for that matter.

    Every nation needs people, or institutionalized research & thinking, that would have a clear vision for the future, which again is not few decades, or a century. Thinking well ahead with a clear vision is an essential part of governance, that would help formulate policies.

    In India, unfortunately, the important dimension of a serious vision for the future, either at local, regional or national level is missing.

    The Chinese are forging ahead with a clear purpose, unlike the Indians that prefer to sleep until the damage is done.

    The “alarmists” are those few people in India that do not live for the immediate future, or even for the period of their lifetime. They are doing their job of drawing attention of the nation to the potential disasters waiting to happen in the future, whether due to external act of hostility, or due to internal chaos or mis-governance.

    Having spent half of my life in India, I am witness to the ad-hoc ism, incompetence and corruption in every sphere of governance, whether it is in a Central Government organization, at the state level of governance, at local / state level of planning for urban development, or at party level in politics ( this observation, of course does not include a few glorious exceptions here and there).

    The author’s re-assuring opinion about Chinese river-diversion plan is a classic example of the state of denial, and selfish existance that most ( so called educated ) Indians live in.

    One could not have been more correct, when it was said that ” India is a functional anarchy”.

    GOD save India !


    June 28, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    • I didn’t see any facts or figures in your comment. I would like to debate the issue only once you come up with them.


      June 28, 2009 at 5:05 pm

  2. The reality is, there is little India can do at this point of time, about diversion of the river. It is besides the point that Assam is blessed with other water sources including adequate monsoon, and hopefully a dying Brahmaputra will not be a complete disaster.

    China has less per capita arable land than most countries in the world and therefore has a policy of land grabbing. It is also a nation that faces frequent droughts and short of water in many regions. Chinese have already altered the demography in Russian far east and Myanmar’s bordering regions. It has swallowed Tibet, will eventually swallow a demographically depleting Russia, and if not resisted, would swallow Arunachal too.

    Diverting Brahmaputra is one of the many sinister designs that China has against India, and there is a sense of denial amongst the Congress mother fu**ers ( that ruled India for the most part ) about dealing with China, just as they are in denial about the Pak/Bangladesh sponsored terrorist threats that are growing by the day.


    June 28, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    • China won’t divert Brahmaputra because it wants to hurt India – but because they need water to survive. They have right to do that. It’s similar in India. I think if it’s easier to shield ourselves, we should do it.

      The other issues you mentioned about China/Others are not related to this post.


      June 28, 2009 at 11:19 pm

      • Diganta
        i could not understand one thing why you dont realise the chinese government selfishness while diverting the tributaries of brahmaputra which flows some major countries of asia


        August 17, 2010 at 4:53 pm

        • Because selfish does understand the value of his action as well.


          June 16, 2011 at 7:27 pm

      • /** They have right to do that. It’s similar in India. **/

        How can you award such a right to china on ur own? In any rivers that span across countries, the rights are always relative.. If china has right to build it, india has the right to oppose to stop it.. there are various means to do this, economical, political and military etc.. the need is a strong will, and a self-dignity, which is lacking in your post..

        another golden words from you ::: “India needs good relation with china”.. dont china need good relation with india?


        March 2, 2012 at 7:58 am

        • I am none to award right, the geography does. Moreover, there are international laws and regulations which India and China are not part of, awarding rights with certain limitations. India can bring a case to an International Committee if China agrees to it. I don’t see how economical, political or military could work if the Chinese gain is anyway far higher than what we can damage them … 🙂
          Both India and China needs good relation with each other, that’s why spinning conspiracy theories on mere speculations is not a good sign from India.


          March 2, 2012 at 8:14 am

  3. Your reality check is based on the assumption that china will divert the water of Yarlong across the three rivers to replenish the flow of yellow river in order to irrigate the Gobi desert. But according to the below news this is just a part of the plan. The another part is as follows—

    ” First, a tunnel would be drilled through Mount Namcha Barwa. At the bottom of the tunnel, the water will flow into a reservoir and then diverted along some 500 miles of the Tibetan upland to the arid fastnesses of Xinjiang and Gansu. There are also plans to replenish the waters of the Yellow river in China’s north through gigantic water diversion schemes. ”

    Now what about the reality check of this option– diverting water through Tibetan upland to Xinjiang and Gansu?


    September 25, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    • Do you know where Xinjiang is located? It’s in the North Western part of China. Water of river Brahamaputra cannot be tunnelled there. The plan was to merge it to Yangtze.


      November 2, 2009 at 11:38 pm

  4. You seem to be defending china!! Think about wat will happen if they do divert it, Bangladesh and a big chunk of India will be flooded!! I read in another article dat an estimate 600 million will lose their homes and about 200 million will die! U r saying dat d chinese need water rite? Well there’s a hundred thousand other ways to get dat water (without destroying d lives of like 700 million people) CHINA SUCKS!!!

    Urgi Jo,

    P.S. I’m thirteen

    Urgi Jo

    November 4, 2009 at 4:32 am

    • Where did you get the calculations of how many will die and how many would lose their homes? Does a dam triggers those? Then all Indians should have been homeless because of 4000+ large dams are in India.


      November 5, 2009 at 5:58 pm

      • COMMIE COMMIE bhai bhai..

        rajesh sen

        June 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

        • I’m not a COMMIE, no longer my state is a “COMMIE” …


          June 16, 2011 at 7:26 pm

  5. […] schemes expanding rapidly across much of the developing world, the Nile River, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and other major rivers upon whose flow of fresh water billions of people depend for their […]

  6. I agree with the point mentioned by author in his post, that India has to tame Brahmaputra to claim any share as a co-riparian state in future.

    But at the same time, some of the views of the author is subjective expressions and upon which premise is drawn like,

    1. “””it starts diversion of Mekong, a series of political conflict is expected – especially with ASEAN states – something that China could hardly afford..””””

    The next question is, what if China affords a political conflict as it has already possess conflict with Vietnam/Phillipines on Spartly islands!?

    Then will it not India become a CRY BABY then? So it is fine if we take some cautious approach than being alarmist. Our actions should be based on what is good for India instead of responding to what China does. In that respect, Indian building of dams on tributaries (though has no effect literally), and on Brahmaputra should go ahead!

    In fact it is the third option described by author that most of the people are concerned about and turned alarmist, inspite of a few a reservoirs built across Brahmaputra in comparison to large project underway across tributaries.

    The first option is agreed that hydro-power projects are non-consumptive and again second is also agreed, but both are very subjective thinking that China would behave in a particular way. But the alarmist view arise when a question is posed, what if the China does not behave as per first and second options!? That is where India needs to be cautious, but not as perturbed as Indian media.

    Chinese history, since Communist rule in 1949 is always deceptive – Hindi Chini bhai bhai to 1962 war, it’s flip/flop on sikkim, aid to India’s adversaries and the disputed border with India. One can not look the river-link in isolation ignoring political considerations when there is so much disputes with that country.

    So, one needs to be a little cautious if not alarmist for Chinese designs on Brahmaputra!


    January 7, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    • Relating this to Chinese history does not make sense here. I understand that China doesn’t want to build a diversion only to deprive India. It would do so, only if they have equivalent gain from their investment.


      February 10, 2010 at 11:40 pm

      • How do you say that China doesn’t want to build a diversion only to deprive India! Any examples to prove your conviction…..!??? Looks like you know very well what China does and does not in future…if not past history.

        But do not say that this does not make sense here……if you are unable to say so……


        April 17, 2010 at 1:30 pm

        • The reason it does not make sense is that China doesn’t benefit massively from this action, nor does India suffer a lot from it.


          June 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm

  7. Thanks for the info. Please cross-check the data from following link:


    January 23, 2010 at 4:08 am

  8. […] schemes expanding rapidly across much of the developing world, the Nile River, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and other major rivers upon whose flow of fresh water billions of people depend for their […]

  9. I joined in late, got to this in my search for dams on the Brahmaputra. The debate is interesting. Keep going. Even as I tend to side on the side of age-old civilizations on great river banks, it is a common belief that the new age war will be fought over water resources. This is a sticking problem around the world, and even within countries (like the waters of the Krishna). We cannot avoid it. The resources are limited (of sweet water) and demand will obviously outstrip supply. China needs this water as much as India does. Good or bad, China WILL HAVE to do what has to be done. Whether the Indian media reacts or not, safeguards can be in alternatives. The fight will be over before it ever begins, if water starts getting diverted. This is an irreversible reaction. We need to brace ourselves.


    May 18, 2010 at 11:33 am

    • Good or bad, China WILL HAVE to do what has to be done.

      – absolutely. But why do you think that diverting waters from a difficult terrain is the best solution for Chinese water woes? I am not convinced of that and do think Chinese are on the same page as I am …


      June 13, 2011 at 7:12 pm

  10. There is little discussion on the ecological cosequences of these vast dams. They affect ecosystems that have taken thousands of years to develop. A few decades will destroy them.
    It is taken as a given that economic development is the priority but if we destroy our world and its ecosystems all the money we can print will not be enough to save our species.


    May 27, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    • Wow. Then we should discuss hundreds of Indian dams too …


      November 12, 2010 at 12:26 am

  11. Chinese are preparing themselves. from top as well as from Arunachal. & i bet they will help Pakistan & Pakistan will help them. just imagine what happens if river Bramhaputra is diverted from border of Arunachal. what will be the reaction of people of that state after one month. that is what China wants.

    Ajay Singh

    June 9, 2011 at 7:04 pm

  12. there is no transparency in this project from the Chinese. This needs to be stopped ,because though china is a drought hit country life of assam will be badly affected due to this project.

    Anil Gafoor

    June 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    • No transparency is not an excuse to accuse China of doing something they don’t. At this point I don’t see any reason for China to divert waters from Brahmaputra and will wait for something concrete from Chinese before I comment/accuse them of anything. We should remember that China is our neighbors as we are their. Unless Chinese actions cause too much damage to us, we should look for an amicable solution.

      We cannot get a draught in Assam, if the water is properly managed in Assam. It receives a lot of rainfall … too much to fend off any draughts …


      June 13, 2011 at 7:07 pm

  13. Why not the author tell us now exactly what is happening to River Brahmaputra.
    His article was written two years ago,
    After two years once again the Brahmaputra has become a topic of
    concern and discussion. If the fears expressed by some authors/experts
    are true, I think a day may come when Assam ( in fact whole country) will
    face disastrous consequences. It is necessary for India and other
    beneficiaries of Brahmaputra to be cautious since what ever be the response
    of any Government, China always and at any costs keeps it’s interest above
    everything else. Therefore let us have the truth please, so that steps be taken to
    stop the diversion of Brahmaputra.


    June 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    • In this article I have questioned the veracity of articles claiming that China is planning a diversion of Tsangpo. I still stand by what I said – In next 30 years the possibility of China starting a project to divert Tsangpo waters is remote.


      June 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm

  14. The huge dam is being built in is highly susceptible to earthquakes and landslides. It will reduce flow of water in the down stream and cause ecological imbalance. Very often when the reservoir is full in the monsoon, release of enormous amount of water into the river will cause artificial flood and play havoc in the Brahmaputra Valley.

    Ravi Shanker Kanoje

    June 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    • If it’s just a dam, it won’t reduce the flow of water – this is simple truth and it seems people don’t understand it. If the water is diverted to somewhere else, only then it would reduce the downstream flow. In this blog, I argued China won’t benefit from such a big project of diversion, neither India would lose much on it.


      June 16, 2011 at 7:30 pm

  15. Diganta, rationalism is fine, but it also pushes us in a state of indecision. Krishna Menon & Co. too suffered from same problem, as a result India was kicked off its vast land. But, more than Krishna Menon, the blame lies with Nehru that he ‘foolishly’ believed in ‘theoretical rationalism’ of his Defence Minister. I am sorry but you also suffer from ‘Krishna Menon syndrome’ which is quite predictable from the line at the top of your page “a new world explored with rational views”. Friend, the real politic world of International Relations does not obey rationalist views but hard practicality that is “China will go to any extent to destroy India”. Brother, come out of your rationalistic world and see the reality of the world!


    June 17, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    • ” come out of your rationalistic world and see the reality of the world!” – Isn’t that an oxymoron?


      January 16, 2012 at 11:09 pm

  16. the fact all you people discussing here about the dam being built and the diversion project,u people have to understand that china is a closed this i mean to say the other countries will never know the reality behind what china is doing or the kind of infrastructure china has on date unless and until they declare it by themselves.also to note is whether it declares the right figures or not depends on chinese government itself.most of the world thinks china is similar to their country, but no its not..
    China has a reserve of food to every citizen for a period of 20 years.they do have natural resources which are preserved and they buy their this its clear tht they are saving..
    why do you people think that chinese government blocks social networking sites and search engines like facebook,orkut,google,youtube..its bcos they do not want any of the internal affairs to leak out.
    china has an army that india and pakistan together would not have ,its just a strategic plan of their’s to keep india and pak engaged in frequent conflicts..
    Note: you ppl might think i am speaking rubbish but no offenses , i have been staying in china since last 6 years and that to in a university where i interact with a lot of chinese students and faculty and source of most of the info i claim is what i have heard from chinese people themselves..most of the younger generation people offend their govt policies but are helpless bcos they cannot revolt since its a communist govt and revolt by even a million people together would end up killing them..


    June 30, 2011 at 7:42 am

    • Dude, if Chinese are so closed, then where from do you get all these information?


      July 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

  17. Yes, in one of your comments you said it ryt…. CHINA AND YOU ARE ON THE SAME PAGE…… why the hell diversion of brahmaputra wont affect INDIA… stop talking about assam…. and people like you should not favour shameful acts lyk dis. I live in north india, i wont be much afected by this diversion,but it do affects my patriotism.

    Robin Dhiman

    July 12, 2011 at 6:06 am

    • The plan for diversion is purely imaginary. If it actually happens it would affect us but we do have a second line of defence against it.


      July 12, 2011 at 6:46 pm

  18. STOP Speculating!
    Do you even know the the type of soil Arunachal has?!!! Today we had a landslide because since yesterday it rained heavily….IMAGINE!
    To the author….If China carries on with their plan to build a dam what purpose will it serve for us to build our dam? It will be all dry! And uncontrollable during monsoons!

    Silly talks….

    Kenri Basar

    July 19, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    • I’m in favor of any studies started to find the impacts. If it’s a joint study with China, it’s even better.


      January 16, 2012 at 11:11 pm

  19. I am undertaking a small research on whether China can use this dam on the Brahamaputra as a kind of military tool against India in times of hostilities. The way in which it can do it is by, lets say, releasing large amount of water to cause floods and cut off our routes that maintain our forces, or maybe cause an unacceptable economic damage to succumb India to its pressures.. The ways could be many. Can someone having technical knowledge on the same give some facts on the issue..

    Gaurav Mehra

    October 9, 2011 at 11:30 am

    • Why do they have to use such a costly and less effective military adventure leaving their conventional firepower?


      January 16, 2012 at 11:12 pm

  20. I could not agree more with Neel123’s opening comments. That is indeed the main problem. Given the annual discharge and sediment load of the Bramhaputra, any dam on it is very short sighted. Possibly it might have an effective lifetime of 20 years if not less. The Bramhaputa is one of the only undammed rivers and previous attempts to build things on it havent done well, ask Bangladesh. From what I understand that the damn dams are run of river so it is less likely to involve a diversion and neither will it have a reservoir. But its China and they arent very forthcoming with sharing of data.

    Dams in general are bad. They do irreversible damage to the lotic ecosystem and they do not have long lives. Its a short term fix and essentially a financial leech since the investment might pay off initially but in the long term becomes a financial burden when governments need to decommission them. In the present day US, the focus is not on “building” damns but “removing” them. Time and time again, our government has proven that it has no vision. In the end we still blindly follow the western model where economic development comes at the price of resource consumtion, wastage and destruction. Like selfish individuals we indulge in these models and think of us as a progressing nation leaving the future in dismal uncertainity.

    Ankan De

    February 2, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    • Given the annual discharge and sediment load of the Bramhaputra, any dam on it is very short sighted. Possibly it might have an effective lifetime of 20 years if not less.
      – Why would then the Chinese dam it? Their dam would last for 20 years too, right? I know sediment load increases downhill but the (Chinese) dam in question is planned just before it enters India. You have actually added one more point to my conspiracy theory argument. The Chinese might not plan a dam at all because of the sediment load …

      In your next point, I agree that dams are bad in general. However, any comparison with US would be unfair because the amount of hydro-power and water storage US has developed over the years is more than what it requires. I live in the state of Washington which have removed multiple dams. The factors to be noted is that – a state of 60 million population had 950 dams of which only 5-10 are suggested for removal. Per capita water storage in USA is 50 times of that of India. (link – Why would USA need more dams? They are doing the right thing …

      On the other hand, if you go to a country that has problems similar to that of India, such as Japan and the Netherlands, you won’t probably find any volunteers for removing dams. Do you? However, both of these countries have much higher density of dams than what India has.


      February 2, 2012 at 11:26 pm

  21. are you guise damn specialists?


    February 16, 2012 at 9:14 pm

  22. Tsangpo-Brahmaputra-Jamuna River actively resists taming and management.In Bangladesh at least its erosion has displaced upto a million in the past few decades.

    Every time people lay down infratsructure (rail, road etc) it meddles with the water drainage and sediment escape. Dams, in their current guise, are an obvious case of this.

    For us Bangladeshis we must cultivate our capacity to understand water, not just as a resource, but as a carrier and architect of our land. More Khan Jahan and Bhashani than Mao, Nehru or Gandhi.

    I doubt that India will be able to tame the river, though it might just kill it in the attempt.

    Several months ago I heard that even the Chinese were thinking twice about the use of dams now, because of seismic issues.


    February 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    • The gist of my writing is basically this : Chinese are not going to build a dam on it in near future. If India builds a dam on it, it would rather be on tributaries and not on the main channel.


      February 17, 2012 at 7:27 pm

  23. तिब्बत, ब्रम्हपुत्र, नेपाल र भारत


    September 4, 2015 at 1:34 pm

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