False accusations drive distrust of China

An outcry broke out in the Indian media last week as reports emerged that the water of the Brahmaputra River – which originates in Tibet as the Yarlung Zangbo – had dried up in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, across from the Chinese border.

A local Indian government official triggered concern last Thursday about water levels of the Siang River (a tributary of the Brahmaptura) by claiming that they had dropped and accusing China of diverting the river water on its side.

This precipitated a volley of provocative headlines from Indian news portals: “Brahmaputra dries up in Arunachal Pradesh town! Is China responsible?” asked the Economic Times, and “Brahmaputra dries up in Arunachal Pradesh; China’s hand suspected” mused another.

India continues to fear that China has plans to dam and divert the Brahmaputra River that will dramatically reduce its own downstream water supplies, despite repeated denials by the Chinese government. Mistrust between the two countries runs so high that such assertions fail to reassure. 

A few days after rumours erupted, a local newspaper, the Arunachal Times, reported that water levels were in fact "normal", according to the worried engineers and officials who had rushed to the scene. But local people have witnessed some "decline in water level of Siang during lean season particularly in January and February due to scanty rainfall in the past several years,” the report quoted the local district commissioner as saying. 

"Our projects have not affected the lower stream regions, including those in India," China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing. China’s Zangmu dam in the middle part of the river "is not of a big capacity and has no need for storage of water and it will not affect the ecology and environment," he added.

But Indian media reports remained strangely silent on the massive dams currently under construction in north-east India. The Siang basin has been a centre of domestic controversy with plans to build a series of projects that will generate more than 11,000 megawatts of power. Indian civil society groups fear these projects will lead to massive displacement and environmental destruction.  In the past months protests across the region have gathered momentum over the wider network of 168 dams planned in the Brahmaputra valley; but these events have received little attention from national and international media. 

Indian officials and media reports complain that China refuses to share hydrological data with downstream countries. But the Indian government is equally unwilling to share data about river flow within the country, let alone across borders, as Indian activists have pointed out. And while both governments refuse to share even the most basic data, working towards better media reporting on regional water issues will continue to be an uphill struggle.