The Brahmaputra River is the ninth largest river in the world by water discharge, and the 15th longest. It rises in the southwest corner of China’s Tibetan plateau before descending through the world’s steepest gorge and spreading out across the northeastern Indian state of Assam. After passing through Assam, it enters Bangladesh, where it joins with the Ganges River to create the massive Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta.
“A river knows no borders, and to the three countries it travels through the Brahmaputra is a valuable natural resource, crucial to the life force of those who live within the catchment,” says Dr Ruth Gamble, an environmental historian and a David Myers Research Fellow at La Trobe University. “Unfortunately, large-scale mining and damming operations by both China and India are extensively altering water quality, and there’s little co-ordination or communication between the two countries.”
China and India share a 4000km long border, and their relationship has at times been tense. In 2017 the construction of a Chinese road through disputed territory in Docklam resulted in a military standoff between Indian and Chinese armed forces.
This confrontation prompted a breakdown in communication, and a halt in China sharing information on the Brahmaputra water flow crucial to downstream India. This was unresolved until June 2018, when the countries renewed a Memorandum of Understanding during a visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China.
“If India and China can’t agree on disputed territory they can’t agree on how to share or manage the water within it,” says Dr Gamble. “While there’s an agreement to share information, it’s inconsistent. The Brahmaputra flows through one of the most seismically active parts of the world, so it’s difficult to know if silting of the river is caused by landslide or mining when information isn’t shared.”
Dr Gamble has been travelling through the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya region, researching and writing a history of the Brahmaputra River. Her work has allowed her to see the extent of the change to the river along its entire length.
“There are times when it feels like both states are conducting a massive experiment on the headwaters of a river that feeds 600 million people,” says Dr Gamble. “Both China and India are building dams and mines along the river banks. India’s racing to build dams without community consultation or environmental studies.”
“Add to this the roads to service them, men to work on them, and that alone puts pressure on the water before you start altering the river. The entire catchment has felt the pressure of intensive farming, and fertilisers and other pollutants are just seeping into the watershed, affecting the water supply downstream.”
During the past 20 years, first China and then India have increased this degradation by building large-scale mines and hydroelectric dams in this sensitive region. China has constructed mines along the Brahmaputra River’s headwaters in Tibet, an area prone to frequent earthquakes and at risk of leaking acid and arsenic into the river waters.
On its side of the border, India has concentrated on dams rather than mines. Between 2000 and 2016, the Arunachal Pradesh government approved the construction of 153 dams, before realising that it had overextended itself.
“Part of the intense development is driven by competition between the two countries to use the water resources,” says Dr Gamble. “What really worries me is that there’s an idea in both India and China that every problem has an engineering fix, everything from water problems to global warming. There’s little acknowledgement that these are complex systems with feedback loops, and anything you do is going to have repercussions for downstream communities.”
The intense activity is likely to continue, with plans for India to build the country’s longest bridge, almost 20km, bringing Assam and Meghalaya closer by about 200km. There have also been rumours of China building the world’s biggest pipeline to divert the water north to the parched Xinjiang Province.
“China and India need to stop competing and start collaborating if they want to keep the Brahmaputra River flowing and relatively non-toxic,” says Dr Gamble. “Their leaders understand that neither nation would win a nuclear war. Now they need to realise that no one will benefit from destroying such a crucial shared watershed.”