Friday, February 8, 2013

Hydro Power Projects Race to Tap the Potential of Brahmaputra River


Brig (retd) Vinod Anand 
(Senior Fellow, VIF)

For past many years while China has been in the news for its efforts in exploiting the vast hydro power potential of Yarlung Tsangpo River of Tibet Autonomous Region India has also been attempting to tap the potential of this river known as Brahmaputra in India.

Recent reports indicate that China has approved the construction of three new hydropower dams on the middle reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo. Work on an older 510 MW hydro project in Zangmu in Tibet had commenced way back in 2010. The capacity of the two new projects coming up at Dagu and Jiacha would be 640 MW and 320 MW respectively while the capacity of the third new dam at Jiexu is yet to be confirmed. These projects have been planned to be completed in China’s 12th Five Year Plan period i.e. 2011-2017. China has, as usual, given the assurances that these are run of the river projects and in no way affect the downstream flows. In addition China has also built at least six smaller projects on tributaries of Tsangpo which again according to the Chinese would not affect waters flowing into India.


Earlier assertions by China that it has no plans to construct a massive dam at the Great Bend on Tsangpo (at Metog) to divert waters to the arid North have been met with a certain degree of skepticism in India. The proposed project has the potential of providing 38 gigawatts of energy. Chinese engineers have been claiming that technical difficulties in construction of the dam can be overcome. In fact, Yan Zhiyong, the general manager of China Hydropower Engineering Consulting Group stated in May 2010 that "The major technical constraints on damming the Yarlung Tsampo have been overcome."

According to a well known Chinese science forum, the Great Bend was the ultimate hope for water resource exploitation because it could generate energy equivalent to 100m tonnes of crude coal, or all the oil and gas in the South China Sea. Zhang Boting, the Deputy General Secretary of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering has claimed that such a project will benefit the project by marked reduction in carbon footprints.

While upper riparian states have an upper hand in controlling the water flows to the downstream states and therefore the lower riparian states usually raise objections to any damming activity upstream it was rather surprising when China raised objections to India’s Siang Upper hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh.



Siang is the largest river of Brahamputra river system which originates from Chema Yungdung glacier near Kubi in Tibet. While in Tibet it is known as Tsangpo, and flows in West – East direction, it takes a turn in south direction before entering the Indian territory in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. The river then flows in North – South direction, passes through Upper Siang and East Siang districts of Arunachal Pradesh and is known as Siang River. Further down, the Siang is known as the Brahmaputra.

As part of realizing the hydro power potential of rivers in Arunachal Pradesh the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) had completed the pre-feasibility study of the Upper Siang hydro power project last year. The output of the dam was originally planned for a massive power generation of 12, 000 MW. Because of the environmental and rehabilitation concerns the project was converted into two twin dams further downstream and given the name of Siang Intermediate dam. The earlier location being about 60 km from the border, the Chinese had also expressed concerns about their areas being submerged.

Now the project is targeted to produce 9,750-MW which is supposed to be the second biggest project after China’s Three Gorges dam. The project involves an investment of nearly Rs. 1,00,000 crore over a 10 year period. The Central government also plans to compensate Arunachal for any submergence. Arunachal had held up the plan for the past few years, mainly because it feared the project would submerge the town of Tuting in Upper Siang district. The dams’ reservoirs are expected to store 10 billion cubic meters of water, collected from the Siang and smaller rivers in the area, which can be released into the Siang if China plans to divert water massively.

Further, the overall hydropower potential of Arunachal Pradesh has been identified to be over 50,000 MW; in fact in the entire North East Region the potential is over 58,356 MW. When compared to the overall hydro-electric potential of India of around 150,000 MW Arunachal Pradesh has one third of the potential due to rivers and tributaries flowing into Brahmaputra. As of now only less than two percent of the capacity has been developed, that is only 405 MW; the capacity that is under construction is 4460 MW. This means that only about 8% capacity is under development. A number of factors like environment and forestation concerns, geographical and seismic conditions, rehabilitation and availability of funds besides poor implementation of the planned projects have affected the realization of the full potential of the State’s hydropower resources.

So far as the mega dam of 9750 MW to be developed by NHPC on Siang Intermediate is concerned, it has not progressed beyond the stage of pre-feasibility report. The state government has demanded from National Thermal Power Corporation an upfront payment of about Rs 4 lakhs per megawatt before it can start work on the project (i.e. a total of about Rs 400 Crores). This demand is believed to be based on existing State policy on the issue. This project has been termed as a strategic project to establish lower riparian rights but evidently there is a little to show that the Government is seized with the urgency to construct it in an earlier time frame.

In the 12th Five Year Plan i.e. from 2012-2017, Siang Intermediate project does not find any mention and no funds have been allotted for the purpose so far. This is despite the fact that in July, 2012 the Planning Commission had assured that the State would be provided with special funds even as Asian Development Bank had denied development funds to Arunachal Pradesh based on China’s objections. Obtaining funds for infrastructure projects in Arunachal Pradesh has been a difficult proposition.

On the other hand, when the Chinese 12th Five Year Plan has included the aforementioned four dams for construction on Yarlung Tsangpo it is a given that these hydro-power projects will be completed in time.

However, in the 12th Plan (2012-17) for Arunachal Pradesh, the central government has proposed to develop three dams with total capacity of 1610 MW and the Private sector has been given 23 projects with a total capacity of 7969 MW; thus total capacity to be developed during the five year period is expected to be 9579 megawatts in Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the projects with big capacity are planned to be developed in stages in more than one plan period. But what is of particular interest is construction of two hydro power projects known as Siang Middle and Siang Lower on the Siang River. Out of the 2400 MW capacity planned for Siang Lower only 600 MW is proposed for capacity addition in the 12th plan while full capacity of 1000 MW for Siang Middle is proposed to be developed in the plan period.

Environmental clearance and approval for construction of Demwe Lower Hydro Electric project with a capacity of 1750 MW on Lohit River in Arunachal Pradesh was given in February last year. Lohit originates in Tibet and is one of the main tributaries of Brahmaputra. Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, who is also the chairperson of the standing committee of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) was instrumental in granting the clearance. There is some degree of awareness among the government circles that dam construction has to be speeded up to get the ‘first user rights’ as per international norms before China does it on its side of the river.

If India is able to harnesses the hydro-power of Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh through the proposed projects, it will strengthen its case against China’s building of a reported mega-dam at Metog (in Tibet). But this would have to be done before China completes its projects as under the doctrine of prior appropriation, a priority right falls on the first use of river waters. Exploiting the full potential of Arunachal Pradesh would have the added benefit of making us less dependent on proposed hydro-power schemes of Nepal and elsewhere.

The future will tell whether India will be successful in completing its projects within scheduled time as its record of executing such projects in a time-bound manner has not been very encouraging.

Last year, there were reports of Siang River suddenly drying up and ‘some patches of sand’ were even seen near Pasighat town of Eastern Siang district. According to the State officials diversion of water or blockage of water upstream by China was suspected. Disruptions in water flow by China by damming/blocking the rivers originating in Tibet, is a recurring concern voiced by many analysts and experts.

The above problems are further compounded by a number of protests in Assam which is a lower riparian state about the damming activity and construction of hydro-electric stations in Arunachal Pradesh. These protests are by environmentalists as well as farmers and fishermen who would be affected adversely by reduced flow of water to Brahmaputra. According to an opposition party leader “Arunachal Pradesh is set to gain revenue from these projects, but Assam will be the victim if anything goes wrong”. Larger interests of the nation are however, glossed over due to parochial considerations.

Environmentalist lobby in India has been gaining ground and some of the decisions for such projects have been affected by environmental concerns. Chinese objections to damming activity may cause some consternation but environmentalist lobby and local/provincial politics besides provision of adequate funds are the major causes for causing delay in the realisation of mega-dam plans of Arunachal Pradesh.

There is an urgent need for fast tracking the hydro power projects in Arunachal Pradesh by providing adequate funds and by striking a right balance between the requirements of development and environmental concerns. Safeguards against earthquakes also need to be taken with alacrity as the region falls within Zone 4 and 5 of seismic sensitive zones.

Strategic imperative of establishing prior users’ right should also not be lost sight off. In April, 2010, no less than the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had observed that “India needs to be more aggressive in pushing ahead hydro projects (on the Brahmaputra) - that would put us in better negotiating position (with China)”. China, as is its wont, would continue with its hydro power plans all the time assuring that water flows to the down-stream nations would not be affected. It would be dangerously naïve to believe in such banalities. 

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