Chinese lake threat: Flood of questions

Ranjit Devraj

Threats of China’s Parechu Lake bursting and deluging populations in India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state this week were declared over, but the episode has left behind a flood of unanswered questions — starting with those about a regional approach to managing Himalayan water resources. India’s Home Secretary V K Duggal declared the danger over on Monday, but by then close to 5,000 people living along the banks of the Sutlej River, into which the Parechu discharges, had be-en evacuated, six bridges washed away and millions of dollars worth of property destroyed in the well-known tourist districts of Shimla, Kinnaur, Mandi and Bilaspur. Yet the main concern in the Indian capital seemed focused narrowly on getting the 1,500 megawatt hydroelectric plant on the Sutlej at Nathpa Jhakri back into operation so that city dwellers would not have to put up with power cuts during a sweltering summer. The facility was shut down on Saturday to prevent damage from flooding and silt.

Until 1962, when Asia’s giants fought a brief but bloody war over their long Himalayan border, India and China shared vital hydrological information with each other. Indeed, it was only in March this year that the two countries got around to signing in Beijing a

“memorandum of understanding” on sharing hydrological data, especially that concerning the Sutlej River during the flood season when the snows in the high mountains of southern Tibet begin to melt.

But despite this, India still had difficulty in obtaining real-time data from Beijing when the Parechu began to overflow into the Sutlej last week in what looked like the re-run of a drama that took place in August last year when thousands of people living on the banks of the river had to be evacuated. “India needs China’s assistance in managing the annual visitation from the Himalayan rivers but Delhi and Beijing are a long way from cooperative river management,’’ says Prof. C. Raja Mohan, who teaches international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Many of Asia’s river systems originate on the “roof of the world” in Tibet. But China has begun massive development projects there that reportedly include diversion of water resources towards the arid north of the country and otherwise disturb the region’s fragile ecosystems. Of particular concern to India (and to Bangladesh) is the Brahmaputra (Tsang Po), which sustains life in the sensitive north-eastern region but is also responsible for frequent floods and consequent deaths and devastation in one of the world’s most densely populated areas.

‘’More than ever before India needs to have real-time information on what is happening in Tibet, but diplomatically speaking it has to begin by setting its own house in order and being sensitive to the needs of smaller neighbours like Pakistan, Nepal and Bangla-desh and settle ongoing water disputes with them through a regional approach,’’ said Sharma. Ban-gladesh has voiced opposition to an ambitious plan by India to link up its major neighbours through an elaborate system of canals. Nepal, whose rivers flow into the Ganges River system, favours a trilateral approach to flood and drought management with India and Bangladesh under a “river basin” approach, but India prefers to deal bilaterally with its South Asian neighbours.