Megadams: Battle on the Brahmaputra


China and India have their eye on the energy potential of the vast Brahmaputra river. Will a new wave of "megadams" bring power to the people – or put millions at risk? The BBC World Service environment reporter Navin Singh Khadka reports from Assam, India.

On the banks of the Brahmaputra it is hard to get a sense of where the river starts and ends. It begins far away as a Tibetan mountain stream. On the floodplains of Assam, though, its waters spread as far as the eye can see, merging with the horizon and the sky.

From here it continues through north-eastern India into Bangladesh, where it joins with the Ganges to form a mighty river delta.

For centuries the Brahmaputra has nourished the land, and fed and watered the people on its banks.

Today, though, India and China's growing economies mean the river is increasingly seen as a source of energy. Both countries are planning major dams on long stretches of the river.

In Assam the plans are being greeted with scepticism and some fear.

The fear is that dams upstream could give China great power over their lives. And many in Assam worry whether China has honourable intentions.

Brahmaputra voices: What next for their river?

After a landslide in China in 2000, the river was blocked for several days, unknown to those downstream.

When the water forced its way past the blockage Assam faced an oncoming torrent. There was no advance warning. There are concerns this could happen more frequently.

Some also believe that China may divert water to its parched north – as it has done with other southern rivers.

India's central government says China has given them assurances about the new Tibetan dams.

"Our foreign ministry has checked with China and we have been told that the flow will not be affected, and we will make sure that the people's lives are not affected by the dams," Paban Singh Ghatowar, minister for the development of north-eastern India, told the BBC.

Written By: Navin Singh Khadka
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  1. As the scramble for energy and water supply continues, this sort of fierce competition will increase.

    Dams of course are very vulnerable to sedimentation where flood-waters and active erosion are involved, although they may help to regulate flooding down-stream.

    @OP – Brahmaputra voices: What next for their river?

    As I understand it, the Brahmaputra is one of the rivers which will have its seasonal melt-water flow significantly reduced by the receding of the Himalayan glaciers as the climate warms. Peak floods however look like they will increase.
    Climate change is likely to have significant effects on the hydrology. The Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin is one of the most vulnerable areas in the world as it is subject to the combined effects of glacier melt, extreme monsoon rainfall and sea level rise.

    The delta is almost at sea level, so is vulnerable to both sea-level rises and increasing storms and cyclones.

  2. How about easing up on development and growth and leaving the environment to rest and recover; surely we can enjoy the material wealth we already have, without craving for more all the time.

    Nature will chew us up and spit us out if we don’t come to our senses soon.

    And the top priority needs to be addressing the population growth; it should be considered selfish, irresponsible and dangerous to churn out lots of children.

    We need to don Malthusian hats, and out of simple respect for our beautiful planet, promote contraception and low consumption.

  3. Habitat and environments down stream from the dams will be parched and dead as the usual expected flows of life giving water that always came – now don’t come and the terrain may gradually become a dust bowl as topsoil simply blows away with the wind…..but as long as humans have ‘power’ and keep all the planets fresh water to themselves that must be okay then !
    Flood control is good but dams are more severe for all the other life relying on the river.

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