Sunday, December 26, 2010

Brahmaputra River – Dispute between India and China

Author: Preethy Vignesh
The search for water resources in China and India has persistently been a source of tension between the two countries. Chinese efforts to divert the water resources of the Brahmaputra River away from India will worsen a situation that has remained tense since the 1962 Indo-China war. The melting glaciers in the Himalayas as a result of accelerating global climate change will have a dramatic effect on this river’s water supply. This will increase water scarcity as well as the likelihood of floods, impact agrarian livelihoods and strain the fragile equilibrium between the two Asian giants.

Regional Summary
The Brahmaputra River flows 2,900 km from its source in the Kailas range of the Himalayas to its massive delta and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It flows through China, India, and Bangladesh, but its watershed includes Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma as well. The river drops steeply from the heights of the Tibetan Plateau through the world’s deepest valley (5,075m) into northeast India where the river eventually merges with the Ganges and Meghna rivers to form the largest river delta in the world (60,000km2).The Brahmaputra basin covers 651,334 km2 (WRI), 58% of which lies in India and 20% in China.

The river is defined by the diversity of terrain through which it flows, subject to regular earthquakes, natural disasters, and other changing conditions. 29% of the basin is actively used as cropland, almost half of which is irrigated. Only 3% of the basin is developed as urban land and 2% is considered barren. 19% is covered by forest, 16% by shrub, 29% by grassland, 21% by wetland, and 11% is considered eroded land.

History of Tense Diplomatic Relations between India and China
In 2000, India accused China of not sharing hydrological data on the flow of the Brahmaputra River through the Chinese territory resulting in widespread devastation and floods. At least 40 people died. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2002 to coordinate data sharing pertaining to water level, discharge and rainfall. The data provided by China has helped in flood-forecasting and given the Indian Water Ministry a better understanding of the river system. Any plan to divert the Brahmaputra will have to be made known to the Indian Water Ministry beforehand in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding.

The Indian concerns over plans to divert the Brahmaputra were not unwarranted. The two components of the diversion scheme would include the construction of the world’s largest hydroelectric plant on the Great Bend of the river on the Tibetan plateau; the second is the diversion of the waters northwards across hundreds of kilometers to China’s northwestern provinces.

In early 2003, scientists from the China Water Conservancy and Hydropower Planning and Designing Institute organized a feasibility study for a major hydropower project along the section of the Brahmaputra River which flows through China. This section of the river, which later flows into India and Bangladesh, has a water energy reserve of about 68 million kilowatt, or 1/10th of the national total.
If successful, this project would divert 200 billion cubic meters of water annually to the Yellow River. Although highly beneficial for Chinese interests, the effects on India and Bangladesh will be devastating. Environmental experts report that roughly 60% of the total water flow will fall drastically if China is successful in constructing this dam on the Brahmaputra.

China’s effort to redirect the flow of a river which provides the base for agrarian life in its neighboring countries is a provocative move, indeed. Some have gone so far to say that this action qualifies as an act of war. In fact, this is another grand effort on behalf of the Chinese government to fulfill its goal of instituting a massive South-North water diversion project.

In 2006, the Chinese government denied the existence of plans to divert water resources from the Brahmaputra to provide fresh water for the Northwest provinces away from India and Bangladesh. Although top water officials denied this motivation, it has been a fear of the Indian government and has yet to be fully resolved.

China’s South-North Water Diversion Project
The incredible growth rate of China’s population (predicted to reach 1.6 billion in 2045) and the rapid urbanization of major sectors of its populace will exacerbate one of the country’s greatest concerns, the availability of water to meet the needs of its people. Current numbers estimate that China has only 8% of the world’s fresh water to meet the needs of 22% of the world’s people. To further compound this problem, the country’s water resources are not equally distributed. Southern China, with roughly 700 million people, has 4/5th of its water and northern China, with 550 million people, has 1/5th of the water.
The scheme to divert the waters from the South to the North was crafted based on this understanding of water distribution. As evidenced in the following map, there are three critical segments: the eastern, central and western routes.

Due to the proximity to the Indian border, the scale and impact of this water diversion scheme will have dangerous consequences for millions of people downstream. The foremost concern is the decreased water flow which will impact irrigation practices and local livelihoods. The environmental impact will result in an increased salinity of the water.

Impact of Climate Change on the Brahmaputra River Conflict
As tensions grow between China and India over river diversion projects and accessibility to fresh water resources, the likely impacts of climate change on this conflict over natural resources will amplify the current state of affairs.
Primary concern needs to be placed on the possible changes in magnitude, extent and depth of floods from the Brahmaputra River in India and Bangladesh.

The gradual melting of Himalayan glaciers as a result of climate change will impact the amount of water in the Brahmaputra. As the ice disappears, so will significant fractions of south Asia’s water supply. As the Brahmaputra River dries up, along with other rivers critical to the survival of India, gross per capita water availability will decline by 1/3rd by 2050. The feedback loops that result from massive declines in water availability are directly correlated with human health and may result in a rise in water-borne diseases such as cholera.

Potential Solutions
Rather than covertly acting to divert water resources from one country to another, the protection of the shared resource of water supply might be a focal point of cooperation rather than conflict. China and India could work together to protect surrounding communities from increased flood hazard due to climate change by strengthening flood management policies and adaptation measures.
Conflict over the Brahmaputra River will be high at both the intrastate and interstate levels. The main reason for high intrastate conflict will be over availability to water between villages and communities, which may lead to hording and violence. This is less likely than the most definite interstate conflict which will take place between India and China as the two will have various reasons to take arms against one another – climate change may cause draughts throughout the western provinces of China, it will also melt the glaciers that feed the Brahmaputra River, gradually decreasing the total water supply. Decisions to route the direction of the River toward one country over another will be cause enough for high levels of conflict and will be further compounded by the impact of climate change.

Politics and Culture
The river’s three names, the Brahmaputra (India), Yarlung Zangbo (Tibet), and Jamuna (Bangladesh), reflect the complicated fabric of ethnic groups and International Communities living along its banks. The Brahmaputra flows through some of the most heavily disputed and unstable areas in South Asia. China and India currently dispute 83,000 km within the basin. Much of the boundary between the two countries is based on administrative units that do not shift with the rivers as they change course or level over time. Alluvial or “char” land that is exposed as a river shifts often leads to dispute, as the land is highly valued for agriculture (CIA World Fact-book, 1998; IBRU, 1999).

In northeast India, more than 6 separatist and rebel groups are active.  Recent riots contributed to the deaths of hundreds of Burmese and other immigrants and led to demonstrations. The northeast is one of the poorest regions in India. Currently population density, on average, is 174 people per square mile, but this population is concentrated in 14 large cities in the region. Urban areas are growing at 5% a year (WRI). The Brahmaputra basin has seen a surge in millions of people immigrating to the area from Bangladesh and West Bengal. Increasing densities have led to competition for jobs and land. In 1999, 500 people died from ethnic violence in Northeast India (US Commission on Refugees). In the mid 1960s the Indian government relocated 3,000 ethnic Chakmas to Arunachal Pradesh from what is now Bangladesh after construction of a large dam. The influx has caused conflict in this state.

In the ancient Indian tradition, two rivers are known to originate from Manasarovar Lake, in Mt. Kailas; one flowing to the east is called Brahmaputra and the other flowing to the west was called Shatadru, a tributary of the Sarasvati (joining the latter at Shatrana, Punjab) in Rigvedic times. Both these major rivers, Brahmaputra and Sarasvati are related to the God of creation, Brahma. The lower portion of the river is sacred to Hindus.

Hydropower and Infrastructure Development
In 1980, the Indian government established the Brahmaputra Board as a statutory body under the Ministry of Water Resources to plan for and implement projects to harness the river for hydropower, flood control, and economic development. The Board has identified 34 “Drainage Development schemes” that include hydropower dams, embankment reinforcement, and other multipurpose projects. These projects are included in the Board”s Master Plan, approved by the Indian government in 1997.Currently there are no large dams on the Brahmaputra.

It is estimated that the Brahmaputra”s power potential could provide about 48000 MW. This constitutes as much as 30 per cent of the total hydropower reserves of India, but less than even 3 per cent of this has yet to be harnessed.

Trade and Economics
The river is navigable for large crafts 1,290 km upstream from the Bay of Bengal to Dibrugarh, India. The lower portions of the river are used heavily to transport agricultural products. A major earthquake in 1950 (magnitude 8.7 on the Richter scale) and disputes over water rights impeded further access upstream. The Brahmaputra Valley in Assam has marshy jungle, teak forest, and commercial fisheries; rice, jute, tea, and sugarcane are grown there as well. In Tibet, the river forms an important east-west transportation route.
There currently exists a rapidly growing trade relationship between India and China. Both Indian exports and imports through China have grown tremendously since 1999.

The Brahmaputra’s flows fluctuate drastically between high and low flows. High flows, peaking in mid June, can run at 72,460 m3/s (1962 flood). The mean annual flood discharge of the river is 48,160 m3/sec at Pandu (India). Its minimum recorded dry-season flow was only 3,280 m3/s in 1960.
The average annual rainfall in the basin is 230 cm with a marked variability in distribution over the watershed. Rainfall in the lower Himalayan region amounts to more than 500cm per year with higher elevations getting progressively lesser amounts. The rainfall intensity occasionally records exceedingly high rates causing flash floods, landslides, debris flow and erosion.

The rains begin in May or early June, and the wet season lasts to October. From June to September, the rains occur nearly daily. A period of fluctuating high flow follows, usually with peaks in July and September. The last peak is followed by a long recession into December and January.

During the rainy season there, the river often floods to 8 km wide, rising 9-12 m and depositing sediment carried down from the mountains.

The wide Brahmaputra River is also a bio-geographic barrier for several species. For instance, the golden langur (Semnopithecus geei), hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus), and pygmy hog (Sus salvanius) are limited to the north bank of the river, whereas the hoolock gibbon (Hylobates hoolock) and stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides) are limited to the south bank (Rodgers and Panwar 1988).
The June to September southwest monsoon is funneled through the Gangetic River plains, flanked by the Himalayas to the north and the Mizo Hills to the south, deluging the eco region with 1,500-3,000 mm of rainfall, depending on the topographic variation. The substrate consists of deep alluvial deposits, washed down over the centuries by the Brahmaputra and other rivers such as the Manas and Subansiri, which drain southern slopes of the Eastern Himalaya. The eco region’s vegetation therefore is thus influenced by the rich alluvial soils and the monsoon rains.

The Brahmaputra drains an area of approximately 9.4 million square kilometers…combined with the Ganges River these rivers sustain more people than all the people in Western Europe and North America combined.

There has been speculation for years that China may build a dam in the area of the Great Bend to divert water into China’s Gobi desert which covers half of China’s landmass and yet has only 7 percent of its freshwater.

The Chinese are apparently eyeing about 40 billion cubic meters, out of the annual average inflow of 71.4 billion, of the Brahmaputra’s waters. The river skirts China’s borders before dipping into India and Bangladesh. China has a serious need to feed water to its north-west territory, the Gobi Desert, which contains almost half the country’s total landmass, but only seven percent of its freshwater. The Gobi occupies an area of 1,300,000 making it one of the largest deserts in the world. Desertification of Gobi since 1950s has expanded it by 52,000 and it is now just 160 km from Beijing. It is said to expand by 3 km per year.

China has the will and the necessary resources — manpower, technology and, above all, large foreign currency reserves in excess of a trillion dollars — to take the Brahmaputra diversion project forward; the country’s economic stimulus in infrastructure could create employment potential for more than a few million people.

The Brahmaputra flows 2,900 km from its source in the Kailash range of the Himalayas to its massive delta and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The river drains a vast area of nearly 9,36,800 sq. km. This river system forms the largest river delta and the third largest free water fall out into the Ocean in the world — next only to the Amazon and the Congo rivers. More people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin than Western Europe and the entire North American continent.

This river system is of critical interest to all the four countries, including Nepal. China is an upper riparian state and, therefore, has the freedom and capacity to divert the river. Should that happen, the irreparable loss will result in destruction of a large part of the North-East and Bangladesh. This step will also drive millions of refugees from Bangladesh into India for their livelihood. There is thus an urgent need to address this issue trilaterally.
China says it has no designs on the Brahmaputra.  In a story reported by the Times of India this past fall China’s Minister for Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, stated in the China Daily that the proposal to divert waters of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra had no government backing and “there is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects”. China’s own freshwater resources have become more strained as the population grows and pollution ruins available freshwater.  China has water issues…and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River is a tempting source and solution for their issues.

In April 2010, China said the dam being built by it on river Brahmaputra will have no impact on the downstream flow of the river into India.


Friday, December 10, 2010

A biased technical report -Los Angeles Aqueduct Report (Book Review)

The book can be read at here.

The political belief of Allen Kelly and the City of Los Angeles was that the growth of the City is paramount. At the beginning of twentieth century, the City of Los Angeles, like other contemporary modern cities, attracted flocks of population from rural area seeking opportunities. Cities had advantages of high wages, employment opportunities, upward mobility, and alluring entertaining lifestyle, as described by Ebenezer Howard to be a Town magnet (Howard 1902). Political elites, such as Fred Eaton, former mayor of the City of Los Angeles, believed that the economic advantages of the city have to be maintained by taking more resources from its surrounding rural areas. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was portrayed as a vital project not only for current survival but also for future growth. 

The author lay out the arguments for building the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The water shortage caused by population growth would not be satisfied by existing water supply. The City examined alternatives, such as other rivers in South California and aquifers in coastal plains, but none of them were economically feasible since these water resources had already been under use by local agriculture. The framing of the issue makes it as if there was no other alternative other than getting additional water supply from more than 200 miles away in the Owens Valley. 
The City was confined in a “box” that in order to keep growing, they had to get more and more water (Davis 1998). They never thought of stepping out of “box”. Very little attention was paid on how the existing water resources could be used in a more efficient way.  Solutions such as conservation and recycling were not considered. At the time the Aqueduct was built, water meters had been in use. According to the author, it helped reduce average consumption of water to 150 gallons per day per person. This number is still identical to per capita water consumption in the U.S. today, which is 152 gallons per day (Hinrichsen 1998). As a reference, per capita consumption in Africa is about 12 gallons per day, that in Asia is about 22 gallons, and that in the more economically comparable United Kingdom is about 88 gallons. The reluctance of changing water consumption behavior made it difficult to resort to conservation as a solution. In addition, water conservation as an inward solution would not promote the outward growth that political elites were aspiring for. Recycling might not be seen as a possible solution at that time due to technological constraints. 

When it comes to the tension between public and private good, the author argued that the city of government was representative of the public good of the people of Los Angeles, while the private interests of Owens Valley people should be disrespected. However, this kind of pluralist argument has fundamental drawbacks. As Richard Klosterman put it, “the political arena is dominated by individuals and groups who use their access to government officials and other elites to protect their status, privilege, and wealth and ensure the government acts in their interest” (Klosterman 1985). Some groups of people, in this case, the Owens Valley people, were systematically excluded from the bargaining process. 

In the report, Fred Eaton was described like a saint, who purchased land for water rights in Owens Valley for the sake of public interests; “He acted in a public spirited and generous manner toward the City” (Kelly 1916). However, his proposal of operating the aqueduct as a public private joint venture indicated his personal pecuniary interests within the project. The details of the transaction between Eaton and the City of Los Angeles were left out from the document, only mentioning that “the results obtained were favorable to the City and only just to him”. In order to win enough ballots to issue bonds, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which was actually controlled by Eaton, Muholland and other political elites, created an artificial water famine by dumping its water into sewer system in the night. This scandal was never mentioned in the document. After the Aqueduct was completed, its terminus was at San Fernando Reservoirs, which were out of the limits of Los Angeles. The author did explain that San Fernando Reservoir was at a suitable topography to start distribution water to the City, but even by the time he wrote the report in 1916, the City Main Line that distributes water further down to the city for domestic use was still under construction. During the early operation of the Aqueduct, the water was not used for domestic purpose in the city but for irrigation in the San Fernando Valley, where a syndicate of investors (close friends of Eaton), bought up large tracts of land for speculative profits (Greenstein 1999). Therefore, the Aqueduct served most for the people who profited from the land speculation in the San Fernando Valley. This scandal well demonstrated how politically influential people would use “public interests” as camouflage to seek their own private interests. I think the existing citizens of Los Angeles did not get much benefit from the Aqueduct, because they did not even face a “real” water shortage before the Aqueduct was built. 

Even if the Los Angeles Aqueduct could be reasonably justified as for the public interests of Los Angeles people, the social externality of the project was concealed In the report and the environmental externality was left unspoken. 
It was mentioned in the report that the City had considered the social externality of getting water from adjacent aquifers. “If the City of Los Angeles should exercise the right of eminent domain and condemn the local irrigation waters for a superior domestic use, it would not only work great injury to the farming interests, but would virtually ruin towns and highly developed communities (48)”. However, they were not as nice to the farmers of Owens Valley, whose interests were completely ignored. According to the author, purchasing land in Owens Valley for water rights was made in a quiet and business-like way, because if the farmers knew the land would be used for a public project, they would ask for more. I perceive this kind of under-table transaction was unfair to Owens Valley farmers. According to the Fifth Amendment to Constitution, “…, nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”. Although the farmers in Owens Valley got paid for the price of the land, their latent cost of losing water was not justly compensated by the City of Los Angeles. 

Besides justifying under-table land transaction, the author also tried to convince readers that the impact of the Aqueduct on Owens Valley would be minimal. He argued since the agriculture in Owens Valley was mainly concentrated in the northern part, the aqueduct that fetches water from southern part of Owens Valley would do no harm to Inyo County’s economy. He used some misleading statistics: Inyo County experienced a population increase of 60% from 1905 to 1910; the assessed value of the entire county experienced an increase 240% from 1905 to 1912; and the irrigated area increase by 60% from 1899 to 1909. If we looked at the data closely, we can find none of the data was about Inyo County’s economic condition after 1913, when the Aqueduct was completed and started transporting water out of the region. Ironically, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was later extended north into Mono Lake basin in 1941, which radically destroyed the agricultural economy of the whole Owens Valley. The inconsistent policy caused by imbalanced political power devastated the regional economy and social justice. 
Moreover, the author did not mention a single word about the long-range environmental externality the Aqueduct might bring. The Aqueduct was designed to take “wasteful” water (those evaporated and seepage water) from the Owens Valley to serve 2 millions of population, about four times of population at the time. However, Los Angeles did not stop at the anticipated point. By 1930, Los Angeles population reached 2.2 million, and by 2000, the population reached 9.5 million. The Aqueduct built in 1913 was obviously not sufficient to satisfy the exponential growth of Los Angeles. The consequences were detrimental. Owens Lake, which used to be habitat of thousands of water birds, dried up in1924. It is now a mixture of clay, sand and brine. The alkaline dust storm formed on lakebed causes respiratory problems to nearby residents (U.S. Geological Survey 1981). By 1982, Mono Lake lost 31% of its 1941 surface area. The water becomes too alkaline for ecosystems to survive. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had also been entangled in environmental lawsuits in the second half of twentieth century. 

Due to the imbalanced power between the Los Angeles political elites and the Owens Valley people, the solution of building an aqueduct was proposed only to satisfy local needs of Los Angeles, without balancing the needs of the whole region. Owens Valley people lost land, water, and political power, while Los Angeles would be able to take off and sprawl into its great suburban country. To some extent, the author or the City of Los Angeles in 1905 did anticipate the upbuilding of the tributary suburban. However, I think they might not have anticipated the scale of the sprawl and its complex social and environmental consequences.

Davis, Martha. 1998. Stepping Outside the Box: A Short History of Water in Southern California. In UCLA Environment Symposium. Los Angeles.
Greenstein, Albert. 1999. Harrison Gray Otis.
Hinrichsen, Don. 1998. Solutions for a Water-Short World, Population Reports, Series M, Number 14. Population Report.
Howard, Ebenezer. 1902. Garden Cities of Tomorrow. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd.
Kelly, Allen. 1916. Complete report on construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct. Department of Public Service.
Klosterman, Richard. 1985. Arguments for and against planning. The Town Planning Reivew 56, no. 1: 5-20.
U.S. Geological Survey. 1981. Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). Feature Detail Report:Owens Lake. U.S. Department of the Interior.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Diesel Famine in China

         I recently read some news about carbon emission reduction practices in China that reminded me of perverse incentive. To reflect something I read in Policy Paradox (by Deborah Stone), I’d like to discuss about this case in details.
         The Chinese central government – the State Council issued an Executive Order (2010-12) in May 2010, which urges the provincial and local governments to achieve the 20% carbon emission reduction goal (based on carbon emission per dollar of GDP) in the Eleventh Five-year Plan. The Eleventh Five-year plan ends in 2010, but the overall carbon emission reduction up to the date of order issuance is only 13.14%. To have a stake in international climate negotiations, central government stresses that the achievement of the carbon emission reduction goal is directly related to local government officials’ performance evaluation. Mayors who could not meet the target face the risk of downgrading.
         Because of this Executive Order, many local government officials, in order to keep their positions, started to cut electricity supply to manufacturing factories. With no other alternative, the factory owners had to buy diesel engines to generate electricity by themselves. The demand of diesel shot up in the last several months, which, together with some supply shortage and speculative storage, created a famine of diesel in the 4th quarter of 2010 over the whole country. In some cities, the buses stopped their services. Hundreds of small private owned gas stations closed down (the majority gas stations in China are chain stores of the mega state own companies, like CNPC, CPCC, and CNOOC. they were not impacted). Some truck drivers even take the diesel from oil tank with them when they get off from work to prevent it from being stolen.
         Ironically, diesel is no cleaner than the electricity generated by coal power plants, in terms of carbon dioxide emission. Small scale diesel generators with no pollution control measures cause even more serious air pollution problem locally. The Executive Order, which intended to expedite emission reduction pace, leads to an opposite outcome – much worse than carbon dioxide emission itself. It is imaginable that if there is no central government intervention, after the check-up of the Eleventh Five-year Plan, the factories (if they could survive from this cut-off) would get their electricity from local governments again and nothing would be changed in terms of energy efficiency.
         Luckily, the central government has realized the problems. On 22 Nov 2010, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC, the most powerful government organization in China, representing central government) hold a conference press, stating that the diesel electricity generation will not be excluded in carbon auditing. And they will correct the mistakes made by the local government officials. The NDRC also announced that the emission reduction Executive Order is not the main reason that caused the diesel famine. Supply and demand imbalance is the biggest reason. Some state owned companies are punished for price speculation, which to me is merely a face-saving measure.
         I agree with Stone that no policy is perfect and perverse incentive is inevitable. However, as what she said, “We always need to think whether perverse incentives will be caused in any rule making process.” The method she suggested to mitigate perverse incentive is to stand in the target’s shoes and ask,” how does this rule harm me, and how can I possibly get around it?” In this case of diesel famine, the central government policy makers should stand in the shoes of local government officials, when they made the Executive Order; while local officials should stand in the shoes of factory owners, when they made the decision to cut off power.

(My first post is not about water... But this is really an interesting topic to blog on...:)