China’s new President Xi Jinping has said his country was “quite conscious of their responsibilities and interests of lower riparian countries” when it came to dams and hydropower projects on transboundary rivers. China would consider setting up a joint mechanism with India to scrutinize such projects in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xi told India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The two leaders met on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit at Durban, South Africa. Briefing the media on the meeting on his way back to New Delhi, Singh said, “As of now, our assessment is that whatever activities are taking place in the Brahmaputra region in Tibet, they are essentially run-of-the-river projects and therefore there is no cause for worry on our part.”

Hydropower projects on the Brahmaputra – known as the Yarlung Zangbo in China – have caused much worry in downstream India about reduced water flows, especially in the lean season. Though all four projects now under construction or on the drawing board are run-of-the-river projects that are not supposed to hold back any water, China has resurrected its ambitious and controversial dam projects in its Twelfth Five Year Plan, the period for which has just started. The plans include the Yarlung Zangbo, though the long-discussed project to divert its waters to northern China seems to have been shelved for the time being.

India is in no position to object to run-of-the-river hydropower schemes, since it is building similar structures on various rivers in the Indus basin, where Pakistan is downstream. India is also building a large number of dams and run-of-the-river projects in its own stretch of the Brahmaputra, despite objections from its own environmentalists and downstream Bangladesh.

India has been asking China for years to set up a joint mechanism for the management of the Yarlung Zangbo / Brahmaputra, one of the ten major rivers that drain the Himalayan watershed. China has not responded, though it did agree on limited data sharing on water flows in the monsoon months. That followed a flash flood in 2000 which originated in Tibet and swept away villages in the Indian state of Assam, killing a large number of people. The limited agreement has already proved beneficial on another river at the western edge of the Tibetan plateau – the Sutlej. Chinese officials warned their Indian counterparts about a flash flood on the Sutlej, thus enabling India to evacuate residents of two villages before the houses were swept away.

In their first meeting, President Xi has now assured Prime Minister Singh that China will consider India’s long-standing request to take this cooperation to a much higher level. If China responds positively to the request, it will be widely welcomed by policymakers, hydrologists, environmentalists and residents of the region. It will also strengthen Bangladesh’s demand that the Brahmaputra be brought under multilateral management, a demand supported by independent academics, who have been seeking holistic planning of the entire river basin on the basis of the principles of integrated water resources management.

It will now be up to the water bureaucracies of both countries to take forward what their leaders have started. Singh said, “This was our first meeting and both of us, I think, were keen to get acquainted. While we reviewed the whole gamut of our relationship, we did not go in depth into specific solutions for specific problems. But I got a distinct impression that the new Chinese leadership is as serious as the former Chinese leadership to promote good neighbourly relations and to find practical, pragmatic solutions to outstanding issues between our countries.”

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