It’s been more than a month since the clear waters of Arunachal Pradesh’s Siang river, which is the Yarlung-Tsangpo in Tibet, and the Brahmaputra in Assam, turned muddy. What is still alarming is the government’s refusal to resolve the problem or even take the matter seriously.
It was reported that the blackened turbid waters had a high content of clay and silt due to earthquakes in Tibet. These earthquakes triggered landslides, which have led to three dams being formed upstream of the river in Tibet. There is fear that dams could give away to flood the region up till Assam. A landslide of similar proportions had occurred in April 2000 on the Yigong-Tsangpo. This had led to the creation of similar dams and it gave away in two months, leading to a major flood in Assam in June then.
In the recently concluded Lok Sabha session, the only answer the minister of state for water resources and river development, Arjun Ram Meghwal, gave when asked what steps the Government had taken to bring the river back to its natural condition, was that the issue was raised with the Chinese side. “In this regard, the government has noted the Chinese foreign ministry’s statements stating that the situation was caused by an earthquake in the region and was not a man-made incident. As a lower riparian State with considerable established user rights to the waters of the trans-border rivers, the government has consistently conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities, including at the highest levels, and has urged them to ensure that the interests of downstream States are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas,” pointed out Meghwal.
The minster added that his department was not aware of any losses that had occurred to the state, local fishermen and farmers.
Sushma Swaraj, the minister for external affairs, had given a similar non-committal answer in the Rajya Sabha too. “Government, in close cooperation with various state governments which are users of the waters of Brahmaputra River, continues to carefully monitor the water flow in river Brahmaputra for early detection of abnormality so that corrective and preventive measures are taken to safeguard the livelihoods of people. We intend to remain engaged with China on the issue of trans-border rivers to safeguard our interest, including through an institutionalised Expert Level Mechanism which was established in 2006.
These responses have gotten scientists and water activists worried. “The three natural dams that have formed have not drained out yet. While there is no discernible change in size of the dams, the danger of them breaking over the next few months (in fact anytime) is still present. Therefore, yes the danger to downstream residents with respect to a flood is still present,” notes Chinthan Sheth, a scientist with the National Centre for Biological Sciences.
Scientists have stated that there needs to be regular monitoring of the disaster and two vital projects need to be set-up. “Scientific modelling and analysis of the outburst volume from these dams. This can help delineate areas, of the Siang valley, that are vulnerable to this flood. One step further would be to model it for the entire Brahmaputra, helping Assam and Bangladesh plan for disasters. Part of this project must also include examination of past evidence of mega-floods along the Brahmaputra. Atleast, three mega-floods have occurred on the Tsangpo river, one 9,000 years ago and another 1500 year ago. More recently was the Yigong disaster in 2000. Even from the 2000 Yigong disaster people have not been compensated. Seventeen years is too long for a farmer to be unable to farm on his land,” elaborates Sheth.
“Creation of a disaster monitoring and modelling cell for Arunachal Pradesh. There is currently no scientific assessment (not public at least) of potentially vulnerable areas for AP. There are multiple types of disasters that can happen (earthquake, flood, landslide being most frequent). And all this needs to be analysed in the context of climate change, which is a serious problem of the present and future,” concluded Sheth on a dismal note.