Mupi Mendo, an elderly woman from Korunu village in the Lower Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh, still remembers vividly how her legs trembled each time she crossed the raging rivers and mountain streams during the monsoon many decades ago. Mendo is a member of the Idu Mishmi, one of the eastern Arunachal Pradesh communities that inhabit the banks of the Dibang and Lohit rivers, both major tributaries of the Brahmaputra.

“Sometimes we had to cross the river on the backs of elephants, and we would cross it only when it was absolutely essential,” she said, referring to the Eze Pani, a tributary of the Dibang. For Mendo and other villagers, crossing the river was the only way of getting to other parts of the state. The river could be crossed easily in the lean season but in the high monsoon, only a death in the family or a medical emergency was considered a good enough reason to make the treacherous journey. Mendo remembers the river as “being mad” and “in a rage”, having a mind of its own. She laments that the younger generation does not know much about it or respect it.

Her fear is part of the collective memory of communities living along the Brahmaputra and its many tributaries. These communities across Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya have a strong emotional bond with the river. It is common to see villagers gather regularly on its banks and discuss the river, its highs and lows, its ebbs and flows, of how it supports life in the form of fertile floodplains and brings death through the devastation of floods and erosion. Their conversations show a traditional knowledge of the river, its many seasons and moods, of how the river has behaved over time – critical knowledge that has helped these communities live with the river through various disasters.

Speculation and a game of Chinese whispers

The 2,880-km Brahmaputra is an important frontier river. It originates in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and traverses China for about 1,700 km as the Yarlung Tsangpo before taking a sharp U-turn at the “Great Bend” and entering India through Arunachal Pradesh, where it is called the Siang. It then meets the Dibang and Lohit and merges with many other tributaries – including some from Bhutan – as it flows across the floodplains of Assam, before finally entering Bangladesh as the Jamuna. Here, it merges with the Ganga or Padma and Meghna before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

The Brahmaputra is a grossly under-researched river and engagements with it have been based on conjecture rather than substantive knowledge. In recent years, it has increasingly become a speculative river with lack of information or its selective release, secrecy and misinformation driving the dominant narrative on it. This is detached from the traditional knowledge of communities and the modern research expertise the government has at its disposal. An atmosphere of uncertainty, unpredictability and risk is built around this narrative of speculation.

Floods are an annual event for communities living alongside the Brahmaputra. (Credit: PTI)

Any extreme event – such as the annual floods, the flash floods in the Siang in 2000, the drying up of the Siang at Pasighat in 2012, the turbidity that caused the river to turn black in 2017, or the high tide it has witnessed this year – becomes fodder for speculation. This is largely fed by fear of alleged Chinese construction upstream. The primary speculation is about a purported Chinese government plan to build a tunnel to divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, connecting to its larger South-North Water Diversion Project.

When the Siang’s water turned black from high levels of turbidity last year, the Central government offered no explanation for months. Its silence fed intense speculation in the media and among communities, again about Chinese intervention and mega dams. But researchers Chintan Sheth and Anirban Datta-Roy, who studied the phenomenon, rejected this theory. They said the Siang had turned black because a major earthquake in Tibet had triggered landslides and released large amounts of sediment and debris in the river. But by then, the speculative content was firmly entrenched in the minds of the communities living along the river.

In 2017, the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh turned black from high levels of sediment. (Credit: YouTube)

Keeping tabs on the river

In 2011, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha on whether the government had taken satellite images of any construction on the entire course of the Brahmaputra, the Ministry of Space said, “Government keeps a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s national interest and takes all necessary measures to safeguard it.”

In 2015, while discussing the engagement between India and China on transboundary rivers, China analyst Jabin Jacob argued for New Delhi to enhance its technological capability of monitoring the river to offset any uncertainty in the data provided by Beijing.

India has the technological and material capability to monitor the entire course of the Brahmaputra through satellite imagery. In 2010, India confronted China with satellite images of the Zangmu hydroelectric project on the Yarlung Tsangpo and Beijing had to officially acknowledge it was building the dam.

India does not have to wholly depend on the hydrological data it receives from China under a 2002 technical cooperation memorandum of understanding (renewed every five years), the purpose of which is to help the countries be better prepared for disasters and to enable early flood warning. Instead, India must ensure it has mechanisms in place to verify that data and, more importantly, bolster its data collection facilities within India.

Mega dams, big infrastructure

The atmosphere of speculation around the Brahmaputra has allowed the government to deploy an equally speculative intervention agenda of mega dams in the ecologically sensitive eastern Himalayas – the reasoning being that if China is building mega dams, so must we. A rash of mega dam projects have been announced in the region in the past decade, including the half-built Lower Subansiri, the Lower Siang and Lower Dibang. Indigenous communities have objected to many of these projects, alleging that they will submerge large tracts of fertile, cultivable land. In the case of the state-run National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation’s Lower Subansiri project on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border, concerns have been raised that the environmental impact assessment did not follow due process or include downstream areas in Assam.

The environmental impact assessment for the Subansiri dam project on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border reportedly did not follow due process. (Credit: AFP)

Another controversial project is the dredging of the Brahmaputra. The Assam government claims this will reduce floods and make the river more navigable – while the material dredged out will be used to build superhighways along its banks. But critics allege that no proper environmental assessment or social impact assessment has been done while others point to the futility of dredging a river with a sediment load as high as the Brahmaputra’s.

Since the Brahmaputra is a frontier river, the government often invokes the alleged threat to national security vis-à-vis China to justify its mega dams and other infrastructure projects. It also cites the underdevelopment of the region to explain the lack of due process and rigour in time-consuming environmental and social impact assessments. However, such speculative risk-taking with no solid research to back it, especially in the fragile ecology of the eastern Himalayas, harms the core principle of environmental democracy among communities in North East India.

The Arunachal Pradesh government might have expressed surprise at the high tide in the Siang last month but to find a reason for it, it need look no further than the rampant extraction of riverbed boulders for its road-building and other infrastructure projects. Notable among these is the Trans-Arunachal Highway Project – a two-lane highway connecting Tawang, a northwestern town on the India-China border, to Kanubari in the state’s southeastern tip, before ending in Assam’s Dhemaji district. The Siang is flowing differently because its character is bound to change over time as a consequence of such interventions. Along with climate change, extreme water events will keep recurring, and so will the speculation.

In India, the investment on creating conditions for disaster is often more than the investment on disaster mitigation, climate change risk reduction and sustainability research – the devastating floods in Kerala this monsoon serve as an example. In Assam, the state government has built close to 5,000 km of embankments along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in the last six decades as a flood control measure. Yet, the intensity of floods has only increased. Another example is the state’s new obsession with dredging. At present, the government-backed research agenda and investments on the Brahmaputra shadow, support and perpetuate such speculative interventions.

A speculative river exists where there is a democratic deficit. This is the case with North East India, where communities cannot hold their traditional knowledge and experience of the river to meaningfully participate in environmental decision-making on core issues linked to their livelihood. The practice of environmental democracy among riverine communities requires research-backed information and consultation as a norm, not mere speculation and interventions based on such speculation.

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman is an independent researcher and consultant on development politics, transboundary rivers and borders in North East India. He completed his PhD on Sino-Indian geopolitical interactions on the Brahmaputra from IIT-Guwahati.