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The Brahmaputra Basin

The Mekong River Basin

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Geography

The Brahmaputra River Basin consists of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, which originates in Tibet and the Barak River starting in India.  These rivers all converge in Bangladesh as the Meghna River and flow out to the Bay of Bengal.  The river basin is a wide land area made up of parts of India, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

The Brahmaputra River flows for 1,800 miles through Tibet, India, and Bangladesh.  Starting in the Himalayas in Tibet as the Tsangpo River, the river flows eastward for 704 miles.  At the Shuomatan Point, the river bends and enters India crossing the Assam Valley.  It then flows south through Bangladesh exiting at the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta into the Bay of Bengal.

Hydropolitics of the Basin

625 million people live in the basin, 80% of which are farmers and need the water for their crops and animals.  Bangladesh gets 94% of its water from rivers flowing into the country equating 2.9 billion metric tons from the basin.  The high use of the water source is clearly reflected in the largely agricultural based economies of all the countries the river flows through.  This is a point that the politicians of this region have not overlooked.  The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in 1985 with the purpose of “promoting welfare, accelerating economic growth, promoting and strengthening collective self reliance, and strengthening cooperation among themselves,” as stated in their charter.  Signed by representatives of Bhutan, India, Pakistan, the Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka the group largely acts as a “check” on India, superior is size and economy, and clearly the most powerful in the region.  The SAARC to date have yet to have made any substantial difference in terms of water scarcity.

Recently, the Chinese government has revealed their intention to dam the Brahmaputra river at the Shuomatan Point, or the “Great Bend” and divert those waters to the Yellow River, located at the north east end of the plateau.  With this project the Chinese government is providing water to its desert region by taking it away from billions of people living on the Plateau and downstream. Previous dams similar in effect to one proposed by the Chinese government such as the Farakka Barrage in India have had persisting effects in Bangladesh.  With the building of the dam less water flowed to Bangladesh, causing displacement of peoples, increased salinity, and deterioration of water quality.  If the Chinese government chooses to go ahead with the dam without consideration of the countries downstream, instability and permanent ecological damage will surely follow.  With this new proposal a great opportunity has come for the SAARC to exercise their power to shed light on the detrimental effects this dam.  Although China is not a member, the signatories (especially India) have legitimate concerns that the international community should listen to.