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The mysterious Tibetan Lake

By Claude Arpi
Last updated on: August 11, 2004 16:28 IST
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Less than two months ago, there was euphoria in the corridors of South Block as India 'celebrated' 50 years of the Panchsheel Agreement.

'It is not often that you find a former President, five Cabinet ministers, a chief minister, a lieutenant governor and over 20 ambassadors/high commissioners in one place. It happened at a function organised by External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh to release a special cover to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Panchsheel (five principles) at the banquet hall of the Ashoka Hotel,' said jubilant media reports.

The fact that the MEA officials had not checked that the given date did not correspond to the actual signing of the Panchsheel Agreement was a mere detail.

Who cares about such small things between eternal friends?

Panchsheel: 50 years after

But surprisingly, it seems last month's friends cannot even help each other in time of distress.

The facts: an artificial lake at Pareechu in Tibet was created, according to the Chinese authorities, by seasonal landslides. Reports suggest that the water level in the lake has been increasing daily. Experts agree that if it bursts, there would be devastating effects in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh.

Tibet lake continues to pose threat to Himachal

According to the Survey of India Institute at Dehra Dun, the lake has 114 million cubic metres of water. It is 60 metres deep and has a total area of 230 hectares. The depth was measured by the Institute with data supplied by the National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad which had sent the latest satellite images of the water body to the Institute.

With thousands of human and animal lives under threat, a red alert was issued by the Himachal government, and armed and paramilitary forces were put on a war footing. The Rs 8,500 crore (Rs 8.5 billion) Nathpa Jhakri project which employs more than 1,000 people has been closed due to the alert.

But the matter is even more serious for national security . This area is one of the most strategic on the Indo-China border.

In August 2000, I visited Spiti Valley to attend a conference on Tibetan medicine. I was witness to the devastation caused by the bursting of another 'natural lake created by landslides.' The Kinnaur road, one the most sensitive roads, follows the Sutlej and the Tibetan border.

That year, not a single bridge was intact. To reach Kaza, the headquarters of Spiti Valley, we had to go the long way through Manali and Rothang Pass. Along the way, we kept crossing army vehicles ferrying portable bridges. Apart from the loss of human lives, the Border Roads Organisation had to completely rebuild the road and bridges.

The Tribune in Chandigarh questioned the cause of the floods: 'Even three days after the disaster, the mystery of the flash floods in the Sutlej, which wreaked havoc along its 200 km length in the state, remains unresolved… Experts are at a loss to understand where the huge mass of water came from.'

Imagine a 50 feet high wall of water descending into the gorges of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh! In a few hours, more than 100 peeople died, 120 km of a strategic highway (Chini sector) was washed away and 98 bridges destroyed.

A few months later, a detailed study carried out by ISRO scientists confirmed that the release of excess water accumulated in the Sutlej basin in Tibet had led to the flash floods.

Nearly a year later, India Today commented: 'While the satellite images remain classified, officials of the ministry of water resources indicate that these pictures show the presence of huge water bodies or lakes upstream in Sutlej and Siang river basins before the flash floods took place.'

'However, these lakes disappeared soon after the disaster struck Indian territory. This probably means that the Chinese had breached these water bodies as a result of which lakhs of cusecs of water were released into the Sutlej and Siang river basins,' India Today wrote.

Chinese dam breach caused northeast floods

When I mentioned this to Indian 'experts' I was told that 'natural' landslides were happening everywhere and there was no big deal.

Four years later, the 'natural' process has again occurred. This time the Chinese government has informed the Government of India about the impeding mishap, Beijing has remained silent on New Delhi's request to send a fact-finding team to Tibet.

Delhi announced that 'the visit of a four-member technical team -- comprising a mining expert, two members from the Central Water Commission and an expert from the Nathpa hydel project -- to the site has been put off.'

The experts were supposed to have inspected the site and worked with their Chinese counterparts to blast some portions of the lake in order to release the pressure and control the release of the water.

Asked about the steps Beijing has taking to address New Delhi's concerns, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said: 'According to information available from the Tibet Autonomous Region, we know that landslides in surrounding hills caused clogging of the course of a river and China has promptly informed the Indian side of the situation.'

Kong refused to answer when asked if China has given its clearance for the trip to Tibet of the four Indian experts.

Where is the so-called friendship when such a huge area is facing an impeding catastrophe and hundred of human lives and thousands of crores of rupees of damage are at stake?

All the Indian external affairs ministry spokesman could say was: 'We are awaiting clearance from the Chinese side.'

This can only lend to suspicion that the 'natural' lake might not in fact be so 'natural', as ISRO discovered in 2000. At that time, the Chinese had purposely blasted the lake without informing the Indian authorities. But, of course, this was before the reiterating of the Great Principles.

One cannot help thinking that in 1960, when tensions between India and Pakistan were high, the two nations found the wisdom and the courage to sign the Indus Water Treaty. Some may say it was not an ideal document, but at least it had the merit of simply being in existence.

Why can't India and China sign a similar comprehensive treaty today?

Today Beijing swears by a new friendship with India.

India, China to jointly conduct hydrographic studies of Sutlej  

'Of course, behind India's initiative of conciliation is its assertive national aspirations,' China Daily said in an August 10 editorial titled 'Sino-Indian ties warming up.' But it also acknowledged that 'India has put forward a multi-faceted diplomacy, of which repairing relations with China is an important part.'

'In the past, India has considered China as its potential threat and main strategic rival. As the gap between China and India in comprehensive national strength widens, India has come to realise that it was a smart move to conciliate with rather than alienate China,' the editorial said.

India does not want to alienate China, but Beijing should also adopt conciliation with Delhi at least on the Himalayan river issue, if not on the border question.

The only thing which is lacking is goodwill.

One can recall the floods two years ago in the southern province of Hunan in China. A swollen Dongting Lake threatened to engulf millions of people. Newspaper reports mentioned 8.4 million people being affected by the floods. At that time the Chinese authorities evacuated 600,000 people in immediate danger.

'More than a million people were piling sandbags and checking for breaches in hundreds of miles of embankments around Dongting that protect 10 million people living in a region of flat, fertile farmland,' said the official news agency, Xinhua.

Why can't the same thing be done in Tibet? I am sure the Government of India would be ready to send manpower and engineers to help.

The Sutlej, like the Indus or the Brahmaputra does not belong to China alone, there are hundreds of millions of stake-holders in South Asia, who also have (through their respective governments) a stake.

One of the problems is that Indian officials never dare to speak up for fear of 'jeopardising' the warming up or the border talks.

Nothing will happen to the border for the next few years, but today the lives of thousands are in danger.

The MEA owes it to the nation to speak up strongly.

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Claude Arpi