MYSTERIOUS TIBETAN LAKE
published in rediff.com on 11
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
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?
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
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
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
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
All the Indian external affairs ministry
spokesman could say was: 'We are awaiting clearance from the Chinese
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
Today Beijing swears by a new friendship with
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.