Compared to the Ganges, it’s one of the least reported rivers though it drains the entire Eastern Himalayas. The Yarlung Zangbo-Brahmaputra Basin is a trans-boundary river system and is an integral part of the lives of people living in three different countries – China, India and Bangladesh. And of late there have been some apprehensions over China building big dams on the upper reaches of the river system which has created misgivings in downstream countries like India and Bangladesh. This can mainly be attributed to lack of information and media reports on the developments along the banks of the river in these three different countries.
In fact, this lack of information about the river system can also lead to catastrophic results. For instance, in June 2000, a huge landslide on the Yigong Zangbo river (the upper stream of the Brahmaputra), in the east of Tibet led to flash floods in parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam leading to an estimated property loss of not less than a billion rupees, 30 deaths and more than 100 people missing and more than 50,000 homeless. Partha J Das, climate expert from Aaranyaak, an NGO says, “A lot of the disaster could have been averted if this was widely publicized by media outlets in both the countries.”
Recently, the “Tibetan Review”, a monthly magazine wrote, “The media in India have reacted happily Oct 14 to China’s claim that it will not divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo river in occupied Tibet to its parched provinces in the north-east, or even Xinjiang in the north-west, especially due to its “possible impact on state-to-state relations”. The Indianexpress.com said the statement would likely come as a relief to India. And the Timesofindia.indiatimes.com called it a rare admission which will be welcomed in India.
In a bid to usher in some kind of mutual exchange of ideas between the three countries, the Third Pole Project of China dialogue and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network organized a media workshop on Climate Change Effects in the Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra Basin for journalists from Bangladesh, China and India recently. Katherine Eaton of Internews says, “It is possible to close your borders to anything political or economic but not to the environment. In fact, talking about the environment can even be an incentive for peace.”
For the first time, Indian and Bangladeshi journalists got an opportunity to hear a Chinese scientist Dr Yang Yong, who had for the first time tried to explore the treacherous parts of the river system by rafting through the river. He displayed some rare photographs which showed desertification in parts of the upper reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river which could be effects of climate change.
The lack of data on this river system and lack of agreement of these two countries to share information or even early warning systems has led to many misunderstandings. Bharatlal Seth of Down To Earth magazine in India says, “I still think the regional Indian media covers it and the national media picks up a lot from the regional media.” Sobhapati Samom, an Indian journalist based in Manipur feels it is important that journalists of these three countries come together and share information. “It also helps us to dispel many myths,” he adds.
The Bangladesh media is also keen on a trans-boundary sharing of information. G.M Mourtaza, chief co-ordinator of Radio Padma, the first community radio station of Bangladesh says, “We read about this river system as isolated incidents. We need to collate and connect one event with another. In fact, we can have a network of community radio to share information. China already has a long-standing experience of running community radios. We can share information online. They can in turn relay it on their airwaves and even play the role of an early warning system. China lies in the upstream amd if they can forsee any disaster they can inform us. We can do this as we have one thing in common – the river.”
Another journalist Ruhul Amin Rushd, senior news editor of Bangla Vision Television used to report on climate change and the environment mainly concentrating on the Ganges. After the Ganges, another much-talked about river is the Teesta. But the Brahmaputra has somehow been ignored by the media in Bangladesh. “We keep having devastating floods in our country and I am not sure if this is in anyway connected to any developments in the upstream. It is pertinent to co-operate with each other and share information on the trans-boundary rivers that flow through the countries,” he says.
Water is such an issue that wars have been fought over it. But the common people are not interested in the politics over water. People want water for their basic needs, does not matter who has more or less or does everyone has enough. Beth Walker, Editor of Third Pole, “I have been struck by how little understanding between the three countries. We seem to just get polarized views. It is important to share stories, concerns, ideas and reshape the whole debate on the river.”
The Chinese journalists too were intrigued by the misunderstanding created by the media. Wan Li, a Chinese journalist says, “I spoke to some Indian friends and I know there are misgivings among the media and local people of the downstream countries. This kind of exchange programme helps in sending across the message back home on the effects of the mismanagement of the information system to the affected countries. We read about the floods in Bangladesh but without any linkages to China.
Joydeep Gupta, director of the Third Pole Project, a project of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and China Dialogue that seeks to improve coverage of climate change issues in the Himalayan region and downstream wants to make this interaction among journalists of these three different countries a sustained effort. “We want this river system to be reported more frequently. Journalists can always share information through listserves and be connected online,” he says.
(Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India).