When we last left our Last Descents heroes, they were in Nepal, bringing awareness to the rivers of that country slated to be dammed. Now, trip leader Scott Ligare checks in from India, where the team is running the tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra.
Arunachal Pradesh is located in far eastern India snuggled between Burma, Bhutan, Tibet and Bangladesh. The region is home to over 10 distinct indigenous tribes of people, each with their own language and religion. Geographically the state is dominated by the mighty Brahmaputra River, its large tributaries flow from Tibet through the Himalayas and into the gigantic flood plain below. The Lohit, the Dibang, and the Siang Rivers form the mighty flood plain that is known locally as the Brahmaputra River.
India has 168 large hydro-electric projects planned in this region which is the “future powerhouse” of one of the world’s most populous countries. India is developing at a rapid pace and has over a billion people – which make it extremely energy hungry. The state of Arunachal Pradesh is naturally attractive to the power companies for hydro-electric power generation because of the large gradient, the huge volume of water and relatively low local population. Unfortunately for whitewater boaters, these factors all make the rivers of Arunachal some of the most amazing river trips in the world which soon, could all change.
Our first river trip in Arunachal was the Lohit River. The Lohit originates in Tibet and flows through the Himalayas and helps form the mighty Brahmaputra. The Lohit canyon has many villages where the people live as subsistence farmers and hunters. The canyon is home of leopards, monkeys, deer, and many other species including rodents of unusual size (ROUS). The trip took us five days and everyone agreed that it was one of the best runs we had ever done, amazing scenery, clean water, friendly people, classic whitewater, and perfect weather. We had an estimated 8,000 cfs at the take-out which seemed to be an ideal flow. The team included: Charlie Center, Erick Conklin, Seth Warren, Ben Stookesbury, Lama Kundun, Katie Scott, Lizzy English and myself.
The second main tributary to the mighty Brahmaputra is the Dibang River. A two day jeep ride from the Lohit brought us to the Dibang drainage. Due to lack of time in our itinerary we decided to put in on a tributary of the Dibang named the Ithun and run down the lower gorge of the Dibang.
The Ithun River was low but became constricted in one of the most amazing gorges that we had ever seen. The silvery-blue water was met by many cascading waterfalls from the canyon walls and made the time on the Ithun one that we will never forget. We found that a dam is planned to be built directly below the gorge, so our descent could possibly be a first, and last descent. After the confluence with the Dibang the river had about 5,000 cfs which made for some exhilarating rollercoaster rapids. We made camp on a perfect beach complete with a soothing waterfall next to it. Unfortunately the down-river wind picked up soon after dark and took down our shelters and pelted us with sand all night long. In the morning after a few too many cups of fine Darjeeling tea, we picked the sand out of our ears and nose and headed downstream. We paddled for a few hours before the canyon suddenly opened into a huge floodplain. The mighty Brahmaputra!
The Yarlung Tsangpo flows off Mount Kailas in Tibet, past the holy city of Lhasa before cutting through the Himalayas. The river makes the famous big bend and then meets with the Po Tsangpo and continues down to the border with India. At the India border the river changes name to the Siang. The Siang flows about 400 kilometers through an amazing canyon before it meets with the Dibang and the Lohit in the flood plain and again the name changes to the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra meanders its way to the Bay of Bengal meeting up with the Ganges River along the way. From the source at Mt. Kailas to the Bay of Bengal the Brahmaputra is free flowing without the impedance of any dams making it one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world.
The Tsangpo / Brahmaputra River system has great value for reasons of water and energy for both China and India (the two most populous countries in the world) which unfortunately in most people’s eyes greatly outweigh the value of cultural traditions, environmental health and aesthetics. United Press International has posted
For India, according to the Department of Environmental Science at Assam’s Gauhati University: “The Brahmaputra basin in India is most generously gifted with a fabulous water wealth that accounts for nearly 30 percent of the total water resources and about 40 percent of the total hydropower potential of the country.”
In our journey to the Brahmaputra we were restricted from going all the way to the India/China border because of ongoing border disputes. The stretch of river of about 10km from the border to just above the village of Bona has yet to be seen by boat. It’s here that we started our eight day journey down one of the most amazing rivers in the world.
We put in about two km above the town of Bona and paddled five days, self-supported and two days with raft support. The first two days had some of the biggest rapids in the world. An estimated 40,000 cfs dropping hundreds of feet in a few miles created waves over 20 feet tall along with the occasional death hole. The rapids were surprisingly runnable however with no portages required. Sandy beaches with plenty of firewood were always available whenever we desired and it never rained. The second half of the trip, the rapids eased up and we met the rafts, continuing our journey down stream. The river gorged up many times in flat stretches which provided some excellent scenery. Waterfalls poured in through the jungle and the dark rock walls were covered in green moss. We met many villagers fishing and hanging out along the river, one group gave us two bottles of rice beer and a bottle of Kingfisher beer that they had carried to the village for two days from the nearest road.
Although the fate of these rivers is definitely grim, the time in which the “damnation” is to occur is not as soon as other rivers involved in this project. The Marysangdi, The White Nile, The Rio Baker are going be under water in a couple of years. The tributaries of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal will not be dammed for at least five. Arunachal is such an amazing destination for intermediate to expert kayakers hopefully many more boaters will get a chance to see these rivers before they are gone.
Stay tuned as the Last Descents Project heads to Africa.