As if to highlight that Asia’s biggest challenge is managing the rise of an increasingly assertive China, the Chinese government has unveiled plans to build large new dams on major rivers flowing to other countries. The decision by China’s State Council to ride roughshod over downstream countries’ concerns and proceed unilaterally shows that the main issue facing Asia is not readiness to accommodate China’s rise, but the need to persuade China’s leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring countries.
China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries; so, in the absence of Chinese participation, it will be impossible to establish a rules-based regional order. How, then, can China be brought on board?
This challenge is most striking on trans-boundary rivers in Asia, where China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled on any continent by annexing the starting places of major international rivers — the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang — and working to reengineer cross-border flows through dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks, and other structures. China — the source of trans-boundary river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon — has shifted the focus of its dam-building program from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers after having already built more large dams than the rest of the world combined.
Most of China’s dams serve multiple functions, including generating electric power and meeting manufacturing, mining, irrigation, and municipal-supply water needs. By ramping up the size of its dams, China now not only boasts the world’s largest number of mega-dams, but is also the biggest global producer of hydropower, with an installed generating capacity of 230 gigawatts.
The State Council, seeking to boost the country’s already-large hydropower capacity by 120 gigawatts, has identified 54 new dams — in addition to the ones currently under construction — as “key construction projects” in the revised energy-sector plan up to 2015. Most of the new dams are planned for the biodiversity-rich southwest, where natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures are increasingly threatened.
After slowing its dam-building program in response to the serious environmental consequences of completion in 2006 of the Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest — China is now rushing to build a new generation of giant dams. At a time when dam building has largely petered out in the West — and run into growing grassroots opposition in other democracies like Japan and India — China will remain the nucleus of the world’s mega-dam projects.
Such projects underscore the zero-sum mentality that seemingly characterizes China’s water-policy calculations. By embarking on a series of mega-dams in its ethnic-minority-populated borderlands, China is seeking to appropriate river waters before they cross its frontiers.
Asia, the world’s driest continent in terms of per capita freshwater availability, needs a rules-based system to manage water stress, maintain rapid economic growth, and ensure environmental sustainability. Yet China remains the stumbling block, refusing to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbor — much less support a regional regulatory framework — because it wants to maintain its strategic grip on trans-boundary river flows.
Among the slew of newly approved dam projects are five on the Salween and three each on the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. China has already built six mega-dams on the Mekong — the lifeblood for continental Southeast Asia — with its latest addition being the 254-meter-high Nuozhadu Dam, whose gargantuan reservoir is designed to hold nearly 22 billion cubic meters of water.
The current dam-building plans threaten the Salween River’s Grand Canyon — a UNESCO World Heritage site — and the pristine, environmentally sensitive areas through which the Brahmaputra and the Mekong flow.
These three international rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau, whose bounteous water resources have become a magnet for Chinese planners. The Salween, which runs from Tibet through Yunnan Province into Burma and Thailand, will cease to be Asia’s last largely free-flowing river, with work on the first project — the giant, 4,200-megawatt Songta Dam in Tibet — to begin shortly.
The State Council’s decision reverses the suspension of dam building on the Salween announced by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004, after an international uproar over the start of multiple megaprojects in the National Nature Reserves, adjacent to the world heritage area – a stunning canyon region through which the Salween, the Mekong, and the Jinsha flow in parallel. This reversal is consistent with the pattern established elsewhere, including on the Yangtze: China temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests in order to buy time while public passions cool, before resurrecting the same plan.
Meanwhile, China’s announcement of three new dam projects on the Brahmaputra, the main river running through northeastern India and Bangladesh, has prompted the Indian government to advise China to “ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed” by the upstream works. Water has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations.
China’s new focus on building dams in the southwest of the country also carries larger safety concerns. Indeed, Chinese scientists blamed the massive 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan plateau’s eastern rim, killing 87,000 people, on the newly constructed Zipingpu Dam, located next to a seismic fault. The weight of the water impounded in the dam’s massive reservoir was said to have triggered severe tectonic stresses, or what scientists call reservoir-triggered seismicity.
China’s rush to build more dams promises to roil relations across Asia, fostering greater competition for water and impeding the already slow progress toward institutionalizing regional cooperation and integration. If China continues on its current, heedless course, prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and the forthcoming Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.