China’s Murky Hydropolitics

Ties and Troubled Waters


China’s hydro-engineering projects in Tibet indicate it is fashioning water as a card against India


Brahma Chellaney

The Times of India, June 29, 2010


New evidence from China indicates that, as part of its planned diversion of the waters of the Brahmaputra, preparations are afoot to start work on the world’s biggest dam at the river’s so-called Great Bend, located at Tibet’s corner with northeastern India. The dam, by impounding water on a gargantuan scale, will generate, according to a latest map of planned dams put up on its Web site by the state-run Hydro China, 38,000 megawatts of power, or more than twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. Such is its scale that this new dam will by itself produce the equivalent of 25 percent of India’s current electricity generation from all sources. 


Water is becoming a key security issue in Sino-Indian relations and a potential source of enduring discord. China and India already are water-stressed economies. The spread of irrigated farming and water-intensive industries, together with the demands of a rising middle class, have led to a severe struggle for more water. Indeed, both countries have entered an era of perennial water scarcity, which before long is likely to equal, in terms of per capita availability, the water shortages found in the Middle East.


Rapid economic growth could slow in the face of acute scarcity if demand for water continues to grow at its current frantic pace, turning China and India both food-sufficient countries by and large into major importers, a development that would accentuate the global food crisis. Even though India has more arable land than China 160.5 million hectares compared to 137.1 million hectares the source of most major Indian rivers is Chinese-controlled Tibet. The Tibetan plateau’s vast glaciers, huge underground springs and high altitude make Tibet the world’s largest freshwater repository. Indeed, all of Asia’s major rivers, except the Ganges, originate in the Chinese-held Tibetan plateau. Even the Ganges’ main tributaries flow in from Tibet.


But China is now pursuing major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau, which threaten to diminish international-river flows into India and other co-riparian states. China’s opaquely pursued hydro-engineering projects in Tibet threaten the interests of India more than those of any other country. The greatest impact of the diversion of the Brahmaputra waters, however, would probably be borne by Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra is Bangladesh’s most-important river, and the Chinese diversion would mean environmental devastation of large parts of Bangladesh. In fact, China is presently pursuing a separate cascade of major dams on the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra and the Irtysh-Illy, pitting it in water disputes with most of its riparian neighbours — from Kazakhstan and Russia to India and the countries of Indochina Peninsula.


In March 2009, the chairman of the Tibetan regional government unveiled plans for major new dams on the Brahmaputra. A series of six big dams will come up in the upper-middle reaches of the Brahmaputra, to the southeast of Lhasa, with construction of the first — Zangmu — beginning in 2009 itself. As part of this cascade, four other new dams will come up downstream from Zangmu at Jiacha, Lengda, Zhongda and Langzhen. The sixth, at Jiexu, is upstream to Zangmu. This cascade is in addition to the more than a dozen smaller dams China already has built on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, including at Yamdrok Tso, Pangduo, Nyingtri-Payi and Drikong.


The most ominous plan China is pursuing is the one to reroute a sizable chunk of the Brahmaputra waters northwards at the Great Bend, the point where the river makes a sharp turn to enter India, creating in the process a canyon larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in the US. The rapid infrastructure work in this area is clearly geared at such water diversion and hydropower generation. In fact, a new Chinese State Grid map showing that the Great Bend area will soon be connected to the rest of China’s power supply is a pointer to the impending launch of work on the mammoth dam there — a scheme recently supported by leaders of China’s state-run hydropower industry, including Zhang Boting, the deputy general secretary of the Chinese Society for Hydropower Engineering.


Through its giant projects in Tibet, China is actually set to acquire the capability to fashion water as a political weapon against India. Such a weapon can be put to overt use in war or employed subtly in peacetime so that the level of cross-border water flows becomes a function of political concession.


With China determined to exploit its riparian dominance, New Delhi’s self-injurious acceptance of Tibet as part of China is becoming more apparent. Just as India has retreated to an increasingly defensive position territorially, with the spotlight on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet’s status itself, New Delhi’s policy straitjacket precludes an Indian diplomatic campaign against Beijing’s dam-building projects. Accepting Tibet and the developments there as China’s “internal” affairs has proven a huge misstep that will continue to exact increasing costs. A bold, forward-looking leadership, though, can rectify any past mistake before it becomes too late.


The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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