The Ominous Rise of a Thirsty Dragon
A Chinese dam under construction.

Brahma Chellaney
Times of India, August 7, 2011

China, the geographical hub of Asia, is the source of transboundary-river flows to the largest number of countries in the world — from Russia to India, and from Kazakhstan to the Indochina Peninsula. This unique status is because of its forcible absorption of sprawling ethnic-minority homelands, which make up 60% of its landmass and are the origin of all the important international rivers flowing out of Chinese-held territory.

Getting this pre-eminent riparian power to accept water-sharing arrangements or other cooperative institutional mechanisms has proven unsuccessful in any basin. In fact, as epitomized by its planned or actual construction of a separate cascade of upstream dams on several major international rivers, including the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Arun, Irtysh-Illy, and Amur, China is increasingly headed in the opposite direction — toward unilateralist actions impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.

No country in history has been a greater dam builder than China, which boasts not only the world’s biggest dam (Three Gorges) but also more total number of dams than the rest of the world combined. Yet far from slowing its dam-building spree, China has stepped up its re-engineering of river flows in two ways: by portentously shifting its focus from internal rivers to international rivers, and by concentrating on mega-dams.

For example, its newest dams on the Mekong are the 4,200-megawatt Xiaowan — taller than Paris’s Eiffel Tower and producing more electricity than the installed hydropower-generating capacity of all of the lower Mekong countries together — and the 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu, which when complete will be even bigger in storage volume but not in height.

Last summer, China’s state-run hydropower industry published a map of major new dams approved for construction, including one on the Brahmaputra at Metog (or “Motuo” in Chinese) that will be larger than even the 18,300-megawatt Three Gorges. India’s largest dam — the 2,000-megawatt Tehri — pales in comparison with China’s dams.

In the next one decade, according to international projections, the number of dams in the developed countries is likely to remain about the same, while much of the dam building in the developing world, in terms of aggregate storage-capacity buildup, will be concentrated in just one country — China.

The consequences of such frenetic construction are already visible. First, China is now involved in water disputes with almost all its riparian neighbours, ranging from big Russia and India to weak clients like North Korea and Myanmar.

Second, its new focus on water mega-projects in the traditional homelands of ethnic minorities has triggered fresh tensions along ethnic fault lines over displacement and submergence issues at a time when the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have all been racked by revolts or protests against Chinese rule. And third, Chinese projects threaten to extend the serious degradation of internal rivers to international rivers.

Yet, as if to underpin its rise as the world’s unrivalled hydro-hegemon, China is also the largest dam builder overseas. From Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Myanmar’s troubled Kachin and Shan states, China has widened its dam building to disputed or insurgency-torn areas, even in the face of local backlash. While PLA units are engaged in dam and other strategic projects in restive Gilgit-Baltistan, China’s dam building inside Myanmar has contributed to renewed bloody fighting recently, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the government.

For downriver countries, a key concern is China’s opacity on its hydro-engineering projects. It usually begins work quietly, almost furtively, and then presents a project as holding transboundary flood-control benefits and as an unalterable fait accompli.

Worse still, China rejects the very notion of a water-sharing arrangement or treaty with any riparian neighbour. The terms “water sharing,” “shared water resources,” “treaty” and “common norms and rules” are an anathema to it. It is one of only three countries that voted against the 1997 UN Convention, which lays down rules on shared basin resources.

It is thus no accident that there are treaties among co-riparian states in South and Southeast Asia, but not between China and any of its neighbours. That the country with a throttlehold over the headwaters of major Asian rivers is also a rising superpower, whose muscular confidence is increasingly on open display, only compounds the regional security challenges.

In this light, China poses the single biggest obstacle to the building of institutionalized cooperation in Asia to harness internationally shared rivers for mutual and sustainable benefit.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

(c) Times of India, 2011.