When one nation’s dam-building rage threatens an entire continent’s future

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

China is the world’s biggest dam builder, with the country boasting more dams than the rest of the world combined. China is also the world’s largest exporter of dams.

In Nepal, where China-backed communists are in power, Beijing has just succeeded in reviving a lucrative dam project, which was scrapped by the previous Nepalese government as China had won the contract without competitive bidding. The reversal of the previous government’s cancellation of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Dam project has come after Nepal’s communist rulers implemented a transit transport agreement with China to cut dependence on India.

China is building dams in two other countries neighbouring India, Myanmar and Pakistan, including in areas torn by ethnic separatism (as in northern Myanmar) and in a United Nations-designated disputed territory like the Pakistan-occupied portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet it loudly protests when the Dalai Lama merely visits Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it to be a “disputed territory”, although only Beijing disputes India’s control over Arunachal. The UN does not recognize Arunachal as disputed.

China has also held out threats against India jointly exploring with Vietnam for offshore hydrocarbons in Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Yet it has no compunctions about unveiling projects — under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Domestically, most of China’s mega-water projects are now concentrated on the Tibetan Plateau, a sprawling region it forcibly absorbed in the early 1950s.

By building an array of new dams on rivers flowing to other countries, Beijing seems set to roil inter-riparian relations in Asia and make it more difficult to establish rules-based water cooperation and sharing.

China has emerged as the key impediment to building institutionalized collaboration in Asia on shared water resources. In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

The long-term implications of China’s dam programme for India are particularly stark because several major rivers flow south from the Tibetan plateau. India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream from it: the Indus pact with Pakistan guarantees the world’s largest cross-border flows under any treaty regime, while the Ganges accord has set a new principle in international water law by granting Bangladesh an equal share of downriver flows in the dry season.

China, by contrast, does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbour.

Yet most of Asia’s international rivers originate in territories that China annexed after its 1949 communist “revolution”. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood of mainland China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Other Chinese-held homelands of ethnic minorities contain the headwaters of rivers such as the Irtysh, Illy and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

China’s dam programme on international rivers is following a well-established pattern: Build modest-size dams on a river’s uppermost difficult reaches, and then construct larger dams in the upper-middle sections as the river picks up greater water volume and momentum, before embarking on mega-dams in the border area facing the neighbouring country. The cascade of mega-dams on the Mekong River, for example, is located in the area just before the river enters continental Southeast Asia.

Many of China’s new dam projects at home are concentrated in the seismically active southwest, covering parts of the Tibetan Plateau. The restart of dam building on the Salween River after a decade-long moratorium is in keeping with a precedent set on other river systems: Beijing temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests flare so as to buy time — before resurrecting the same plan.

The Salween — Asia’s last largely free-flowing river — runs through deep, spectacular gorges, glaciated peaks and karst on its way into Myanmar and along the Thai border before emptying into the Andaman Sea. Its upstream basin is inhabited by 16 ethnic groups, including some, like the Derung tribe, with tiny populations numbering in the thousands. As one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the upper basin boasts more than 5,000 plant species and nearly half of China’s animal species.

China’s action in lifting the moratorium and starting work on dams on the Tibet-originating Salween threatens the region’s biodiversity and could uproot endangered aboriginal tribes. There is also the risk that the weight of huge, new dam reservoirs could accentuate seismic instability in a region prone to recurrent earthquakes.

No country is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of trans-boundary flows than India. The reason is that India alone receives nearly half of the river waters that leave Chinese-held territory. According to United Nations figures, a total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3 per cent of the total) runs directly into India.

China already has a dozen dams in the Brahmaputra River basin and one each on the Indus and the Sutlej rivers. On the Brahmaputra, it is currently constructing several more. Its dam building is likely to gradually move to Tibet’s water-rich border with Arunachal as the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn to enter India.

If Asia is to prevent water wars, it must build institutionalized cooperation in trans-boundary basins in a way that co-opts all riparian neighbours. If a dominant riparian country refuses to join, such institutional arrangements — as in the Mekong basin — will be ineffective. The arrangements must be centred on transparency, unhindered information flow, equitable sharing, dispute settlement, pollution control, and a commitment to refrain from any projects that could materially diminish trans-boundary flows.

China, undeterred by the environmental degradation it is wreaking, has made the control and manipulation of river flows a pivot of its power. It is past time for New Delhi to speak up on China’s dam-building threat to India’s security and well-being.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.

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