PRC’s Tibetan hydropower plan sparks worry downstream
Plans by the Chinese Communist Party to build a dam and hydropower project on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, pictured, which becomes the Brahmaputra River in India and Bangladesh, have sparked concerns over massive environmental destruction, social impact and downstream water shortages.
The project could have three times the capacity of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) controversial Three Gorges Dam. Environmental groups and Tibetan rights activists said such projects wreak environmental havoc and severely affect downstream water supplies.
“Scientists have warned that constant construction of hydropower dams will lead to earthquakes, landslides and also submerge land and forests under water, which will endanger wildlife,” said Zamlha Tenpa Gyaltsen, an environmental analyst at the Dharamsala, India-based Tibet Policy Institute. “It will seriously impact Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in India, through which the river flows.”
Details of the dam’s specifications and location are unclear, but the project already has been criticized by India and other countries, said Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia program director at the Stimson Center think tank.
“Upstream dams on the Brahmaputra impact downstream seasonal hydrological cycles, which hold important cultural significance and impact local and national economic activities,” he said. “This new dam was announced with minimal prior consultation with downstream countries, nothing new for China’s treatment of downstream neighbors.”
Eyler said the project is part of a massive dam-building program in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers that would have an unprecedented impact downstream.
Chinese officials reportedly have said that hydropower construction would help develop PRC-controlled Tibet, while construction of power grids and roads would ease cross-border cooperation with South Asian countries.
But hydropower opponents say the PRC’s rivers are already at saturation point after a dam-building boom that included Three Gorges and many other giant hydropower plants on the Yangtze and its tributaries.
“I believe that behind these road and hydropower projects, the Chinese government’s main intention is to resettle Chinese people in Tibetan areas,” Gyaltsen said.
A U.S. government-funded study published in 2020 found that a series of dams built by the PRC on the Mekong had worsened drought in downstream countries, although Beijing disputed the findings.
Jagannath Panda, a research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said Indian policymakers are concerned that the PRC isn’t sharing enough information about upstream projects.
“India would ideally expect that China, before doing any kind of construction on the dam … will and should consult India,” he said. “This information and data are crucial for the progress of agriculture for the progress of people’s livelihood.”
Trust between South Asian countries and Beijing is at a low point, including over concerns that the PRC’s use of the Yarlung Tsangpo could become “weaponized,” according to Farwa Aamer, director of the EastWest Institute’s South Asia program.
The Mekong is a case in point, Eyler said. “Data provision [regarding the Mekong basin] is still a trickle of information compared to what is needed to improve outcomes downstream,” he said. “China often doesn’t notify countries of new dam developments on the Mekong.”
He said the PRC’s 11 Mekong dams restrict water flow downstream during droughts.
“China’s official discourse on these actions is that upstream dam restrictions prevent floods downstream and reduce drought by releasing water when needed,” Eyler said. But “there is absolutely zero evidence that China’s upstream regulations reduce floods and improve drought conditions.”
Along the Brahmaputra, there is further cause for worry. A recent study published by the scientific journal Nature Communications found that destructive flooding will probably happen more frequently than projected, owing to a miscalculation of the baseline in recent years.
United Nations figures show that about 30 million people in Bangladesh were exposed to or lived near flooded areas during July 2020.