South Asia

PRC’s massive dam in Himalayas raises tensions downstream


The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) withholding of details about its planned super hydropower dam — potentially the world’s largest — on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) River in the Tibet Autonomous Region has spurred anxiety and mistrust among neighbors.

The Brahmaputra provides water for farming, fishing and transport in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The river’s flow dictates whether downstream communities face drought, flooding or seasonably normal water levels. Though the lower river is comprised of water from multiple sources, the potential for the CCP to control even some of the flow with a massive dam on the upstream Yarlung Tsangpo section of the Brahmaputra worries bordering nations, especially India. The Chinese party’s lack of transparency about its plans exacerbates that concern, along with its dam-building history of relocated communities, damaged biodiversity, and structure-induced droughts and floods.

The superdam, also called the Medog Project due to the site’s location in Medog County, pictured, would harness power where the river plunges through the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, one of the world’s longest and steepest canyons, a few kilometers from the contested China-India border. It would produce up to 60 gigawatts of hydropower, according to Chinese state-run media, or nearly three times the amount generated by the Three Gorges Dam, now the world’s largest, on the PRC’s Yangtze River, Voice of America reported. A state-owned company, Power Construction Corp. of China, is the project’s contractor.

Regional seismic activity is common, including at the Great Bend superdam site where the river curls around the Namcha Barwa mountain peak. A structural breach caused by an earthquake or landslide could flood India’s Arunachal Pradesh and Assam states, and other downstream communities in India and Bangladesh, India’s Outlook magazine reported in late March 2023.

The CCP’s stated reason for building the superdam is to help wean the PRC off fossil fuels — specifically coal — which now generate most of China’s electricity and greenhouse gasses. CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has pledged the nation will be carbon-neutral by 2060.

Some superdam opponents say the structure also would help the CCP wield control over neighboring states. There is no bilateral or multilateral agreement for management of the Brahmaputra, Outlook reported.

India and the PRC have a tense relationship. The robust trading partners have clashed repeatedly at the Line of Actual Control, a 3,440-kilometer boundary that separates northern India from China. No one died in the latest confrontation in December 2022, but disagreement about the boundary’s location has persisted and intensified mistrust.

The planned superdam and other Chinese dams in the region nourish that sentiment. The PRC has promised the 50-meter-high structure will not adversely affect the river’s downstream flow. Some Indians don’t believe it.

The PRC seeks “hydro-hegemony,” SD Pradhan, a former chairman of India’s Joint Intelligence Committee, opined in The Times of India newspaper in mid-January 2023. “The big picture that emerges is that the [PRC] considers water a strategic weapon to manipulate the behavior of lower riparian states and a key instrument for its hegemonic game plan,” he wrote.

Bangladesh also worries about the superdam’s potential effects. A local hydrology expert said it could have “life and death” implications for Bangladesh, Benar News reported in December 2020, a month after the CCP announced the project.

India plans to counter the superdam downstream with an 11,000-megawatt hydropower dam on the Siang River, the Brahmaputra’s name in India’s Arunachal Pradesh, the Times of India reported. Along with generating electricity, India maintains its dam will mitigate potential droughts or floods resulting from diverted flows from the Chinese superdam, the newspaper said. Some Arunachal Pradesh communities object to The Upper Siang Multipurpose Project, which would be India’s largest hydroelectric dam, the Nikkei newspaper reported in late-January 2023.

The CCP has not announced definitive plans for the superdam, including a timetable. That’s despite the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which calls for use of cross-border watercourses in an equitable and reasonable manner.

Rather than address India’s concerns, Beijing denies any ill intent, The Diplomat magazine reported in December 2022. “Without publicly releasing hydrological data or the plans for the dam, it is difficult to accurately predict the proposed mega-project’s impact on India,” the magazine said. “The withholding of information simply increases India’s mistrust of China.”


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