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PRC Weaponizes Water

PRC’s latest megadam poses an environmental threat to the Indo-Pacific

Brahma Chellaney

Water is the most precious of natural resources. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) dominates Asia’s water because of its control over the Tibetan plateau, which served as a buffer with India until the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong annexed it in the early 1950s.

Since mid-2022, Beijing has raised security concerns by increasing efforts to weaponize the transboundary flows of international rivers originating on the water-rich highlands with a perilous dam-building scheme.

The Tibetan plateau is the starting point of Asia’s 10 major river systems and the source of rivers for more than a dozen countries, underscoring the PRC’s unique riparian status. Yet, despite the PRC holding the key to stable, mutually beneficial relations among riparian states, the Chinese government stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement or cooperation treaty with any downriver country. In contrast, India has water-sharing arrangements with most of its neighbors, including Bangladesh and Nepal.

The PRC’s dam-building frenzy has increasingly focused on international rivers. Beijing’s effort to leverage its control of the Tibetan plateau in inter-riparian relations is integral to its broader geopolitical objectives. It is increasingly employing asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, also known as “unrestricted war,” a term coined by Chinese military officers more than 20 years ago.

Through this model — which embraces all forms of indirect warfare — the PRC has pursued an expansionist and coercive agenda. But it has always sought to camouflage its aggressive actions as defensive or peaceful. Weaponizing water meshes with Beijing’s unrestricted war strategy.

A Chinese-built hydroelectric power plant in Nauseri, Pakistan, was shut down in 2022 over concerns it could collapse. The Associated Press

Unparalleled megadam

The PRC is building the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam on the Brahmaputra River in Tibet. It is also a massively risky project. Concerns about the behemoth dam swirl in downriver Bangladesh and India, at least partly because it will be in a seismically active area. The location will potentially make it a ticking water bomb for downstream communities.

Add to that the risks of building the world’s most powerful hydropower facility in treacherous terrain, on what is perhaps the wildest stretch of any river in the world. The Brahmaputra curves sharply around the Himalayas, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon — twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. This gorge, which plunges 6,008 meters, holds Asia’s largest untapped water resources.

Southwest China is earthquake-prone because it sits on the geological fault line where the Indian and Eurasian plates collide. The 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan plateau’s eastern rim, killing 87,000 people, was blamed by some Chinese and U.S. scientists on the Zipingpu Dam, which began operating four years earlier along a seismic fault. The scientists contend that the weight of water in the dam’s huge reservoir triggered the earthquake.

In this light, the PRC’s stepped-up dam building on the plateau prompts legitimate safety concerns. If the megadam collapsed, downstream areas would be devastated. In 2020, record flooding endangered the PRC’s controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, putting 400 million Chinese people at risk.

 Three Gorges is the world’s largest dam, but will be dwarfed by the Brahmaputra project. The mammoth dam will be precariously close to the long militarized border with India. The nations have been locked in a tense military standoff along their Himalayan frontier for more than three years following Beijing’s stealthy encroachments in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. The megadam will arm the PRC with leverage over India. In late 2020, the Global Times newspaper, a Chinese communist mouthpiece, urged New Delhi to “assess how China could weaponize” transboundary waters to possibly “choke the Indian economy.”

The Brahmaputra is known to Tibetans as Yarlung Tsangpo, a name derived from the Yarlung Valley, the supposed cradle of Tibetan civilization and seat of the first Tibetan Empire. This small but strategic valley controlled ancient trading routes to Bhutan and India.

In Tibetan culture, the river represents the spine of goddess Dorje Phagmo, one of the highest incarnations in Tibetan Buddhism. The major mountains, cliffs and caves in the canyon region represent parts of the goddess’s body.

The megadam is being built in Pemako, considered the most sacred place in Tibet. Pemako is a “beyul,” a place where the physical and spiritual worlds overlap. Respect for nature is deeply rooted in Tibetan culture — a reverence born from the plateau’s unique landscape — and the culture has long served as an environmental guardian.

Chinese rule, however, has wreaked extensive cultural and environmental damage in Tibet, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. With its megaproject, the PRC is desecrating Tibetans’ most holy place, the canyon region, which personifies Tibet’s protecting deity. With this megadam, another sacred region is being defiled.

Construction was approved in March 2021, when the CCP’s parliament rubber-stamped the decision made by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s regime. Just before the approval, the PRC unveiled its 14th Five-Year Plan, which said the megaproject would be implemented within five years.

In October 2020, Tibet’s local government approved a “strategic cooperation agreement” in relation to the megaproject with PowerChina, a state-run construction company specializing in hydroelectric projects. A month later, PowerChina’s chief, Yan Zhiyong, told the Communist Youth League that the megadam would be in “the world’s richest region in terms of hydroelectric resources,” calling the plan a “historic opportunity” to dam the Brahmaputra.

The dam is rising in Tibet’s Metok county, also known as Medog, in the heart of Pemako, just before the river enters India. It will generate an estimated 300 billion kilowatts of electricity annually, almost three times more than Three Gorges. Between 1994 and 2012, Three Gorges construction displaced at least 1.3 million people.

The Brahmaputra’s watershed historically defined the border between India and Tibet in the eastern Himalayas. From the glaciers of western Tibet, the river originates more than 5,000 meters above sea level, making it the world’s highest as it snakes through the mountains.

Before entering India, the river plunges more than 2,700 meters to form the unmatched canyon, which is wedged between two of the highest Himalayan peaks, Namcha Barwa and Gyala Peri. Chinese dam builders want to harness the hydropower by diverting the water through a mountain tunnel.

The brunt of the megaproject’s likely environmental havoc will be borne by India’s northeastern region and, even more, by Bangladesh, the country farthest downstream. The largely low-lying deltaic country already is threatened by climate and environmental change. The PRC’s dam project will make matters worse.

That could trigger a greater exodus of refugees to India, already home to countless millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis. The Brahmaputra is the largest source of fresh water for Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries. None of this seems to bother Xi’s regime.

A girl stands in a parched field after collecting water from a pond near the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Satkhira, Bangladesh. Reuters


With this project, the PRC could also leverage control of water flow to advance its claims to India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, which borders Tibet. To provoke India, Beijing calls the region South Tibet.

More fundamentally, the dam will allow the PRC to effectively control a vital resource for tens of millions of people outside its borders. The Brahmaputra’s upper reaches already are home to a dozen or so small or medium-sized Chinese dams. The PRC’s upstream activities have triggered flash floods in Indian border states and, more recently, turned the Brahmaputra’s main artery — the once-pristine Siang — dirty and gray.

Transparency and collaboration are the building blocks of peaceful relations over water rights. But the PRC does not accept these principles. It usually cloaks major dam projects in secrecy until the evidence can no longer be hidden from commercial satellites. This explains why Beijing has released no information on its megadam project since its approval.

In the years preceding the megadam’s approval, the PRC ramped up infrastructure work around the canyon to facilitate construction. Officials in May 2021 announced completion of a “highway through the world’s deepest canyon.” The highway ends near the Indian village of Bishing on the Tibet border.

The following month, the PRC launched Tibet’s first electrified railway, which runs from the regional capital Lhasa to Nyangtri, next to the Brahmaputra Canyon. Chinese officials called the high-altitude railway a gift for the CCP’s centenary in July 2021.

The railroad and highway are used to transport heavy equipment, materials and workers to the megadam’s remote site, which was long considered inaccessible because of treacherous terrain. The railroad also has military implications, which will be reinforced when a second line from Sichuan in southwest China to the Indian border is completed. The Lhasa-Nyangtri railroad is part of the under-construction railway to Chengdu, the capital of neighboring Sichuan province.

A fisherman holds his net in the Brahmaputra River in Guwahati, India. The Associated Press

Larger Ramifications

The Brahmaputra dam project is part of a strategy that has led the PRC to step up the reengineering of cross-border river flows by taking advantage of its control over the Tibetan plateau. While freshwater shortages are clouding Asia’s economic future, the PRC’s appropriation of shared waters centers on building large dams and reservoirs along transnational rivers. The PRC seeks to translate its hydro-hegemony into upstream water control to keep its hand firmly on Asia’s tap.

The PRC’s over-damming of its internal rivers has seriously impaired ecosystems, causing river fragmentation and depletion. This has also disrupted flooding cycles, which help fertilize farmland naturally by spreading nutrient-rich silt. The question is how the PRC can be stopped from inflicting similar damage to international rivers that are increasingly being dammed.

The lower Mekong River Basin should have served as a wake-up call. Yet, after causing recurrent drought in downstream countries by erecting 11 megadams on the Mekong — which is the lifeblood for several Southeast Asian nations — the PRC has now set its sights on the bounteous resources of the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra.

In keeping with Beijing’s pattern of territorial and maritime expansionism, the water-appropriation strategy has not spared even friendly or pliant neighbors — from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to Nepal. Indeed, the PRC’s territorial grabs in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, where it has targeted even tiny Bhutan, have been accompanied by scarcely noticed freshwater grabs in transnational river basins. Given such practices, the PRC’s targeting of the Brahmaputra and other rivers flowing into rival India should come as no surprise.

A temple of the Hindu goddess Durga clings to land eroded by the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra River in India’s northeastern Assam state in October 2022. The temple washed away a day later.

Violations of Trust

The PRC also weaponizes water by withholding hydrological data during the critical monsoon season, which often brings extensive flooding. In 2017, after India boycotted the inaugural summit of Xi’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme, Beijing began concealing data from New Delhi, undermining India’s early flood warning systems.

Despite below-normal monsoon rains that year in India’s northeast, through which the Brahmaputra flows after leaving Tibet and before entering Bangladesh, the region faced unprecedented and devastating flooding, especially in Assam state. The PRC resumed sharing hydrological data with India in 2018, but only after its denial of such data resulted in preventable deaths in Assam.

The episode highlighted Beijing’s disdain for legal obligations. The data suspension breached two bilateral accords that required the PRC to transfer daily hydrological data, for which India had paid in advance.

Agreements stop being binding for the CCP when they are no longer politically convenient. For example, the military standoff between India and the PRC is the result of Beijing violating bilateral agreements that prohibit the massing of forces along the disputed frontier.

The megadam project is emblematic of the PRC’s fixation on building the world’s tallest, largest, deepest, longest and highest hydropower projects — despite the consequences for communities or ecosystems.

As a result, it has become imperative to safeguard the Great Himalayan Watershed, home to thousands of glaciers and the source of Asia’s greatest river systems, which are the lifeblood of nearly half of the world’s people. Glacial attrition is already a problem. Asia’s environmental wellbeing largely hinges on the PRC’s acceptance of institutionalized cooperation on transnational rivers, including protecting ecologically fragile zones and being transparent about its dam projects. However, as long as the CCP remains in power, Beijing will likely continue to wage water wars by stealth.  

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