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China’s Dam Building Spree in Tibet: Strategic Implications and India’s Options

Maj. Gen. G. G. Dwivedia (Retd.) has served as Defence Attaché in China, Mongolia and North Korea; has commanded a Division in the North East; and is currently Professor of International Studies at Aligarh Muslim University.
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  • October 21, 2016

    Recent reports have pointed to China blocking the Xiabuqu tributary of the Yarlung Zangpo River (Tibetan name for Brahmaputra) for a dam project. The 195-km long Xiabuqu originates at Bainang and joins the Brahmaputra at Xigaze, close to Sikkim. The construction of the dam as part of the Lalho hydroelectric project at Xigaze reportedly began in June 2014 and is expected to be completed by 2019.

    The project has been viewed with concern in India, which is a lower riparian state. The Yarlung Zangpo flows 1625 kms in Tibet before entering Arunachal Pradesh as the Siang. Further down, after confluence with the Dibang and Lohit, it is known as the Brahmaputra. In Bangladesh, it merges with the Ganga and empties into the Bay of Bengal.

    China has tried to allay India’s apprehensions by stating that the project is not designed to hold water. It further claims that the Xiabuqu’s mean discharge volume is barely 0.02 per cent of the Brahmaputra’s average annual trans- boundary discharge, which latter is estimated at 142.37 cubic km. Earlier, Beijing had vehemently denied undertaking any dam construction activities on the Brahmaputra in Tibet. It was only in 2010 that the then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi formally acknowledged the construction of the Zangmu dam.

    China’s closed door political system is shrouded in secrecy, leading to trust deficit. In the absence of an effective water sharing mechanism, the construction of the dam on the Xiabuqu could emerge as another irritant between India and China. Beijing’s elaborate plans to harness the waters of the rivers in Tibet have serious strategic and socio-economic implications for India.

    China’s Grand Design

    China’s water resources are unevenly distributed. The better developed northern region, home to 42 per cent of the country’s population, contains only 14 per cent of its fresh water. The agrarian South, which is comparatively less developed, is water surplus with a 86 per cent share of the country’s total fresh water. Over the years, industrial and domestic usage of water in China has increased significantly. As a result, Beijing has taken recourse to dam construction and water diversion to sustain economic growth.

    The Tibet plateau has enormous strategic significance due to its rich water resources. Its 100,000 sq. km. surface is covered by glaciers that feed a number of river systems in South and South East Asia. The major Chinese rivers, Yangtze and Huang He, originate from the plateau. The Indus and Sutlej that flow through India also have their origin in Tibet. And the Salween and Mekong rivers, which also originate in Tibet, traverse through Indo-China.

    China, as the largest consumer of energy, plans to double its current electricity generation capacity to 430,000 MW in the next couple of years. To reduce carbon emissions, Beijing aims to enhance the proportion of non-fossil fuel usage to 15 per cent by 2020. According to the Chinese Academy of Science, the hydroelectric power generation capacity of the Yarlung Zangpo basin is around 114,000 MW. The Chinese are in the process of constructing 36 dams on the rivers and tributaries in Tibet.

    To tide over existing water and energy shortages, China has adopted a multi- pronged strategy. The Three Gorges project on the Yangtze generates 18,000 MW of electricity and has enabled the transfer of water to the northern regions. Another project underway is the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP), which entails diverting the waters of the Yangtze to augment the capacity of the Huang He.

    In Tibet, the Chinese dam building spree on the Brahmaputra includes the 510 MW dam at Zangmu, which was completed in 2015. Under the ‘New Energy Development Plan-2015’, the Chinese cabinet has approved the construction of three more dams on the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra. Two of these dams, Dagu (640 MW) and Jiexu (capacity unconfirmed), are 18 and 11 kms, respectively, upstream of the Zangmu. The third at Jiacha (340 MW) is downstream.

    However, it is the northward rerouting of waters under the ‘Great Western Route Water Transfer Project’ that is of serious concern to India. The proposal involves the construction of a mega dam (38,000 MW capacity) at Namcha Barwa, where the Brahmaputra makes a steep loop before entering India. While initially the project is for power generation, subsequent plans are to divert water up to 200 bcm for irrigating the deserts of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. Due to the requirement of major tunnelling effort, for the time being, the project is on hold. However, the Chinese have proven expertise in executing highly complex engineering ventures.

    The Chinese are also in the process of constructing about a dozen dams on the Salween (Nu) in Tibet and Yunnan. Six mammoth dam projects on the Mekong are also in the pipeline.

    Strategic Implications

    Dams over the Yarlung Zangpo, even if these are ‘run of river’ projects, provide China the ability to control the flow of water in the Brahmaputra. An accidental or emergent outflow from these dams could prove catastrophic. Cases in point in this regard are: the sudden rise of water in the Siang in 2000, which resulted in the death of 26 people; and, the Pareechu episode in 2005, which led to flash floods in the Sutlej causing extensive damage.

    In case China pursues the option of diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra, the consequences could be wide ranging. It could seriously affect the navigability of National Waterway-2 – the 890 km stretch from Sadiya to Dhubri – given the requirement of maintaining a minimum depth of 1.5 metres from Sadiya to Dibrugarh and 2 metres beyond that. Even ‘run of river’ projects are not benign. When water held back in pondage is released for the turbines to operate, it results in diurnal variation in the downstream flow. That, in turn, is likely to seriously impact India’s efforts to exploit the hydro potential of the region. Moreover, any disturbance in the existing ecological environment will have an adverse effect on the densely populated Brahmaputra Valley.

    To counter the Chinese grand design of ‘stealing the rivers’, India has planned to construct 76 dams with an estimated capacity of 36,900 MW, taking advantage of the ‘UN advisory on the river water dispute’, whereby a downstream riparian state can ensure ‘first user right’ on the international rivers by building dams. Of these, the 44 dams on the Siang are expected to generate 18,293 MW of hydro power. But very little progress has been made on these dam projects due to numerous factors: inefficient official machinery, allegations of corruption and kickbacks, influential activist bodies opposing the construction of the dams on the pretext of environment degradation, and technical glitches, to name a few.

    While China as an upper riparian state enjoys ‘restricted territorial sovereignty’ as per international law, it also has an obligation to protect the interests of lower riparian nations. Currently, there is no arrangement between India and China on water sharing. In a recent article carried by the state-run Global Times, China had expressed willingness to have multilateral cooperation with India and Bangladesh to share waters. Retracting this two days later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson went on to state that effective cooperation regarding sharing data on the flow of rivers already existed.

    India’s Options

    India needs to address the issue of water sharing with China in a comprehensive manner. New Delhi must garner the support of other affected nations – Bangladesh and Bhutan, besides Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam – to build consensus with the aim of dissuading China from going ahead with the planned projects in Tibet. There is an urgent need to formulate a national policy that factors in both the strategic and legal dimensions. Besides, the constitution of a body of experts would go a long way in addressing the issue in its entirety.

    In the emerging geopolitical scenario, water and energy security are critical for China to realise its global aspirations. In pursuit of national interests, the Communist Party’s leadership approach is characterised by assertiveness and unilateralism. Therefore, instead of adopting a policy of appeasement, New Delhi must forcefully take up its concerns with Beijing. It is only through persistence that a formal framework for a water sharing mechanism with China can be evolved. To this end, strong political will combined with crafty diplomacy appears to be the best option.

    The author is a former Assistant Chief Integrated Staff. He has served as Defence Attaché in China. He is currently Professor Security & Strategic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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