China is building a “super” dam on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo River north of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tibet, as reported instate media, in a move that could have a far-reaching impact on India’s northeast water security.
Originating from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the trans-border Yarlung Tsangpo flows into Arunachal Pradesh where it is called Siang and then to Assam where it is called Dihang and after it is joined by Dibang and Lohit rivers it is known as Brahmaputra before flowing into Bangladesh where it is called Jamuna.The state media report indicated that the dam could come up in the Medog county of TAR, which is adjoining Arunachal Pradesh. China has already built several smaller dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo River for which India has conveyed its concern to China.
The new dam’s ability to generate hydropower could be three times that of central China’s Three Gorges Dam, which has the largest installed hydropower capacity in the world.Besides generation of power, the new dam will focus on maintaining China’s national security. China after the completion of dam will be able to control the flow of water in Brahmaputra River, which is a serious cause of concern to India.
In 2017, China had stopped sharing the river data soon after the 73-day long standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam near the Sikkim border over Chinese military’s plans to build a road into Bhutanese territory close to India’s Chicken Neck corridor connecting Northeastern states.
In 2018, a MoU was inked between China’s Ministry of Water Resources and India’s Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation on sharing hydrological information of the Brahmaputra River in flood season by China to India.
The agreement entails China to provide hydrological data in flood season from May 15 to October 15 every year. It also requires the Chinese side to provide hydrological data if water level exceeds mutually agreed level during non-flood season. Beijing also shares data on rivers flowing into north India. But the apprehension that China could “weaponise” cross-border rivers remains.
“For India, the one domain in which China’s status as the “upper riparian” state provides an almost insurmountable challenge is in ensuring shared access to Transboundary Rivers. As the recent clashes on the Sino-Indian border have made clear, India needs to assess how China might “weaponise” its advantage over those countries downstream. Control over these rivers effectively gives China a chokehold on India’s economy,” the July Lowy report added.
“There is no parallel in history of the project.It will be a historic opportunity for the Chinese hydropower industry,” Yan Zhiyong, chairman of the Power Construction Corp of China, or Powerchina said.The initial work on the dam began with Powerchina on October 16 signing a strategic cooperation agreement covering the 14th Five-Year Plan with the Tibet Autonomous Regiongovernment.
Yan added that the hydropower exploitation of the Yarlung Tsangpo River downstream “is more than a hydropower project. It is also meaningful for the environment, national security, living standards, energy and international cooperation.”
China will “implement hydropower exploitation in the downstream of the Yarlung Tsangpo River,” Yan said, adding that the plan put forward in the proposals for formulating the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) and its long-term goals through 2035 made by the CPC’s Central Committee. According to Yan the 60 million KWH hydropower exploitation at the downstream of the YarlungTsangpo River could provide 300 billion KWH of clean, renewable and zero-carbon electricity annually.“The project will play a significant role in realising China’s goal of reaching a carbon emissions peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060,” Yan said.
“Speculations about China planning to build a ‘super hydropower station’ in Medog County, where the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is located, have circulated for years. Medog, with a population of about 14,000, was China’s last county to be connected to the outside world with a highway,” the Global Times report said. Academics have long pointed out China’s strategic advantage over India in terms of international transboundary rivers.
“China has claimed express ownership over Tibet’s waters, making it an upstream controller of seven of South Asia’s mightiest rivers – the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Yangtze, and Mekong. These rivers flow into Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, and form the largest river run-off from any single location…Nearly half that water, 48 per cent, runs directly into India,” a Lowy Institute report said in July this year in the backdrop of the ongoing India-China border friction in eastern Ladakh.
The Global Times report quoted an expert saying that dams on cross-border projects cannot be developed without the cooperation between upstream and downstream countries.
“Hydropower projects on cross-border rivers cannot be developed without communication and cooperation between upstream and downstream countries,” Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the tabloid.
Dechen Palmo research fellow, Tibetan Policy Institute, Central Tibetan Administration in an article said, “The timing of the announcement of dam can be linked to the ongoing border tensions, which is rooted in China’s refusal to acknowledge the McMahon Line. Instead Beijing claims 90,000 sq kms in Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet (Nan Zang). China’s aggression has been increasing in the Ladakh and Sikkim sectors. Now, the building of a dam so close to LAC in Arunachal Pradesh also underlines China’s strategic intent: To question India’s territorial integrity.”
The main aim of China is to equip itself with strategic leverage over India. Such huge water storage could be used as a tool for consolidating supremacy in the disputed territories. China is using Tibetan waters to further its territorial ambitions.
India must take up with China the 1997 United Nations Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses that specifically focuses on shared water resources. It established two key principles to guide the conduct of nations regarding shared watercourses: “equitable and reasonable use” and “the obligation not to cause significant harm” to neighbours. There is a consensus among experts that international watercourse agreements need to be more concrete, setting out measures to enforce treaties made and incorporating detailed conflict resolution mechanisms in case disputes erupt.