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China to operationalise World’s biggest dam on Brahmaputra river in Tibet: What does it mean?

China is known to use water as a strategic weapon against its neighbours. In order to achieve carbon neutrality , China is planning to build the largest-ever dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo, called Brahmaputra in India. 

In the foothills of the Himalayas, where the ancient Yarlung civilisation established the first Tibetan Empire, China has plans to build the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam which is about 60-gigawatt mega-dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo river in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has been shared by China’s state-owned media, last year in November. 

Beijing has intensified its efforts on its hydropower projects in Tibet, as the country aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Tibetan rights groups and environmentalists have shown absolute criticism to the construction of dams as well as experts worry about it’s impact. 

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“Respect for nature is so deep-rooted,” said Tenzin Dolmey, who was brought up among Tibetan exiles in India and now teaches Tibetan language and culture in Melbourne. Overwhelmed with nostalgia, we also shared stories of great rivers and mountains, which form her ancestral home. 

“When we would swim in the rivers, we were told to never use it as a bathroom, because there are river gods in the water.” 

The head of Environment and Development at the Tibetan Policy Institute named  Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha , expresses that the reverence for the natural world was born from the Tibetan Plateau’s unique landscape , many centuries ago. 

While the significance of Yarlung Tsangpo is immense,  as it represents the body of the goddess, one of the highest incarnations in Tibetan culture named Dorje Phagmo. 

In 1950, China annexed Tibet , which is itself controlled by the Communist Party (CCP).  This led to lost of all say in what happens on their land by Tibetans and their rights on it, stated Zamlha. 

He further added “We had absolutely no dams before Chinese occupation, not because we were not able to harness it, but because we had immense respect for the nature of the rivers,” as quoted in AlJazeera.

While expressing his concern for natural world and China’s capitalist mentality he stated “There’s a very strict tradition that no one will go near certain streams or do anything that would disturb it. You don’t even need laws – every Tibetan abides by it.”

“The Chinese will do anything to benefit their growth and this is very frustrating because Tibetans are not consulted.”

Yarlung Tsangpo- world’s highest river

Originating from the glaciers of western Tibet and flowing down through the Himalayan mountain range, the Yarlung Tsangpo reaches heights of nearly 5,000 metres (16,404 feet) above sea level, which gives it the title of highest river in the world. 

The river plunges 2,700 metres (8,858 feet) through what is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, forming a gorge more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the United States.

It is conducive to collect hydroelectric power, specifically due to its vertiginous fall. Alongside experts have warned the record-breaking dam is likely to have subsequent political and environmental consequences.

Keeping in mind , the fact that China already has an excess of energy, an expert in rivers who is the director of the South East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, named  , Brian Eyler mentioned that in order to attain transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, the power generated will probably be used to cover losses.  

The mega-dam could produce as much as three times the hydroelectric power of China’s current largest dam, the Three Gorges, a project which forced the relocation of more than 1.4 million people. However the areas surrounding the Yarlung Tsangpo are less densely populated than the Yangtze River. 

According to Yan Zhiyong, the Power Construction Corp of China’s chairman , the mega-dam’s has primarily been constructed to power China’s green future. 

In order to make way for dam projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo, there is a precedent for the relocation of the local residents. To this, nearly 2,000 people were moved for the construction of the Yagen Hydropower Station in 2015 as reported by the local media. 

The Yarlung Tsangpo dam will be built in Medog County, which has a population of over 14,000 people, according to Global Times newspaper.

In light of the ongoing situation, a difficult one for local residents , Al Jazeera approached the Power Construction Corp of China for comment on the number of people who will be affected by the construction of Yarlung dam but did not receive a response. 

Geopolitical importance

The Tibetan Plateau is rich in natural resources and borders several other nations, it is spread across 2.5 million square kilometres. 

It also provides drinking water to an estimated 1.8 billion people in countries including China, India and Bhutan. 

After leaving China, the Yarlung Tsangpo flows into Bangladesh and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, where the river is known as the Brahmaputra.

Zamlha believes the CCP will “definitely try to use it as a political tool” as the proposed mega-dam sited just 30 km from the Indian border. He also believes Tibet’s resources such as the Yarlung Tsangpo and Mekong rivers were a key factor in the CCP’s decision to take control of Tibet more than 70 years ago.

India’s ministry spokesman, in charge of managing its water resources, mentioned that would respond with a 10-gigawatt project on another tributary of the Brahmaputra. The United States has tried to balance the two sides into resource-sharing, to avoid any possible conflict. 

Recently signed law by Congress named – The Tibet Policy and Support Act, highlighted a commitment to: “encourage a regional framework on water security… to facilitate cooperative agreements among all riparian nations … on the Tibetan Plateau.”

Another treaty called  International Water Courses Convention, is adopted by the United Nations in 1997, applies certain rights and duties in relation to trans-boundary flows.

In a statement in December, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying said: “China will continue to maintain communication with India and Bangladesh through existing channels. There is no need for the outside world to over-interpret it.” China has tried to focus on these concerns. 

Lessons from the Mekong 

According to the Stimson Center’s Eyler, several small- and medium-sized dams have already been built, while the project in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon remains the largest. This construction will pave way for the emergence of similar projects in the near future.

Analysis of recent data on Chinese dams has found “these operations have delivered deeper and deeper cuts to the downstream communities of the once-mighty Mekong river,” an authority on Mekong river said.

He notes that the “zero coordination for operating dams” has allowed China’s 11 Mekong dams to disrupt fish life and the flow sediment and has directly contributed to the collapse of river banks and the destruction of communities.

The specifics of China’s development plans for the Yarlung Tsangpo remain blurry, Eyler states there are huge risks.

“Rivers are known to be hungry,” he added.

“So you take that sediment out and that hungry river starts looking for new stuff, and it’s gonna pull it off of the banks and cause the deltas to erode. It’s a natural process caused by something unnatural.”

After living 34 years away from her homeland, life as a Tibetan in exile has taught Tenzin Dolmey to limit her expectations while she still believes that Tibet will live for herself. 

“I always had this vision of the beautiful capital of Lhasa,” she said.

“But I know it will be like nothing close to my dreams.”

India’s response to China’s dam project

As Beijing’s dam-building activities moved closer to the Indian border, India in a bid to safeguard its interests aims to build a multipurpose reservoir in Arunachal Pradesh which will offset the impact of the dam on the Chinese side. This announcement could open a new front in the India-China conflict in the future. 

On Tuesday, an Indian official stated that India is considering a plan to build a 10-gigawatt (GW) hydropower project in a remote eastern state, following reports that China could construct dams on a section of the Brahmaputra river. Indian authorities are concerned Chinese projects could trigger flash floods or create water scarcity.

An official added that Indian plan would create a large water storage capacity to offset the effect of Chinese dams on water flows. 

Diplomatic relations between India and China are at a nadir, with troops locked in a border face-off in the western Himalayas for months.

Brahma Chellaney, a specialist on India-China ties tweeted, “India is facing China’s terrestrial aggression in the Himalayas, maritime encroachments on its back yard and, as the latest news is a reminder, even water wars.”

Impact on India and Bangladesh

Following, we should also ponder upon the adverse impact on India as well as Bangladesh that this project would create. Hydro projects on Asia’s great rivers have been a growing source of regional tensions in recent years. China has faced accusations for a series of dams it has built on the Mekong which has worsened drought in downstream countries, an allegation which Beijing denies.  It is a matter of concern for India if the Chinese built a dam around a so-called “great bend”, where the Yarlung curves southward before entering India and here the river gains substantial volume of water and the region is geographically unstable, as reported by a researcher. 

China being the controller of Tibet, acts like an “upper riparian” state that exercises control over the water resources upstream and ignores the concerns of nations downstream (India and Bangladesh in this case). 

Irrigation systems, dams and canals can turn water into a political weapon to be flaunted in a war. Over the years, China has made huge investments in building dams and avoided entering into any water-sharing agreement with downstream countries like India. 

Both India and China are growing at a rapid pace and depend heavily on water resources to fulfil the spiralling demand. Being a water-scarce country with uneven distribution of its water resources, China constitutes almost 20% of the global population but has just 7% of the water resources, almost the same ratio as India. 

The dams built by China are large enough to be turned into storage dams, which will allow it to manipulate the water resources freely for the purpose of flood control or irrigation. In such a scenario, China can potentially deprive India of water during dry seasons, according to an IDSA report. 

While  China’s dam-building project will have a huge ecological impact as Assam had raised with the Centre in 2017. The Assam Government stated that the river water has turned black because of pollutants and can lead to   lose of silt and reduction in agriculture productivity. 

“A cultural genocide”

 Since 1951, Tibet has been occupied and  ruled by China in “a calculated and systematic strategy aimed at the destruction of their national and cultural identities.” This has often been described by the Tibetan people and third party commentators as “a cultural genocide”. 

Forced abortion, sterilisation of Tibetan women, and the transfer of low-income Chinese citizens threaten the survival of Tibetan culture. In some Tibetan provinces, Chinese settlers outnumber Tibetans 7 to 1. 

Tibetans rebelled in an attempt to overthrow the Chinese government, through an unsuccessful Tibetan Uprising of 1959, which led to the fleeing of Dalai Lama to India. He is essentially the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, who has lived in exile ever since. The 14th Dalai Lama, now lives among over 100,000 other Tibetan refugees which India has given refuge to. 

In Tibet today, there is no freedom of speech, religion, or press and arbitrary detainments continue. 

While India’s role in the rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees has been criticised by China, it has drawn praise from international bodies and human rights groups. 

Aditi Verma
A student of Delhi University, I'm a cheerful, kind-hearted individual who loves to read and explore new things.


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