Aaron Jaffe/Circle of Blue

World News


China’s Dams: A Security Challenge for South Asia

China’s proposed dams on the Yaluzangbu River in Dagu, Jiacha, Jiexu and Zangmu have added a new roadblock to improving Sino-Indian relations. What has aggravated tensions is China’s reluctance to accede to India’s call for a water commission or an inter-governmental dialogue or a treaty. Although Indian and Chinese officials have held talks and the latter have agreed to share hydrological information through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej in flood season, the absence of a bilateral treaty makes it next to impossible for India to verify China’s claims as of now.

China’s determination to implement the Great South-North Water Diversion (SNWD) Project could have serious environmental implications for China and its neighbouring countries by affecting the flow of rivers downstream. The project consists of three stages – eastern, central and western routes – out of which the first two stages involve diversion of waters from China’s internal rivers while the third has transboundary ramifications, especially for South Asia.

The western route leg targets the Salween, the Mekong, the Brahmaputra and the Jinsha. Some reports even suggest that China is planning to build the world’s largest dam and hydropower station on the Brahmaputra at the Great Bend (where the river takes a U-turn to enter the plains of Assam via Arunachal Pradesh). Approximately, 354 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water flows from Tibet to India out of which 131 BCM is accounted in the Brahmaputra River; on this river alone China is allegedly planning to build twenty-eight dams.

China’s lack of transparency has left the governments in India and Bangladesh guessing about its future actions with respect to its diversion plans.

One important point that needs to be taken into account while analyzing these diversion projects from the point of view of the lower riparian countries is that the same river has an average run-off of 550 BCM of water when it reaches Bangladesh due to monsoonal waters and the water contributed by tributaries.

Therefore, a dam intended for hydropower generation might not make any difference to the run-off. Water diversion during monsoons could be a blessing in disguise as the excess waters have been a cause for floods in both India (particularly Assam Valley) and Bangladesh.

However, if China diverts during the entire year, it could lead to damaging consequences for the two countries. Also, the possibility of contamination, sedimentation and flash floods is high. India has been arguing that since it has 58 percent of the total Brahmaputra drainage basin and is dependent on it for almost 30 percent of the country’s water resources and 41 percent of its total hydropower resources while China controls only 20 percent of the basin, India has a greater right to the river’s resources.

The Yangtze River on which the Three Gorges Dam has been built is the source of water for the first two legs of this grand project. Brahmaputra River could be afflicted by the same problems that the Yangtze has been over the past few years. This would affect India and Bangladesh directly. Moreover, the areas where these dams are being proposed to be built are seismically unstable.

Accusations have also been leveled against China for flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh in the past, which were supposedly caused by a breach in the upstream dam in Tibet that raised the level of the Brahmaputra by more than thirty metres. Similarly, Himachal Pradesh has also been affected allegedly by Chinese dam-building activities in the form of floods in 2000, 2001 and 2005.

China’s management of the Mekong River that originates in Tibet has faced criticism from Southeast Asia. Four countries of the lower Mekong basin – Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam – that depend on this river for food, water and transportation have been heavily distressed by China’s activities on the river. Dams on this river have been held responsible for drought in some of these countries.

In 2010, the river had acutely low water levels due to less monsoonal rainfall the previous year and light rainfall in the dry season. This is said to have been exacerbated by dams upstream in China. It generated losses worth millions of dollars. In Thailand, fishing communities have been the most affected as they are forced to stop their fishery activities when the water levels go down significantly. The low-lying Mekong Delta in Vietnam is home to more than 18 million people and contains vast farmlands from where nearly half of Vietnam’s rice crop comes. It is already vulnerable to sea level rise. When the freshwater flow from Tibet decreases, seawater intrusion is expected to increase and reduce the agricultural yield further.

China has refused to be a full member of the Mekong River Commission, which was formed by the lower basin countries in 1995 to monitor hydropower development in the lower Mekong basin. Efforts by the four countries to urge China to assess downstream river changes caused by its dams and engaging in technical cooperation have not borne fruit. It has been a dialogue partner, a position that allows it to evade scrutiny of its dams and its rights to harness hydropower potential of the river of which 21 percent lies in China.

The fact that the environment is changing; and is now changing at an unprecedented pace due to both natural and human-induced causes could definitely culminate in conflicts between China and its neighbours. At the same time, China has always maintained ‘strategic silence’ on its water diversion proposals, which makes any form of cooperation between China and its neighbours a difficult proposition.

The spree of dams proposed by China would diminish India’s maneuverability in the region in terms of its own plans of deploying hydroelectric projects in its territory to fulfill its energy requirements (particularly in the less developed regions in the Northeast) but also could spark political tensions with India’s neighbours. Therefore it is time for India to galvanize the support of its neighbours such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh to prevent China from implementing large-scale diversion projects that could affect water security in the whole South Asian region.

The international community should put pressure on China to respect the ‘commons’ principle when it comes to transboundary waters. It would also be prudent for India to include the China factor in its water-sharing agreements with its own neighbours so that in the future if contingency arises (such as flash floods or severely reduced water levels) the entire onus would not fall upon India’s shoulders.

China needs to reexamine its dam policy to secure its own interests in the region. The zero-sum mentality towards its neighbours could lead to an ‘insecure’ regional environment. Far from serving as symbols of its engineering might, these dams could threaten the “Chinese dream” of achieving security, stability, and sustainability.