China’s New Superpower Dam and Implications for India

Two years ago, in the month of November 2020, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that they planned to build an enormous “super hydropower dam” on the river in Medog country, where it drops by 2,000 meters, which will help it become a place that is ideal for the hydropower to be harnessed properly. The region where China aims to build the dam is located in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The construction of this dam was included in the 14th Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2021–2025. Although the details of the dam are not publicly available, reports have stated that the company that is given the contract for this dam, the Power Construction Corporation of China, which is a state-owned enterprise, will build a 50-meter-high hydropower dam on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra in Tibet. The dam will be able to generate more than 60 gigawatts of electricity annually, which is three times more than the current amount of electricity being generated by the Three Gorges Dam. The construction of the dam could have an impact on the mighty Yangtze and could change the geography of that region, despite the Chinese government’s assertion that it is necessary for China to become carbon neutral by 2060.

Environmental Impact

Although dams help in creating hydroelectric power, they also lead to the extinction of many aquatic species and are responsible for huge displacements of people. China’s history with its dams has not been very kind. As China’s latest dam, the Three Gorges Dam, is a major part of western China’s development boom, for the construction of this dam, more than 1.2 million people in two cities and 116 towns were clustered on the banks, and many other nearby villages were also evacuated. Although the new hydropower dam could provide China with 300 billion kWh of clean, renewable, and zero-carbon electricity and will play a significant role in China’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060, whatever benefits the dam may provide China, it will also have the same amount of environmental and construction ramifications. The construction of this dam can help hold huge amounts of fertile soil; it could also affect farming in many of the downstream areas. Although China has claimed that it is also building another hydropower project that will not involve any diversion of the waters of the Brahmaputra, experts are worried that during the summer, if China decides to release the water from that dam, the impact would be disastrous to already flood-prone areas.

Implications for India

Ever since China announced the new dam construction, India has also responded by announcing the construction of a 10-gigawatt dam, which will help India mitigate the impact of the water flow from the mega project in China. The relations between both countries, India and China, have remained complicated over the sharing of their water resources, as for both countries the Brahmaputra River is essential for economic and socioeconomic development. The Brahmaputra River accounts for 30% of India’s freshwater and 40% of its total hydropower potential. For the People’s Republic of China, the Brahmaputra river plays a very limited role for the freshwater supply; however, the river plays a huge role in energy and industries as well, and the demand for the river is increasing in a significant way in both countries. Given China’s basin expanse, the country contributes only between 22% and 30% of total basin flow, and China is the upper riparian superpower. China therefore has a significant advantage over India because the country can have a direct impact on the quantity they wish to release downstream, which is concerning for India.

India has long suspected China of trying to manipulate the Brahmaputra by building hydroelectric projects. Many Indian observers say that China’s water aspirations and the escalating battle for water between China and India will ultimately lead to “water wars” between the two states. There has been a lot of concern voiced in Indian politics, the media, and the government about being too reliant on China for water.

Chinese efforts to slow the river’s flow were cited by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2013. The Siang, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, became tainted with a black substance in 2017, rendering its water unfit for human consumption and wreaking havoc on the region’s ecosystem and agricultural output. Indian leaders officially blamed China. Nonetheless, China characterised the accusations as excessively overblown, considering its considerably lesser contribution to the river flows. Throughout, Beijing’s planned megadam adds to the “water wars” narrative by instilling fear in India that China will eventually use control of the transboundary river to gain total control of the disputed territory. Chinese media, on the other hand, has downplayed the issue, calling the claims “absurd theories.” The Chinese power company PowerChina has called the planned project a “historic opportunity for the Chinese hydropower sector.”

How to Decrease Tension

Because China contributes such a small amount to the Brahmaputra’s overall flow, attempts to modify the river’s flow are very unlikely to disrupt India’s access to that water source. This would weaken the water warfare storyline. However, Beijing has only responded to India’s concerns by denying any bad intentions, which has further increased tensions and heightened Delhi’s worries. To correctly anticipate the projected mega-effect projects in India, hydrological data and the dam’s plans need to be made public. China’s continued withholding of information has increased India’s mistrust of China.

The lack of openness shows that India’s suspicions may not be wholly unwarranted. But it is not fair to place all of the responsibility for the rising tensions on Beijing. Despite India and China’s differing assessments of the likelihood of a water war, the planned project and disputes about the administration of the Brahmaputra are becoming yet another key irritant in ties between the two nations. To ease tensions, the two countries might work together to create a River Basin Organization (RBO) that would include all important riparian parties and institutionalize collaboration for effective governance and socio-environmental sustainability in the Brahmaputra basin. It is possible that China will take the helm of the RBO. India has attempted to hinder China’s dam development by claiming prior use rights, but the establishment of such an organisation to promote cooperation and communication and create confidence would minimize tensions between all parties concerned.

Numerous positive outcomes might result from such a system: Conflict over transboundary water resources may be avoided if channels of communication are used on a regular basis. By fostering mutual trust and easing the flow of information for effective transboundary water governance and the preservation of natural systems, RBOs have the potential to dramatically lessen the severity of conflicts. Cooperation throughout the basin would be considered as part of a larger framework for increased regional and economic cooperation. The megadam problem, though complicated with multisectoral and multidimensional effects, leads to fears of future water conflicts between India and China. India’s anxieties about water constraints and overdependence on its neighbour for supplies have been amplified by the dam’s magnitude, the possible influence on river flows, and China’s lack of openness, further exacerbating an already tense geopolitical relationship.

[Photo by Pixabay]

Anuj Dhyani is a second-year Master’s student in international relations at OP Jindal Global University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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