Another Chinese Hydropower Project On Brahmaputra River. But Why Now?

China’s national people’s Congress, recently adopted the 14th five year plan. A mega blueprint made up of billions of dollars worth of projects. The plan includes a controversial Chinese hydropower project on Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) in Tibet. This is just a few kilometers away from Arunachal Pradesh. The plan invisages to construct dam at Medog county where the Yarlung  Tsangpo Grand canyon is located. Medog is the last county in Tibet, bordering Arunachal Pradesh. Now, 9 of the intended 40 dams will be at the “Great bend”. Here, the river  makes a huge “u” turn & falls precipitously from 3,500 meters on Tibetan Plateau to 700 meters in the plains of Arunachal Pradesh.

Yarlung Tsangpo (source :google earth)

Providing Context

China has been running with an expansionist mindset when it comes to rapid industrialization. In the pursuit to power its industries , china has constructed more than 87,000 dams at a rate unmatched in human history. Collectively these generate more than the capacities of Brazil, Canada & the U.S. China is now looking to build dams on every major international river flowing out of Tibet.Nearly half of the world’s population depends on the Tibetan rivers. Known as the “water. tower of Asia”, the plateau is the source of several trans-boundary rivers. The Salween ,yangtze, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong & etc.have their source in the plateau . These rivers tend to the needs of India , Nepal , Bhutan ,Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam. This makes Tibet, China’s greatest geographic advantage.Beijing hasn’t been shy from the plateau’s exploitation for constructing various Chinese hydropower project .

Now the recently approved projects aren’t the first. In 2015,the Zangmu hydroelectric facility became operational and with cascades of construction projects along the river, it raised major concerns for the lower riparian nations. Beijing to waive off objections claimed that the facility would be run-of the river facility (a type of plant absent of a large reservoir). In this, energy is harvested by diverting part of the river to run past electricity generating turbines ,the water that comes out ,then flows back to join the river. However, just like their products the justification is flawed. Too much electricity generation can overload the grid, hence such facilities usually store large volumes of water during the day. The stored water is released for electricity generation during peak energy demands in the evening. So, by manipulating the daily normal flow, there is a definite & clear downstream consequence.

Zangmu dam

Raising The Eyebrows

Now, India has raised objections about such projects numerous times. New Delhi has often reminded the Chinese administration of the various MOUs & Expert level Mechanism(ELM)(2006) that has been signed by both nations on the issues regarding the resources of trans-boundary rivers. But the troubling fact is that the bilateral understandings are non-binding & without an international body to ensure the application. And coupled with china’s  habit to dishonor every aspect of border integrity, the agreements, as usual, has little value in the eyes of the Chinese. 

Now in 1997, there was an attempt to lay down some rules during UN’s water course convention. The convention sought to create an international agreement on the governance of trans-boundary rivers. But china as usual voted against it.The diplomatic episode with many other multilateral disagreements occurred at a time when china was still relatively poor. Beijing didn’t possess the economic capacity & political confidence of today. Therefore, drafting a legal bill today, to govern the trans-boundary Tibetan rivers have little to no chance of success.

The Concern Of A “Water Bomb”

Now, the recently announced projects has been on areas sitting at the meeting point of Himalayas & two other mountain chains which is right on top of one of the most unstable onshore seismic zones in the world. Thus, implying for a ticking “water bomb”.

Also, by an estimate, till 2050, the annual rate of glacial melt in Tibet will decline by 2/3 because of climate change. Paired with such projects there are going to be adverse effects, resulting in both droughts & floods at the same time. The increasing population will only create more stress on the water resources. The example of Chinese dams along the Mekong river is apparently the instance to look for  lessons. Due to the 11 dams built along the Mekong, the river has now thinned & has turned to green from brown ( due to stopping of silt and sediment flow & unrestricted growth of algae) with shallow & slower flow of water than normal. This has effected the fishing industry & the agriculture sector of Thailand , laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Mekong river (2015)
Mekong river (2020)
(NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel)
The Mekong river nowadays. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s Next?

India has raised concerns regarding the Chinese hydropower project as the timing is also very fishy. But why did Beijing chose to revive a decade old project  ( initially proposed in 2007-08 for 12th five year plan)? There can’t be a need for more power. Apparently, by 2015, china had 300,000 MW of new generating capacity that it didn’t need. Thus, China was forced to lower the capacity utilization in the existing  plants to below 50%. This was done to give the new plants room in which to survive. The main reason could be to open another asymmetric front against India and command a switch to extract geopolitical concessions. Beijing also want to create ruckus after losing face at LAC.

Now one might want to think there must be an opposition against the Chinese hydropower project in South & South East Asia. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. For example, Thailand already have agreements in place with china to buy thousands of Megawatts of electricity from  such projects. While countries like Laos & Cambodia retain passive attitude towards Beijing. They rather priorities their economic ties with china over trans boundary river negotiations.

India realizes the consequences of such projects. The Mekong river dam projects has shown that Beijing treats the Tibetan rivers as it’s sovereign resource rather than a shared one. India has the difficult task of countering the narrative of “no opposition” shown by the lower riparian nations and has little choice but to asymmetrically out-compete China’s move. This can be done by exploiting Beijing’s internal vulnerabilities, fissures & fragilities, including in Tibet, the main launchpad of Chinese unconventional warfare. India has been taking forward leaps in the world order & has secured excellent international relationships. These are the testing hours of her increasing power in the geopolitical game for hegemony.



A defence aspirant, preparing for the Indian Armed forces and on the path to discover more and more about India and the challenges it faces on her quest to better it's position in the world order.

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