Chinese plan to dam the Yarlung Zangbao, the world’s highest river, threatens to spark conflict with downstream India, as per media reports. China is planning to construct a mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbao River, which flows through Tibet and eventually becomes the Brahmaputra when it enters India.
The Yarlung Zangbao Dam plan is moving ahead without China discussing or entering into water-sharing agreements with downstream India or Bangladesh. Bangladesh, which maintains cordial relations with Chinese, too protested over the Yarlung Zangbao Dam, media reported.
Bertil Linter in an opinion piece in Asia Times wrote that precise technical details regarding the mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbo River are lacking, but regional media reports indicate it will likely dwarf the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River and generate three times as much electricity for distribution in China.
Both Brahmaputra and the glaciers that feed Ganga originate in China. As an upstream riparian region, China maintains an advantageous position and can build infrastructure to intentionally prevent water from flowing downstream.
Owing to previous tendencies where the Chinese have been reluctant to provide details of its hydropower projects, there is a trust deficit between the two neighbours.
Chinese dam-building and water division plans along the Brahmaputra (called Yarlung Zangbao in China) is a source of tension between the two neighbours.
Not only India but other nations of Southeast Asia are affected due to China’s lack of consultations with downstream neighbours and has sparked controversy with them.
China has built eleven mega-dams on the Mekong River, causing water levels there to fluctuate widely without prior notice in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, media reported.
As per reports, in late December, China reduced water discharge from a dam to test its equipment near the town of Jinghong in southern Yunnan province from 1,904 cubic meters to 1,000 cubic meters per second.
It took almost a week for China to inform the downstream countries of the move, which wasn’t enough time for downstream countries to prepare, resulting in disruptions in shipping and commerce. Water levels had already dropped a meter at Thailand’s Chiang Saen, where the Mekong forms the border with Laos, wrote Linter.
China’s announcement was made only after the Washington-based Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program’s Mekong Dam Monitor, which uses satellite imagery to keep tabs on water levels along the river, notified the Mekong River Commission, a regional cooperation organization of which China is not a member.
Some analysts believe China is using its leverage over water flows as a stick to win concessions from downstream Southeast Asian states on other issues, including in regard to its Belt and Road Initiative.
China is using the same tactics with India with its Yarlung Zangbao Dam designs. Earlier, China clashed with India in Ladakh in June last year and a 2017 border stand-off near the border with Bhutan has angered both nations over China’s unilaterally decided hydroelectric power scheme.
The Himalayan water war will affect India and Bangladesh as both rely on the Brahmaputra’s water for agriculture. Both India and Bangladesh worry that these dams will give Beijing the ability to divert or store water in times of political crisis.
Everyday policy concerns like water sharing and usage often receive less attention, are combined with larger security or border concerns, or are dealt with only when natural disasters occur. Yet water politics has far-reaching consequences for the prosperity and security of countries.