China Plans Brahmaputra Dam: How It May Affect India, Bangladesh | India News
The mighty Brahmaputra, one of the longest rivers in the world, flows from Tibet to Arunachal Pradesh, to Assam, and eventually Bangladesh.
China, which controls Tibet, acts as an “upper riparian” state that exercises control over water resources upstream and ignores the concerns of downstream nations (India and Bangladesh in this case). Your weapon of control? Dams.
Dams, canals, and irrigation systems can turn water into a political weapon to be used in war or during peace to influence a co-riparian state.
Over the years, China has invested heavily in dam construction and avoided signing water distribution agreements with downstream countries like India.
According to a report by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA), China completed the Zangmu dam (510 MW capacity) built on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in 2010. Three more dams in Dagu (640 MW), Jiacha (320 MW )) and Jeixu are currently under construction. Work on the Zam hydroelectric power station, which will be the largest dam in Brahmaputra, started in 2015.
Earlier this year, a study funded by the US government showed that a series of new dams built by China on the Mekong River had worsened the drought affecting countries downstream. China disputed the findings.
Last week, Chinese media reported that the country now plans to “implement hydroelectric power exploitation on the Yarlung Zangbo river” (the Tibetan name for Brahmaputra) and the project could serve to maintain water resources and national security. China also intends to increase its hydroelectric capacity and is increasingly building dams on transboundary rivers to achieve its hydroelectric goals.
A fight for water resources
Both India and China are growing at a rapid pace and are highly dependent on water resources to meet the growing demand.
China has always been a water-scarce country with an uneven distribution of its water resources. It constitutes almost 20% of the world’s population, but it has only 7% of the water resources. Similarly, India has less than 4% of the world’s water resources and almost 17% of the world’s population. The Brahmaputra River, like most others, originates from China. This makes it difficult to exchange water between the two nations.
Adding to the complexity is China’s ambitious hydrological engineering plan to divert water from south to north. A report by the United States-based Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups (CIWAG) said the plans for the division of water in the Chinese part of the Brahmaputra are crucial for the western route.
The report says that as an upper riparian country, China can make decisions that directly affect the volume of water available to its downstream neighbors like India, and of the many transboundary rivers, the Brahmaputra is the most important.
Why India Is Wary of Chinese Dams
India has always been suspicious of dam-building activity in China, and rightly so.
China has not been frank about dam construction and provides little information on long-term projects or plans. An example: In 2010, after several years of denial, Beijing finally admitted that it is building the Zangmu Dam in Brahmaputra.
Although China has dismissed India’s concerns about water diversion, grabbing and release, authorities here have taken safety with a pinch of salt. In 2014, the then UPA government asked the water resources ministry to verify whether the dams built at Brahmaputra are actually run-of-the-river (where water is released after use) or storage dams.
And that’s where India’s other concern lies.
According to the IDSA report, the dams built by China are large enough to become storage dams, allowing it to freely manipulate water resources in order to control flooding or irrigation. In such a scenario, China can potentially deprive India of water during dry seasons.
India is also concerned about the release of water during monsoons, which can flood the already flooded Brahmaputra. As things stand, Assam has been dealing with massive floods during the past monsoons. The state has even raised concerns about dam-building activity in China with the Center.
Using data as leverage?
Although there is no water cooperation treaty between India and China, the countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2002 for the exchange of hydrological data.
According to the memorandum of understanding, China agreed to share information on the water discharge at three stations from June 1 to October 15 of each year. Subsequently, it was modified to twice a day between the same period. The data is considered crucial for flood control and planning during the monsoon period in India. However, when relations between the two nations deteriorated during the months-long confrontation of Doklam in 2017, China refused to share this data. The move raised fears that it could use its upward position to gain strategic leverage. Data sharing resumed in 2018, but India now knew that China would not hesitate to use water as a political weapon if necessary.
The ecological impact of dam-building activity in China was among the other concerns that Assam had raised with the Center in 2017. The Assam government had said the Siang River was turning black with pollutants and samples from the Brahmaputra in Tezpur revealed that the water contained a lot of mineral properties. Even experts have pointed out that the construction of dams could cause the river to lose its sediment and lead to a reduction in agricultural productivity.
India is taking no chances this time and has already started planning a 10,000 MW multipurpose hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh.
“This project will help offset the impact of China’s hydroelectric project,” said TS Mehra, commissioner (Brahmaputra and Barak) of the Jal Shakti ministry.
He explained that the proposed 9.2 BCM ‘Upper Siang’ project on the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh will be able to take excess water discharge load and can even store water in case of any shortfall.
“Formally, we are telling (the Chinese) that any project they undertake should not have an adverse impact on India. They have given a guarantee, but we don’t know how long their guarantee will last,” Mehra said.