The timing of the announcement to build a “super dam” on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river close to the LAC can be linked to the ongoing border tensions, which is rooted in China’s refusal to acknowledge the McMahon Line
By Dechen Palmo
Last week, China announced plans to build a “super dam” on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tibet. Originating in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the trans-border river flows into Arunachal Pradesh where it is called Siang, and then to Assam as Brahmaputra before flowing into Bangladesh and draining into the Bay of Bengal.
The timing of the announcement can be linked to the ongoing border tensions, which is rooted in China’s refusal to acknowledge the McMahon Line. Instead, Beijing claims 90,000 square kilometres in India’s Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet (Nan Zang). China’s aggression has been increasing in the Ladakh and Sikkim sectors. Now, the building of a dam so close to LAC in Arunachal Pradesh also underlines China’s strategic intent: To question India’s territorial integrity.
Last month, Global Times, the government’s mouthpiece, reported that the proposed dam would be constructed in Metok (Medog), the last county of TAR. According to the plan, the dam will be constructed 30 kilometres from the Indian border. The decision follows announcements made in the 14th Five Year Plan, which sets the government’s agenda till 2025. The plan states that China will “implement hydropower development in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo River”. This dam is one of the three dams that have been proposed for the region.
According to Jiandao, which comprises media professionals, analysts and technical experts: “The Motok hydropower station will use the 50 km straight section of the river bend to build a giant tunnel to divert water, and then lay out 6 large hydropower stations each with an installed capacity of 10 million kilowatts. There is a 400-meter drop between each power station, with a total drop of up to 2,400 meters”.
The new dam’s ability to generate hydropower could be three times that of the Three Gorges Dam, which has the largest installed hydropower capacity in the world. Yan Zhiyong, chairman of PowerChina, said recently that the dam could provide 300 billion kWh of zero-carbon electricity annually.
India, the lower riparian country, has every reason to be alarmed.
The Brahmaputra is an important river for the country. In the past, many incidents over the river inside the Indian boundary have been attributed to China’s designs against India. These include the increase in turbidity and blackening of waters in Siang, temporary stoppage of data sharing by China over the high season flows as per the China-India memorandum of understanding during the Doklam standoff (2017), and news of a series of check dams being constructed along the Tibetan boundary.
Experts have also warned India about China’s designs.
“For India, the one domain in which China’s status as the ‘upper riparian’ provides an almost insurmountable challenge is in ensuring shared access to transboundary rivers. And as the recent clashes on the Sino-Indian border have made clear, India needs to assess how China might “weaponise” its advantage over those countries downstream. Control over these rivers effectively gives China a chokehold on India’s economy,” a Lowy Institute report said in July.
In Water Wars: The Brahmaputra River and Sino Indian Relations, Mark Christopher warns: “China’s commitment to construct ever-larger upriver dams reflects a zero-sum mentality on water use that has the potential to bring it directly into conflict with India. Further downstream, the actions of both countries affect Bangladesh”. The management of the river is critical because it touches on a host of crucial and complicated issues, including territorial integrity, food security, international law, the intersection of domestic and foreign policy, and the asymmetric power of neighbouring states with huge populations and great aspirations.
The super hydropower station is being planned with one aim: To equip China with strategic leverage over India. Such huge water storage capacity could be used as a tool for consolidating supremacy in the disputed territories. India should be aware that the Yarlung Zangbo-Brahmaputra dam issue is not just about resource management; China is using Tibet’s waters to further its territorial ambitions.
Dechen Palmo is a research fellow, Tibet Policy Institute, Central Tibetan Administration
The views expressed are personal