China’s plans for new dams on Brahmaputra River- Explained, Pointwise


The Chinese government’s new five-year plan(2021-2025) is about to approve the construction of dams in the lower stretch of the Brahmaputra River (Yarlung Zangbo in China). It is a matter of serious concern for the lower riparian states namely India and Bangladesh. The move is expected to give China an edge in International diplomacy as it would gain substantial bargaining power post dam construction. 

About the China’s plan for dams 
  1. China’s draft five-year plan (2021-25) and long-range objectives till 2035 mention the building of hydropower bases on the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra river
    • The lower reaches refer to the sections of the river in Tibet before it flows into India.
  2. The dam proposal is among the priority energy projects undertaken by the Chinese government in the next five years. Other projects under the draft five-year plan include “clean energy bases” in the upper and lower reaches of the Jinsha River. (the upper course of the Yangtze River in western China).
  3. It would be the first time that the lower stretch will witness such development of dams, marking a radical change in river water exploitation.
  4. China had earlier built dams on upper stretches of the river including Zangmu Dam in 2015. Three more dams at Dagu, Jiacha and Jeixu are currently under construction
Why is China developing dams on the Brahmaputra?
  1. The construction would help the country develop clean energy and curb the rising pollution levels. This would improve citizens’ health and augment water security.
  2. The dam would also allow it to fulfill its international climate commitments under multilateral agreements like the Paris Agreement
  3. China’s location of the upper riparian state would allow it to control water flow towards the lower riparian states (India and Brahmaputra). This will give greater bargaining power to China in international relations. 
  4. Further, the project in the lower stretch is part of the country’s significant planned investments in infrastructure for serving national interests
About Brahmaputra river
  1. It is one of the longest rivers in the world that flows from Tibet to India (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam) and further into Bangladesh. The river finally drains out in the Bay of Bengal.
  2. The river flows for about 1,625 kilometres in Tibet, parallel to the main range of the Himalayas. After that, it enters India in Arunachal Pradesh where it is called Siang
  3. The Siang flows down the Himalayas, enters the Assam valley. Here two other major tributaries, Dibang and Lohit will join the Siang river. The culmination of all finally becomes the Brahmaputra.
Importance of Brahmaputra to India
  1. The river Brahmaputra and its tributaries carry more than 30 percent of the total water resource potential of India. 
  2. The residents of 22 districts in the Indian state of Assam rely on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries for their livelihood. The river system supports the subsistence agriculture of 66 million people. 
  3. The river is also extremely important for the transportation of people and materials.
  4. This region is home to several species of flora and fauna that are unique to this part of the world. For example, The Kaziranga National Park houses 15 mammalian species that are listed as threatened in the IUCN conservation list.
Rules or statutes governing Brahmaputra water sharing
  1. There is a lack of a cooperative framework for managing river systems in South Asia. There are no binding agreements between India and China on Brahmaputra water sharing.
  2. India and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2002 for the sharing of hydrological data.
    • Under this China agreed to share information about the discharge of water at three stations from June 1 to October 15 each year. This would improve planning and flood control in India during the monsoon region.
  3. The two countries have even signed an MoU in 2013 regarding the sharing of water flow data. 
  4. A unilateral stoppage in data sharing was seen from the Chinese side during the 2017 Doklam Standoff but data sharing resumed in 2018.
Impacts of China’s Dams on India
  1. China could use dams as a water weapon during the war and in peacetime. By building dams China can disrupt the lower riparian states by following ways,
    • First, China could alter the water level in lower riparian states by changing the storage/ discharge capacity of the dam.
    • Second, China’s large run-off from river dams can be easily converted into storage dams in the future. This can deprive water to India in dry seasons or flood it with water during the monsoon.
    • The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) has also highlighted this vulnerability. 
  2. The ecological character of the river in lower courses gets deteriorated. This is proved by the Siang river (Brahmaputra’s name in Arunachal). After the reduction in water level, the river turned black with pollutants. This impacted the drinking water availability for the locals.
  3. It may also negatively impact the food security and livelihood of people residing across the river. Experts have pointed out that dam construction could cause the river to lose its silt and lead to a reduction in agriculture productivity.
  4. Dam construction by upper riparian states enhances the disaster’s magnitude in lower riparian states. For instance, a US government-funded study showed that a series of new dams built by China on the Mekong River had worsened the drought  conditions in downstream countries.
  5. Further Himalayan region is highly sensitive to construction. Due to this, the probability of disasters will get enhanced if big dams are created by China. This was proved by the recent Uttarakhand floods and the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
  6. It could open a new front of conflict along the Arunachal Pradesh region as Brahmaputra enters India through this stretch. Managing this would be a complex task for India as it is already struggling to counter China along the eastern ladakh region.
  7. China may decide to stop the flow of the river as a means of retaliation to make India submit to China’s demands.
Challenges in bilateral Cooperation on dam construction
  1. Rising mistrust between the countries: The mistrust reached a new peak especially after the nine-month-long military stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Further, China was reluctant to share the correct information with India under the 2002 MoU.
    Further, China in the past has rejected the claim of building Zangmu Dam on the Brahmaputra till 2010. But in 2010 China not only admitted the construction of the Zangmu Dam but also completed it in a much rapid phase.
  2. The growing closeness of Indo-U.S relations and enhanced resentment of Sino- U.S relations can act as a barrier in concluding a favorable water-sharing agreement.
  3. Emerging risks like climate change, extreme events, landslides, forest fires, and many other environmental threats pose new governance challenges.
  4. China tries to encircle India using its neighbors. It charges approximately $125,000 for the data it provides to India. On the other hand, it sends similar data to Bangladesh for free.
Suggestions for India
  • The construction of a multi-purpose reservoir in Arunachal Pradesh to offset the impact of the Chinese Dam should be done promptly. The proposed 9.2 BCM ‘Upper Siang’ project on the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh will be able to take the excess load of water discharge. Further, it can even store water in case of any deficit.
  • As water is a state subject, the riparian states in India should be encouraged to use Brahmaputra’s water in a rational way to minimize future shortages.
  • The focus of integrated river basin management should be based on hydrological boundaries and not on administrative state boundaries.
  • India needs to restrengthen its relationship with Bangladesh. India needs to finalise the Teesta river agreement and restore its image as a responsible upper riparian. By doing that, Bangladesh may also cooperate with India against China.
  • The country should engage in bilateral talks and enter into a water-sharing agreement with China similar to the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan. The new China-India water-sharing agreement should include provisions like,
    • The treaty should regulate the amount of water to be released, preserve the quality of the water and the aquatic life. 
    • It should have a mechanism for water-sharing during times of droughts and abnormal weather. 
    • If necessary, the international community should also be involved.

We need a new integrated river basin management. This should address all the emerging challenges of water security and sustainability. Further, it should go beyond mere political cooperation of State government and involving the local people. Instead, it should focus on India’s water needs and its management.

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