China’s Exploitation of Yarlung Tsangpo: Consequences for Lower Riparian States by Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi (Retd)
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China’s Exploitation of Yarlung Tsangpo: Consequences for
Lower Riparian States
Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Relations between India and china are at the lowest ebb since Indo China War of 1962. One of major causes of the tension is an Indian effort to catch up with China in the domain of infrastructure build up in the border areas. To up the ante further, China is going for the construction of several dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Such Unilateral construction activities (these are against the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational uses of International Watercourses 19971) are going to have an adverse impact on life, livelihood and ecology on the Indian side of the river known as Siang which after the confluence with Dibang and Lohit among many others becomes Brahmaputra.
Map-1: Brahmaputra Basin
Although Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse was adopted by the UNGA on 21 May 1997 and was entered into force in Chapter XXVII of the UN Treaty collection on 17 August 2014, in accordance with article 36(1) of the charter but the progress is extremely slow of its implementation because as on 21 Jan 2021 only 16 countries have signed it 37 countries are party to it. Traditionally inhabitants along the river had to deal with two floods annually; one caused by the melting of the Himalayan snow in summer and the other due to the monsoon flows. The frequency of these floods has increased during recent times due to climate change. These changes have become a cause of great concern for the people living along the river in India as well as in Bangladesh. It needs to be appreciated that China, which is home to close to 20 percent of the world’s population, has only seven per cent of its water resources.2 To further add criticality to water scarcity, severe pollution of its surface and groundwater caused by rapid industrialization is yet another source of concern for Chinese planners. China’s Southern regions are water rich in comparison to the water-stressed northern part. China has an ambitious plan to link its South and North through canals, aqueducts and linking of major rivers to ensure water security. In pursuit of these goals, China, being an upper riparian state for many of the rivers in Asia, has been constructing dams on rivers like; Mekong and its tributaries, Indus and Yarlung Tsangpo thus affecting the water availability in South East and South Asian countries respectively. It appears that China sees execution of these projects as her right, as a continuation of the historic tributary system, wherein tributary states had no right to object to the action of China and had no significant leverage in the negotiations. It may be noted that the Chinese projects in the Himalayas have only recently begun to come up amid protests from India.
There are now multiple operational dams; five in numbers planned; in the Yarlung Tsangpo basin. Two of these have already been completed and others are under construction. In this connection in China’s 14th Five Year Plan it was mentioned that a mega dam (sixth) on Yarlung Tsangpo in Medog Country, just 30 Km from Indian border will be built, which will be part of China’s Long Term Vision for 2035, adopted by Plenum, a key policy body of the CPC in October 2020 3. As declared by China the proposed dam will play a significant role in realising China’s goal of reaching a carbon emissions peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060.4
However these constructions present a unique challenge for Indian planners. First, construction of these dams will eventually lead to degradation of the entire basin: Massive amounts of silt carried by the river (which is quite common in glacier fed rivers of Himalayas5) would get blocked by dams leading to a fall in the quality of soil and eventual reduction in the agricultural productivity. Second, the Brahmaputra basin is one of the world’s most ecologically sensitive zones. It is identified as one of the world’s 34 biological hotspots6. The sheer size of the infrastructure projects undertaken by China, poses a significant threat to the populations living downstream. Close to a million people live in the Brahmaputra basin in India and tens of millions further downstream in Bangladesh. The projects in the Himalayas threaten the existence of hundreds of thousands of people.7
Map-2: Probable location of the Lower Yarlung Tsangpo
Source: Based on an existing map by Hydro China; Discharge data for Nuxia from Cuo et al. (2019) and for ‘point leaving China’ from Cuo et al.(2014)
During first week of December a news came about a Chinese project to exploit the hydropower in the downstream of the Yarlung Tsangpo as part of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025). The project entails a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo at the Great Bend. (same which has been mentioned earlier in the paper as coming up at Medog), which will generate 60 GW of power.8 A specific 50 kilometre section of the bend will be utilised by making the water drop 2,000 metres,thereby, generating hydropower which is supposedly three times stronger than that of the Three Gorges Dam.9
Altered flow regime
India certainly has certain concerns in the eventuality the dam were to be constructed. The main point of concern is that the project being at the great bend is likely to get impacted due to the monsoon-dominated precipitation regime which has the potential to significantly alter the flow regime in the downstream even if it is only a run-of-the-river project (incidentally the design of the dam is still not been confirmed), particularly during the lean season. The glacier and snow melt along with groundwater contribution through springs and base flow feeding the river may not be sufficient to run the plant at installed capacity and cater to hydropeaking. Therefore, the water will have to be stored in a reservoir and only the environmental flow might get released. As a result, the Yarlung Tsangpo downstream of the dam will have relatively less water during lean season.
The obstruction will not only disrupt the flow downstream but will also impact the downstream riverine ecosystem adversely. Some of the relevant aspects are as follows:-
It needs to be noted that a large volume of suspended sediments is also likely to get generated due to a very high rainfall in this stretch. According to an estimate 10, the Siang generates 7,694 hectare meter of average annual suspended sediment load (measured near Pasighat), which is 32% of the total within the Brahmaputra valley. A significant amount of the Yarlung Tsangpo/ Siang’s sediments may get trapped behind the walls of the dams by China and,
Another adverse aspect is that the release of clear water down stream of the dams will increase erosion of the riverbank and riverbed, as has been observed in the case of the Three Gorges Dam 11.The region downstream of Pasighat is already prone to erosion for reasons related to neotectonis 12, which will adversely affect the biodiversity of the area and the river bed.
Map 3: Extreme Rainfall Events[i] at the ‘Great Bend’
Source: Nilanjan Ghosh et al, “China-India data sharing for early flood warning in
the Brahmaputra: A critique”, pub by ORF Issue Brief 04 Dec 2019 uploaded on
3. However biggest concern would be a dam burst due to a natural hazard or a man-made controlled burst. In this connection it is relevant to note that the area is highly prone to seismic activities. Also influx of moisture through this corridor and consequent rainfall will result into frequent occurrences of avalanches and landslides 13. The outcome is flow of debris downstream with consequent ill effects. and cause debris to flow downhill not only in India but also in Bangladesh.
Thus there is a need to evolve a mechanism to handle such a situation jointly by China, India and Bangladesh prior to going for the construction of the dam.
India is concerned about Chinese project which could trigger flash floods or create water scarcity. Although China has formally said that the dam being constructed by them is not going to impact India adversely, but India has its doubts. India in this connection, it needs to be noted, is quite concerned about Chinese plan of going for a dam around the “great bend”, where the Yarlung Tsangpo curves southward before entering India and gains substantial volume of water.
Map-4: Alignment of River Brahmaputra
India reacted almost immediately. A top official in the Jal Shakti ministry told journalists of India’s plans to build a 10 gigawatt project on the Siang, the main tributary of the Brahmaputra that connects it to the Yarlung Tsangpo, to “offset the impact of the hydropower project by China”.14 The declared aim of the project is to create large enough storage capacity to offset the impact of the Chinese dams on Yarlung Tsangpo. It is felt that India wants to start building the dam before China takes up its project because in that case, it is felt, will give India a chance to object to China going for their dam construction. However whether such a knee jerk reaction is prudent or otherwise needs to be given a due thought. Experts on the subject are advising to exercise caution that China may respond to any Indian dam-building by speeding up its own projects. Based on the past experience about the relative speed of the construction between India and China, it does not appear to be very unlikely that India will not be able to commence the construction before China.
In this connection it is of relevance that the local communities in Arunachal Pradesh are protesting against the proposed dam which, engineers believe, would submerge the district headquarters of the Yingkiong in Upper Siang district. It is also been opined by a number of experts that the idea of constructing the dam to act as a large reservoir which can store and release water downstream if the Chinese impede the flow of the river, is flawed, because the flow from such a multipurpose project will depend on power generation requirements and if it operates like a peak-load project, it need ensuring regular flow of water all the time which may not be possible.15
It has been reported that China has built eleven mega-dams on the Mekong River, causing water levels there to fluctuate widely without prior notice to lower riparian states of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. 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.16 Some analysts believe China is using its leverage over water flows as a stick to win concessions from South East Asian countries located downstream of the dam on other issues, including in regard to its Belt and Road Initiative. China is likely to use the same tactics with India with its proposed Yarlung Zangbao Dam. It appears that this project is actually going to be a part of China’s design to add another dimension to the ongoing standoff with India by means of a ‘Water War’. In this connection it is relevant to note that China had been perfecting the technique to harness the energy of flowing water for a long time now and the Three Gorges Dam and Baihetan Hydropower Station are examples of its technical prowess. However it needs to be appreciated that the Yarlung Tsangpo is one of the least explored river among all the rivers originating in Tibet. The site near Medog in Nyingchi Prefecture, is actually quite challenging in the sense that it is the wildest stretch of any river on the Planet which has been connected with a road only recently. This dam will have a potential to cause wide spread damage to areas downstream of the proposed dam in case it is used as a water bomb. In such a situation it is not only the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam will affected but the volume of water is likely to be so much that even large area of Bangladesh would also be affected. Also these dams will give Beijing the ability to divert or store water in times of political crisis.17 This aspects of the proposed dam makes it yet another point of dispute between the two countries.
If India also goes for the dam it may be a knee jerk reaction and India will appear as much a violator of the UN Convention of 1997 with respect to rights of Bangladesh. The only justification for the Indian action appears to be that the planning of the dam on Indian side and its early completion on the Indian side would strengthened the Indian claim on the waters of Siang and weaken the right of China to build the dam.
India and China had established an Expert Level Mechanism (ELM) in 2006 to discuss various issues related to trans-border rivers. Under that ELM, China is required to provide hydrological information about the Brahmaputra and Sutlej to India during the Monsoon seasons between 15 May to 15 October every year. However since 2017 after Doklam standoff, China has refused to share hydrological data with India but it continues to share the same with Bangladesh.
However; Bangladesh is appearing equally concerned about the China’s dam as water in Jamuna (Brahmaputra/ Yarlung Tsangpo as is known in Bangladesh) is likely to get disrupted with completion of both the dams. Surface water is quite critical for Bangladesh because she substantially depends on surface water as her ground water is contaminated to a large extent.18 Bangladesh feels that a multilateral discussion should be held before China builds any dam.19
Thus a unilateral action to deal with China’s high handedness on the part of India is likely to be frowned up by the Bangladesh, whose support would be essential during the future negotiations to share the waters of this transnational water channel between all the riparian states. India will need all the diplomatic dextrality to flex more diplomatic muscle to assert and maintain its rights over the Brahmaputra and safeguard its strategic interests in conjunction with Bangladesh. Therefore in final analysis a tripartite agreement needs to be attempted between India, China and Bangladesh for instituting a joint management mechanism for the Yarlung Tsangpo/ Brahmaputra/ Jamuna basin.
Important Links & Resources
Although Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse was adopted by the UNGA on 21 May 1997 and was entered into force in Chapter XXVII of the UN Treaty collection on 17 August 2014, in accordance with article 36(1) of the charter but the progress is extremely slow of its implementation because as on 21 Jan 2021 only 16 countries have signed it 37 countries are party to it.
2 Christophe Jaffrelot , Vijey Ganesh R S, “Chinese dam projects on Brahmaputra are a threat to lives and livelihoods downstream”, Pub in Indian Express dated 23 Nov 2020.
2 Christophe Jaffrelot , Vijey Ganesh R S, “Chinese dam projects on Brahmaputra are a threat to lives and livelihoods downstream”, Pub in Indian Express dated 23 Nov 2020.
3 A Third Pole. Net, “ China’s plans for gigantic Brahmaputra dam strains relations with India further” dated 04 Dec 2020 and uploaded on https://www.thethirdpole.net/2020/12/04/chinas-plans-for-giganticbrahmaputra-
4 Kaushik Deka, “Why China’s new Brahmaputra dam plan should worry India | India Today Insight” pub in India Today dated 03 Dec 2020.
5 Namgay Tenzin, “Sediment Transport And Mitigation In Himalayas” pub by IIT Roorkee uploaded vide https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324278511_Sediment_in_Himalayas
8 Sayanangshu Modak, “Spotlight on planet’s largest hydropower project by China on Yarlung/Brahmaputra”Pub by ORF dated 12 Dec 2020
10 B Datta and VP Singh, “The Brahmaputra Basin Water Resources pp 139-195”, Chapter-8 of Water Science and Technology Library, Vol-47, Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978- 94-017-0540-0_8
11 Xiao Zhang et al, “Impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the Hydrology and Ecology of the Yangtze River” pub by MDPI and uploaded on https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4441/8/12/590.
12 Stewart, “ TECTONICS | Neotectonics”, pub in Encyclopedia of Geology, 2005 and up loaded on https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/neotectonics
13 Zhaoyin Wang et al, “River Morphodynamics and Stream Ecology of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau” pub by CRC Press dated 30 June 2020, https://www.routledge.com/River-Morphodynamics-and-Stream-Ecologyof-
14 An Alzajeera Report dated 02 Dec 2020 and uploaded on https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/2/india-plans-dam-on-brahmaputra-to-offset-chinese-plans
15 Arunabh Saikia, “India wants to counter China’s mega dam plans by building its own. It is a bad idea”, pub by Scroll.in dated 11 Dec 2020 and uploaded on https://scroll.in/article/980469/india-wants-to-counter-chinas-mega-damplans-
16 An ANI report,” China’s dam-building over Brahmaputra risks water war with India dated 24 Jan 2021, uploaded on https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/chinas-dam-building-over-brahmaputra-riskswater-
17 An ANI report,” China’s dam-building over Brahmaputra risks water war with India dated 24 Jan 2021, uploaded on https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/chinas-dam-building-over-brahmaputra-riskswater-
18 MS Islam et al, “Arsenic Contamination In Groundwater In Bangladesh: An Environmental And Social Disaster”, pub by The International Water Association and uploaded on https://www.iwapublishing.com