The recent project of China to construct a dam in a region located in the Tibet Autonomous Region known as Medog County, as a part of generating renewable energy initiatives, has drawn heightened tensions to the states on India’s border. This has been another addition to the construction of dams along the mainstream of the Yarlung Tsangpo which began long back in 2010. The new dam could help generate up to 60 gigawatts of power, three times that of central China’s Three Gorges Dam, which has the largest installed hydropower capacity in the world now. The project has drawn more tensions on the downstream states of India owing to the project as this will harm its agriculture and water resources and will even drop an unfavourable seismological and ecological impact.
To fabricate more space for discussion on the same notion, New Delhi based Red Lantern Analytica (RLA) hosted an expert panel discussion titled ‘Decoding China’s Hydropower Strategy: Threats, Challenges and Responses’ on 6th February, 2021. The panel comprised Ninong Ering (MLA Pasighat West, Arunachal Pradesh, and Former Union Minister), Dr. Sriparna Pathak (Assistant Professor at Jindal Global University), Dr. Evan Ellis (Research Professor Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute), Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram (Assistant Professor, Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education).
Ering expressed his deep concerns on the condition of the Siang river. The MLA stated that Arunachal Pradesh experienced one of the worst floods caused back in 2001, during the devastating floods the state lost a lot of lives, large portions of land were eroded and farmers lost their crops and cattle. Since then, the river has flooded frequently causing continued loss of life and livelihood for the people of Arunachal Pradesh.
He further argued that the reason for the increased frequency of floods is caused by the dams built by China in Tibet on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra river. As per Mr. Ering, China has already created four large dams and also has created hundreds of smaller dams on the river in Tibet, and when China decides to release the water collected by those dams it is akin to a water bomb which causes havoc in Arunachal Pradesh in the lower reaches of the river. He also added how back in 2017, the Siang river had turned back and extremely muddy due to China’s continued construction activities on the upper reaches of the river. The increase in the level of turbidity of the river led to the death of aquatic life in the river as well, and the farmers and fishermen also suffered greatly.
He then went on to explain how China has been using its occupational and aggressive tactics while taking up projects of this kind and worried over if the dam construction begins, it would certainly misappropriate the systems of Arunachal Pradesh, Bangladesh, and touching states. High lightening the misfortune this project would bring, he appealed seeking support from the people of India and even outside.
Ering added that China’s proposed mammoth hydropower project in Medog county of Tibet will be a great threat to India and negatively impact Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and other states. The proposed dam threatens the complete inundation of low-lying areas in Arunachal Pradesh. The issue of China’s continued construction of dams should take precedence as it is a matter of national security. In his concluding remarks, he stated that India must reach out diplomatically to countries like the US and Japan for help and that China cannot and should be allowed to make unilateral decisions regarding the river.
Dr. Ellis highlighted the fact that China currently has 18 large hydropower projects in Latin America. China has encountered severe problems when trying to complete hydropower projects in other countries like – dealing with foreign governments on foreign soil, dealing with local communities and environmental complications.
Briefing on the similar projects which were launched in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, and other locations, Dr. Evan illustrated how similar 18 major projects taken in the past which had their deplorable setbacks were either withdrawn back by the government or when implemented laid days of destruction and misery. Poor performance has even caused Chinese firms to be expelled from the project. Dr. Evan then carried forward the discussion from his Latin-American perspective and talked about projects which were not in connection with Hydropower electricity.
Dr. Pathak explained the audience about China’s hydrological plans and policies. She then argued, “currently, India and China do not have a water-sharing agreement in regards to the river Brahmaputra but countries have signed an MOU wherein China shares river flow data from three water monitor centres in Tibet with India. India also pays China for this data, close to Rs One crore a year. Despite this, China on occasion has stopped sharing data with India claiming that its water monitoring stations have malfunctioned. This excuse has been proven to be a lie as Bangladesh continued to receive river flow data from those same monitoring stations that China claims to have been rendered inoperable. China has continued to use the water of river Brahmaputra for its interest and has intentionally created hazardous conditions for downstream states like India and Bangladesh.”
Dr Pathak reckoned reasons to be more political rather than technical and stressed how water has become a tool of aggression and has in the past brought hazardous events like that of blackening of Brahmaputra, earthquake, etc. She even fostered the need then of India to renegotiate on these notions, draft more effective clauses and strengthen its satellite system to monitor the developments on cross borders besides the defence action India has already resorted to taking of constructing a multipurpose 10,000-megawatt hydropower project reservoir.
According to Dr. Pathak, evidence of China’s willingness to use water as a geopolitical tool is not new to China because the Chinese text ‘Art of War’ by Sun Tzu states that to emerge victorious in battle one must control the natural elements. With China’s multiple hydropower projects and the proposed project on the lower reaches of the river, China has done exactly that. Chinese dams can hold large amounts of water, during times of droughts China could stop the flow of the river, jeopardising the lives of millions of people in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Bangladesh. According to Dr. Pathak, India’s current options are limited. India must find a way to get China to enter into a water-sharing agreement and also improve the mechanisms of sharing of river flow data. Also, India needs to improve its satellite capabilities so that it may be able to gauge the flow of the river and thereby rely less on China for river flow data.
Dr. Jayaram said China believes in a concept of comprehensive national power. The concept implies that a nation’s relative power is determined by a host of different factors ranging from spending power to military, technological advancement, and geographical advantage. Natural resources are also a large part of a nation’s comprehensive national power and therefore it is no surprise that China wishes to use the das on the upper reaches of Tibet to enhance its comprehensive national power. One of the greatest threats that India is facing from China is the possibility of China diverting water from transboundary rivers away from lower-riparian states like India and Bangladesh and towards other drought and desert affected areas in China. China has already undertaken projects and has created tunnels and other structures to divert waters of domestic rivers and recently Chinese officials have shared the willingness to divert water from transboundary rivers as well. Diverting of the Brahmaputra river would jeopardise the lives and livelihoods of millions of farmers, fisherman, and communities that desperately rely on the life-giving waters of the river in India and Bangladesh.
The event was also joined by Greek scholar Dr. John Nomikos who brought highlighted good practises of India and its counteraction to China’s terrorism over hydroelectricity power.