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China to Build a Dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, Worrying Downstream Countries

A few days ago, Chinese officials confirmed the “Hydropower Development Plan for the Lower Yarlung Tsangpo River,” which is expected to generate 70 gigawatts of electricity, tripling the capacity of China’s largest Three Gorges Dam power station.

The news has caused tension in India. On December 1, a senior official from the Ministry of Jal Shakti (the Indian cabinet ministry in charge of water affairs) told Reuters that India is planning to build a ten-gigawatt hydropower project in the east to offset the impact of China’s upstream dam construction on water flow.

Jagannath P. Panda, a researcher with the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses based in New Delhi said, “This has been a genuine concern for India for a long time.” In 2002, China and India signed a memorandum on cooperation in the field of water conservancy. In 2018 another memorandum on this river was signed for the purpose of sharing hydrological data to help the downstream countries to deploy flood control or ecological protection plans.

Although India expects China to consult India before building any dam upstream and to maintain transparency of information, China has been “selectively” sharing hydrological information over the past years, or refusing to provide information when relations between the two countries became tense. Every year in the rainy season, India, downstream of the river, has been plagued by floods.

The Yarlung Tsangpo River flows through China and many South Asian countries. Originating in Tibet, the river runs more than 2,000 kilometers in China before heading south into India. Indians call it the Brahmaputra River, which is nearly 650 kilometers long inside the country. After entering Bangladesh, it was renamed the Yamuna River and merged with the Ganges in the Bay of Bengal. Its tributaries also flow through Nepal and Bhutan and are the economic lifeline of many countries in South Asia.

On November 26, the Power Construction Corporation of China (PowerChina) confirmed that it has finalized a hydropower development plan for the lower part of the river and plans to launch the project during the “14th Five-Year Plan” period (2021-2025). Yan Zhiyong, Chairman of PowerChina called this project an unprecedented “historical opportunity.” He said that China will benefit from the geographic advantage of the “big bend” on the lower reaches of the river, which gathers nearly 70 gigawatts of technologically developable resources, a scale tripling the capacity of Three Gorges Dam. Chinese officials have done some beautiful math for Tibet: the dam will provide nearly 300 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of clean, renewable, and zero-carbon electricity every year, bringing in 20 billion yuan (US$ 3 billion) in fiscal revenue.

Farwa Aamer, a scholar from the East-West Center, a U.S. think tank based in Honolulu, Hawaii, explains that the deep anxiety of South Asian countries comes from the scarcity of water resources caused by climate change and the possibility that China’s construction of dams may directly affect the agricultural economy and natural ecology of downstream countries. In addition, the relationship between South Asian countries and China is complicated and lacks a platform for cross-country dialogue. South Asian countries are also quite worried about whether water resources will become a strategic tool for China when relations with China are tense.

Source: Radio Free Asia, December 1, 2020