Water: China’s most valuable asset ?

The Tibetan Plateau is the biggest source of freshwater in the world. No less than 3 billion people depend on the rivers from which the plateau originates. One of the biggest, taking its source in Tibet, is the Brahmaputra river. With its origin in the northern Himalaya region, the river is known under the name of Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet. It flows east along the Himalaya mountains until it reaches the Namcha Barwa mountain in China, and then turns South to enter the Indian frontier region of Arunachal Pradesh. Downstream, the river Brahmaputra flows towards Bangladesh, which is the last country to control this natural resource. 

The river accounts for approximately 30% of the freshwater supplies of India and 40% of its hydroelectricity potential. It is an essential resource for India as a big part of its population directly also depends on it for agriculture.

The Tibet region was free from the Republic of China between 1911 and 1951 and considered as independent. Today, Tibet is internationally recognised as an integral part of China.

Figure 1: Ganges, Padma and Brahmaputra Rivers

China hydroelectricity plans:

China is one of the countries in the world with the highest carbon intensity per kilowatt hour of electricity produced due to its coal power plants. In a view to decarbonise its electricity, the country has been investing heavily in hydropower projects across the country. The successive governmental plans with a vision towards 2025, 2035 or 2060 aim at reducing carbon emissions by significantly developing hydropower infrastructures. By 2019, China had 356.4  gigawatts of hydropower installed capacity. This ranks them first in the world with more capacity than Brazil, the US and Canada combined, which are ranked respectively 2nd, 3rd and 4th

Dams construction:

Tibet accounts for a small amount in the total capacity of Chinese hydropower. Nonetheless, the potential it has to offer is colossal. Numerous hydroelectricity projects are on the way in the region. At the moment, some dams are finished, some are in constructions while many projects still wait to be approved by the authorities. 

The first relevant dam is the Zangmu dam (510 MW), which is in operation and situated close to the Indian border. The Chinese authority have also approved the construction of at least 5 other hydropower projects on the upstream or downstream of the river, close to the Zangmu dam. Among which the Jie Xu dam (560MW), the Dagu dam (640MW), or the Jiacha dam (320MW). Only three are depicted in the figure below.

The question that can be asked is why China is putting so much effort in the construction of various projects in the region. 

Figure 2: China’s plan for dams construction on Yarlung Tsangpo.

China’s strategic view

First of all, the region in which the dams are being built is scarcely populated. A minority of people live in the nearby areas, whereas the dams could provide electricity for thousands of households. This casts some doubts on the sole motive of electricity production. 

Additionally, the dams are said to be Run-of-the-river projects by the Chinese authority, which is characterised by the water flowing and not being stored. But this series of dams is seen as suspicious by the Indian government.

Being in possession of those dams and being able to hold the water from flowing can be a dangerous and persuasive weapon for China against India in the sense that withholding water would prevent Indian cities and villages downstream the Brahmaputra river from having freshwater or irrigating agriculture. On the contrary, the speed of the water flowing and the size of the Brahmaputra river can be deadly weapon for China. Releasing a huge amount of water at once could ensure floods in the downstream region of Arunachal Pradesh. This would be a catastrophe for all the cities down the river which would be destroyed with the rapid flow of water.

After a meeting between the two countries in 2013, the two sides recognized that trans-border rivers and related natural resources and the environment are assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries.” They reached an agreement that acknowledged their conjoint cooperation, communication and mutual shared interest. Minister Zhang Zhijun (Chinese vice foreign) assured the Indian delegation that the project “was not a project designed to divert water” and would not affect “the welfare and availability of water of the population in the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra.”

Nonetheless, some big issues arise in practice. First, there is no data-sharing about the management of the dams between the two parties, which scares the Indian authorities of not knowing potential higher or lower debit of the river. Second, there are no legal restrictions or international agreements forcing China to choose if they want to open or keep the valves closed, which leaves China to decide on the fate of downstream regions, whether the regions would suffer of drought or floods. 

Knowing the recent competition intensifying between China and India, especially as a result of the vigorous foreign policies of both PM Narendra Mod and President Xi Jinping, as well as growing nationalism in the two countries. Water resources can become a lever for China to influence and pressure the downstream region. Indian pundits have accused China of “weaponizing” water by using dams to dominate the water flow of a major transnational river.

To conclude, dams or other water systems can transform the water resource into a geopolitical weapon, which can be used during war or during peace as a means to pressure the counterpart to follow one’s interests. The control over this strategic resource is critical in many parts of the world. Not only for the fact that dams can be a weapon for countries, but also for the access to fresh water, the hydric stress, water scarcity and many more.

Theo Krins

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