Chinese Dam: Worrying cascading impact

By Dr P K Vasudeva. Dated: 11/28/2015 2:22:10 PM

It is believed that future wars are likely to be fought on water due to its shortage for ecological reasons. In recent times, the world has witnessed a major surge in regional unrests caused primarily by the shortage of water. Tension builds up between two or more countries when an effort is made by any upper riparian country to control the waterways of trans-Boundary Rivers. Factors such as population surge, industrialisation and other development activities compel a country to control waterways. When such activities begin to affect livelihood, ecology and growth of the lower riparian countries, dispute erupts.
As in other parts of the world, tension has also been growing both in South Asia and Southeast Asia due to China's unilateral decision to construct dams and river diversion projects in Tibet. Since 1989, Chinese engineers have been thinking of constructing dams and developing south-north water diversion projects partly driven by internal economic compulsions and by the desire to acquire a dominant external position.
As is well known, the Tibetan plateau happens to be the biggest water reservoir in the world. All the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong originate in the Tibetan plateau. Of the world's 6.92 billion people, for nearly 2 billion (29 per cent) living in South Asia from Afghanistan to the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin and in Southeast Asia the rivers flowing from Tibet constitute the lifeline.
The Chinese State Council (Cabinet) for the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-15) had given the go-ahead signal for the construction of three new hydropower dams on January 23, 2013 on the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra River, ending a two-year halt in approving new projects on the river amid concerns from India and various environmental groups.
In the plan period the government planned construction of 120 million KW of conventional hydropower. The plan said the government "will push forward vigorously the hydropower base construction" on the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra or Yarlung Zangbo River, as is known in China.
China on 13 October 2015 operationalised the $1.5 billion Zam Hydropower Station, the largest in Tibet, built on the Brahmaputra river, which has raised concerns in India over the likelihood of disrupting water supplies. All six of the station's units were incorporated into the power grid the China Gezhouba Group, a major hydropower contractor based in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province in central China told State-run Xinhua news agency.
Located in the Gyaca County, Shannan Prefecture, and the Zam Hydropower Station also known as Zangmu Hydropower Station harnesses the rich water resources of Brahmaputra -Yarlung Zangbo River - a major river that flows through Tibet into India and later into Bangladesh.
The dam considered to be the world's highest-altitude hydropower station and the largest of its kind will produce 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. "It will alleviate the electricity shortage in central Tibet and empower the development of the electricity-strapped region. It is also an important energy base in central Tibet," the company said.
Officials said when electricity is ample in the summer season; part of the electricity will be transmitted to the neighbouring Qinghai province, reported Xinhua. Investment of the hydropower station, about 140 km from Tibetan capital Lhasa, totalled 9.6 billion Yuan (about $1.5 billion).
The first unit began operations last November. Reports in the past said besides Zangmu, China is reportedly building few more dams. Beijing seeks to allay Indian fears saying that they are the run-of-the-river projects, which were not designed to hold water.
The dams also raised concerns in India over China's ability to release water in times of conflict, which could pose serious risk of flooding. An Indian Inter-Ministerial Expert Group (IMEG) on the Brahmaputra in 2013 said the dams were being built on the upper reaches and called for further monitoring considering their impact on the flow of waters to the lower reaches. The IMEG noted that the three dams, Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha are within 25 kms of each other and are 550 kms from the Indian border.
The best strategy for the lower riparian countries should be to engage China in a dialogue process and persuade it not to construct dams and diversion projects on Tibetan rivers at the cost of environmental degradation and the livelihood of nearly two billion people living in India and Afghanistan, the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana basin and the Mekong basin countries including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
River Brahmaputra is very important for India and Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra River basin in India is gifted with water wealth that accounts for nearly 30% of the total water resources and about 40% of the total hydropower potential of the country.
Several organisations in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have aired grave concern over the reported move by China to construct dams on the main channel of Brahmaputra in the upper reaches of Tibet, to generate electricity and also divert its water towards drought hit areas of Tibet. This move is bound to jeopardise the flow of the Brahmaputra, the lifeline of the Assam valley, causing devastating floods during the rainy season. It will also dry up during winters.
The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) has confirmed that the dam has been constructed at the Zangmu site on the Chinese side of the Brahmaputra River, prompting the Government to take up the matter with China at a "political" level.
India and China must begin dialogue immediately to finalise an agreement on river water sharing. India and Bangladesh, the two lower riparian countries, are understandably worried over the Zangmu project's impact on the lives and livelihoods of people living downstream. Security analysts warn that China could step up pressure on India during times of tension and conflict by withholding water.
India plans to build hundreds of small hydel projects on the Brahmaputra in the North East, which are triggering anxiety in Bangladesh. India can set an example by consulting Bangladesh and keeping Dhaka in the loop on its plans for dams. Having won Bangladesh's confidence, India could initiate tripartite talks involving China as well on the sharing of the waters of the Brahmaputra. A treaty on sharing the Brahmaputra's waters is urgently needed.
Of late, China has drawn strong opposition from 263 international NGOs for its effort to construct dams on the Mekong River. These NGOs feel that China has been using the water resources in Tibet as a political tool. As such, they want a moratorium on the lower Mekong dams for at least 10 years.
The dependability of the Chinese on such issues is doubtful and this is one of the reasons why China has so far not signed any bilateral treaty in regard to the utilisation of water resources with any of its neighbours and has also not signed the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Waterways. It's time for both India and Bangladesh to get their act together.



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