India’s water security concerns over China’s dam building spree are legitimate, require action

May 18, 2017

India has cause to be concerned about the large number of dams being constructed by China. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Beijing last week to build the Bhasha and Bunji Dams on the River Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan – which India claims to be its own territory – has triggered fresh alarm bells.

The Bhasha Dam, being built with a height of 272 metres, will produce 4,500 megawatts of electricity. It is being built as a gravity dam and will be the highest roller-compacted concrete dams in the world.

The Bunji Dam is also being built on the Indus River. It will be 190 metres high and will have an installed capacity of 7,100 megawatts.

These two mammoth dams are being constructed at a total cost of $27 billion and can be seen as part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative of the Chinese government, which is expected to bolster the Chinese economic and geopolitical footprint across a swathe of nations.

The Three Gorges Corporation, which built the largest dam in the world (Three Gorges), will help finance this project with a capital of $50 billion.

File image of the Three Gorges Dam. Reuters

File image of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Reuters

Last Saturday, India came out openly against the OBOR policy manoeuvre, describing it as little more than a colonial enterprise, while also expressing reservations against the ‘ecological and environmental’ damages that a project of this size would cause. India also went on to add that a connectivity project (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) must be pursued in a manner that respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations as well.

Activists in India concede that while Chinese engineers possess great expertise in building mammoth dams, the environmental impact of these hydro projects has not been placed in the public domain.

Environmental activist Himanshu Thakkar, who has specialised in the study of dams, pointed out, “Large dams change the micro-climate of a region. Both the Bhasha and Bunji Dams are much larger than any existing dam in India. In fact, the entire installed hydropower projects in Jammu & Kashmir do not equal even the Bhasha Dam, which is the smaller of these two dams. This helps provide an idea of just how mammoth these projects are.”

Thakkar believes, “These dams will involve large scale deforestation and will require large-scale evacuation of thousands of families. We are still to study just how close India is to the submergence area of these dams because if the river is in flood, then the backwater impact of these dams can come to India.”

What Thakkar found surprising was how the Chinese are proceeding to build these dams in disputed territory.

The reason why the Chinese engineers have chosen this particular area for construction is because the Indus River has 46 percent snow melt and is a perennial river which flows through these high mountains at tremendous speed.

Vikram Soni, professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has specialised in the study of rivers, said, “The more the slope, the greater the power. China is an energy deficient nation and they have negotiated with Pakistan to use the electricity generated from these two dams for their own use,”

“In terms of ecological destruction,” Soni warns, “when the Tehri Dam was constructed, it is known to have caused a great deal of ecological destruction. Since the size of these dams is much larger than our own Tehri Dam, the amount of destruction is going to be that much greater,”

“What kind of fallout it will have in the Kashmir Valley is something one will need to study in much greater detail. But, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir faced flash floods some time ago which is known to have been triggered by heavy rainfall and deforestation.”

Professor V Bhutani (retd) of the Delhi University, who has specialised in China, expresses apprehension at the stationing of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan to protect their strategic assets. “Tibet has been run over by a large Hun population. With Pakistan expected to be turned into an economic colony of China, the increasing presence of Chinese troops in the northern sectors is not something India will feel comfortable about.”

China is also planning to build 55 reservoirs on the rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau. Already, they have completed the Zangmu Dam, built on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in 2010. Three more dams at Dagu, Jiacha and Jeixu are presently under construction, while in 2015, work started on the Zam hydropower station – which will be the largest dam on the Brahmaputra river, which the Chinese refer to as the Yarlung Tsangpo.

The origins of the river are from a glacier in western Tibet, close to the origins of the Indus and Sutlej rivers, all of which emanate from Lake Mansarovar and Mount Kailash. Medog has been selected as the site of this mega project as the river makes a huge bend inside a giant canyon, which is around 198-miles long and 3.1-miles wide. Medog, incidentally, is located just 30 km north of the Indian border.

The Chinese have moved the entire team which built the Lhasa-Beijing railway line to execute this mammoth project, which will involve the construction of massive tunnels and reservoirs and turbines in order to generate 40,000 megawatts of power.

The first hint of this scheme emanated from an official Chinese newspaper in the 1990s, pointing out that the Chinese wanted to exploit the spectacular 2,000-metre-drop in the river to generate electricity.

The dam will be constructed before the Brahmaputra flows into Arunachal Pradesh and this water is expected to be diverted to the vast, arid areas of Xingjian region and the Gansu province in China.

India has repeatedly shown displeasure as well as apprehension with respect to China’s activities on the Brahmaputra. In fact, as far back as 2013, India complained to China about the hydro projects on the Brahmaputra.

Union water minister Uma Bharti has also expressed her reservation about these Chinese moves as she believes this can adversely affect both India and Bangladesh. Being the lesser of the two riparian countries, India is, of course, concerned about the likely fallout of Chinese activities in the long run.

An Inter-Ministerial Expert Group set up to study the impact of these dams on the Brahmaputra had not reflected positively on Chinese activities on dam-building and establishing hydropower stations within 500 kilometres of the India-China border. But China has not cared to heed these apprehensions.

As soon as India had indicated that it was planning to assert its rights within the Indus water treaty versus Pakistan, China went public with its plan to build a large dam, with an investment of $740 million, on Xiabuqu River, close to the city of Xigaze.

File image of the Three Gorges Dam. Reuters

File image of the Three Gorges Dam. Reuters

Xigaze is a strategic location close to Bhutan and Sikkim and is the town from where China intends to extend its Beijing-Lhasa railway line up to Nepal. Work on this dam will be completed by 2019.

Water experts insist that the ministry of external affairs and the ministry of water resources must start negotiations for an international treaty on the Brahmaputra before North East India is subjected to major water scarcity.

Dr Chandan Mahanta, an expert on the Brahmaputra river basin, who heads the Centre for Environment at IIT Guwahati, believes the ministry of water resources must set up the Brahmaputra River Valley Authority (BRVA) at the earliest.

Mahanta pointed out that with China building four dams on the Brahmaputra, it was imperative for such an organisation to undertake a comprehensive study of the Brahmaputra basin.

“There is no clarity about the nature of dams being constructed by the Chinese, who claim they are building run-of-the-river dams. The Indian government is going by that assurance but the people in Assam have serious doubts about the Chinese plans,” said Mahanta.

“We need to undertake a sound scientific investigation about both the lean flows of the river and how the dam construction by the Chinese will affect the river. We feel that once the dams are in place, the Brahmaputra will become a seasonal river, causing water scarcity in our region,” he said.

“Such an apprehension is being expressed by people throughout Asia, who want to know just how much water the Chinese plan to divert across Asian rivers,” Mahanta said, adding that a bilateral collaborative study between the two countries will help allay these fears.

India and China have an agreement on sharing the data of the Brahmaputra water but do not have any treaty, similar to India and Pakistan on the sharing of the river waters. China has so far not communicated officially about the construction of the three dams – Dagu, Liacha and Jiexu – on the Brahmaputra.

It is for this reason that the Indian government is pressuring China to set up a joint water commission or work towards having a joint water sharing treaty, following an inter-governmental dialogue on this subject.

Political analysts believe that India’s response to all these developments remains weak-kneed. Bhutani added, “India has a huge trade balance with China since we import much more than we export but even this factor has not been used to our advantage. Instead of following a policy of appeasement with Beijing, New Delhi needs to forcefully take up its concerns since water security remains critical for any country.”