China’s Hydropower Plan on the Brahmaputra

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China’s Hydropower Plan on the Brahmaputra

Climate goals and local interests are driving Tibet’s hydropower boom, which will have implications far beyond China.

China’s Hydropower Plan on the Brahmaputra
Credit: Depositphotos

In March of this year, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for national economic and social development, as well as its long-range objectives through to the year 2035. While the elevation of renewable energy to an even more prominent position in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan has generated widespread discussion about China’s ambition to curb its greenhouse gas emissions, the inclusion of a hydropower development at the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo – the upper stream of the Brahmaputra River – has triggered speculation that China might soon start exploiting the hydropower potential of the Grand Canyon of the Brahmaputra. China’s hydropower plan has also raised concerns from the river’s lower riparian states, particularly India.

The Brahmaputra River begins on China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where it is called the Yarlung Tsangpo. After entering India through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, it becomes known as the Brahmaputra. From India, it crosses into Bangladesh, where it is called the Jamuna River, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

The Brahmaputra River is of great importance to both India and China. For India, it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the country’s freshwater resources and about 44 percent of its total hydropower potential. In China, the Brahmaputra holds great significance for Tibet, given its status as the birthplace of the Tibetan civilization. The river also plays a critical role in Tibet’s agricultural and energy sectors. The importance of the Brahmaputra River is further elevated by the ongoing border disputes between China and India, which have contested claims in the eastern Himalayas. This disputed area, which occupies about an area of 90,000 square kilometers, is called South Tibet in China or Arunachal Pradesh state in India, which now controls the area.

China’s Plan for Hydropower Development

Given the importance of the Brahmaputra River to India’s water and energy security and the link to ongoing territorial disputes, India has long been wary of China’s development plans for the river. The possibility of China building dams on the Brahmaputra to divert some of its waters to arid northern China was first mentioned at the first international conference of the Global Infrastructure Fund in Anchorage, Alaska in 1986. Since then, India has expressed concern regarding China’s intention to divert waters from the Brahmaputra River to its drought-prone northwestern region, particularly over the much-hyped Grand Western Water Diversion Project (or Shuotian Canal) and the recent Red Flag River Project.

While the Chinese government has, to date, dismissed these massive and highly controversial water diversion proposals, it started building dams on the upstream of the Brahmaputra River in 2009. Thus far, it has built or is building six hydropower projects on the upper reaches of the river. According to Chinese officials, these dams are the run-of-the-river type, where water is diverted to a lower point to generate electricity and later allowed to re-enter the river.

The recent inclusion of the development of hydropower projects on the lower reaches of Tibet’s section of the Brahmaputra in the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan has generated widespread domestic and international speculation that China might soon start the construction of a super-dam at Medog (or Metok) which is on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra. Here the river plunges from the roof of the world, curling down towards the plains of India and Bangladesh. The idea is to build a 50-meter-high dam at an altitude of 3,000 meters and harness the river’s energy as it falls 2,000 meters – at a rate of 15 meters of altitude dropped per kilometer traveled – along the world’s longest and steepest canyon.

Even though no official statement was made on the Medog dam, there is evidence suggesting that preparation works are underway. For instance, according to the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned media outlet, an agreement has been signed by the state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China (hereafter, PowerChina) and the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region to build the historic hydropower project in Tibet. This project is said to be able to generate 60 million kilowatts of hydropower, which is more than three times the amount of electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam. Yan Zhiyong, the chairman of PowerChina, claimed that “there is no parallel in history” and said the proposed hydro project is a “historic opportunity for the Chinese hydropower industry.” Nevertheless, precise details were not included in the 14th Five-Year Plan.

National Push Toward Carbon Reduction

While the idea of exploiting the hydropower potential at the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra River has been floating around for many years, the official inclusion of the plan in the 14th Five-Year Plan was driven in part by the Chinese central government’s recent push toward carbon emission reduction and in part by the lobbying of the local governments and hydropower interests.

After Xi Jinping’s bold commitment that China would reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, carbon emission reductions and the transition to clean energy clearly stand out as a central policy priorities in the 14th Five-Year Plan. The Plan set an 18 percent reduction target for CO2 intensity and a 13.5 percent reduction target for energy intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 2025. As China shifts away from coal, which supplies nearly 70 percent of its energy use, to clean energy sources like hydroelectricity, more dams are expected to be built.

Due to massive investments in hydropower over the past few decades, the hydropower potential has already been exploited in much of China – except for Tibet. To date, the Tibetan plateau has the highest potential for hydropower generation. By the end of 2017, the installed hydropower capacity in China had reached 341 million kilowatts, while the installed hydropower capacity in Tibet is only 1.77 million kilowatts, accounting for only 1 percent of the technically exploitable amount.

In late July 2021, Xi made a surprise visit to Tibet. The first stop of his Tibet visit was Nyingchi, where he visited the Nyang River Bridge to inspect the ecological preservation of the Brahmaputra River’s basin. In Tibet, while stressing the need to protect the ecology of the Yarlung Tsangpo, Xi also urged Tibet to accelerate the building of national bases for clean energy.

Local Economic Interests

While the national interest is the key factor behind building dams on transboundary rivers in Tibet, including the upstream of the Brahmaputra River, the strong lobbying from local governments and hydropower companies should not be overlooked.  Tibet has formulated a three-step plan to develop its electricity and hydropower sectors, as revealed by the former vice chairman of Tibet, Ding Yexian. This three-step plan is: 1) to alleviate power shortage before 2012; 2) to solve the problem of electricity in the region between 2013 and 2015; and 3) to make hydropower-sustained rapid development between 2016 and 2020, and gradually to make “outward transmission” of Tibetan electricity into a strategic industry that turns hydropower resources into economic benefits.

Therefore, the ultimate goal of Tibet’s hydropower development is to become an economic pillar for the region, bringing in huge economic benefits for Tibetans. To promote the development of hydropower, the local government in Tibet has signed various cooperation agreements with the country’s major state-owned power companies, such as China Huaneng Group, China Datang Corporation, PowerChina, and the China Three Gorges Corporation. Furthermore, the local government has introduced various policies to accelerate the development of hydropower. In addition, the top officials from Tibet have tried to lobby for more financial and policy support from the central government for the development of hydropower at various occasions.

It is reported that the suggested Medog super-dam has the potential to generate 300 billion kWh of electricity per year, which could not only be used in Tibet but also exported to other provinces. In terms of economic benefits, the Medog super-dam is estimated to be able to generate 20 billion RMB per year for Tibet, as well as bringing in more investment.

Regional Implications and Concerns: Ecological, Environmental, Geopolitical

However, questions remain over the hydropower dam’s social, ecological, and environmental impacts, and Beijing’s planned dam on the Brahmaputra could be another sore point between the neighbors. There are concerns from downstream countries, especially India, over the dam’s potential ecological and environmental damage to the Brahmaputra. Some Indian politicians believe that China’s damming of the Brahmaputra could result in challenges to food security and water security in India. Over the past decade, water insecurity and water scarcity have exacerbated the frequency of South Asian droughts, which occur for longer periods, affecting more people and industries.

Apart from concerns over water supply, some are wary of the geopolitical implications of China’s new super-dam. As China extends its sphere of influence in Asia, there are fears in the downstream region that China could use water as a powerful political weapon to pressure the downstream region into submission over other issues, such as disputes over the Belt and Road Initiative or COVID-19. They fear that China could weaponize water by using dams to control the water flow of major transnational rivers, intentionally causing floods or water scarcity if China refuses to release any water to the downstream nations.

In response to India’s past concerns, Chinese officials stated that they “are undertaking run-of-the-river hydropower projects which do not involve diversion of the waters of the Brahmaputra.” But it will take more than boilerplate statements to resolve Indian concerns about China’s hydropower plans.

Guest Author

Hongzhou Zhang

Hongzhou Zhang is a research fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His main research interests include China and regional resources governance (food, water, fisheries, land, and energy).

Guest Author

Genevieve Donnellon-May

Genevieve Donnellon-May is a research assistant with the Institute of Water Policy (IWP) at the National University of Singapore. Her research interests include China, Africa, and the food-energy-water nexus.