In November 2020, Beijing announced plans to build an enormous “super hydropower dam” in Tibet on a section of the Brahmaputra River near India. The construction of what would be the world’s biggest dam on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo river in the foothills of the Himalayas was included in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), which sets out the country’s national socio-economic and development goals.
Although the exact details are not publicly available, media reports note that Power Construction Corporation of China (PowerChina), a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE), and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government will construct a 50-meter-high hydropower dam on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra, in Medog, Tibet, near the Indian border. The dam is expected to generate 60 gigawatts of electricity annually – more than three times the electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam.
India has responded to the proposed dam with great alarm and remains seriously concerned. Delhi has also announced that it is considering constructing a 10-gigawatt dam to mitigate the impact on water flows from China’s mega project.
The Yarlung Tsangpo is one of the world’s largest transnational river systems. Originating in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in southwest China, it flows 2,900 kilometers across southern Tibet via the Himalayas, entering India, where it is called the Brahmaputra, through Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims as South Tibet). Many of the river’s tributaries begin in China, while others start in Bhutan. As South Asia remains one of the world’s most impoverished regions, each country seeks to maximize its utilization of the Brahmaputra to achieve national and international development goals.
Sino-India relations over shared water resources remain complicated. The Brahmaputra is the most important of the rivers that transverse the Sino-Indian border. For both India and China, two of the world’s most populous countries, the Brahmaputra is essential to their socioeconomic development. The river accounts for nearly 30 percent of India’s freshwater resources and 40 percent of its total hydropower potential. For China, the Brahmaputra’s role in the country’s total freshwater supply is limited, but the river plays a significant role in Tibet’s agricultural and energy industries as well as civilization. Yet, growing populations mean water resources are under increasing stress and demand in both countries.
Neighbors Without Trust
Competing water and development plans have long caused significant tensions and a lack of trust between China and India. One of the biggest points of contention is China’s construction of hydropower and water-diversion projects on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches, affecting the river’s flow and course.
Despite China’s basin coverage, it only contributes between 22 percent and 30 percent of the total basin discharge. Still, as the upper riparian, China can make decisions that have a direct impact on the quantity of water available downstream, a prospect that triggers alarm in India.
Despite Beijing’s insistence that the dam construction is for hydropower generation and will not cause a reduction in river flow, New Delhi remains skeptical. It has responded by unsuccessfully claiming prior use rights and attempting to establish additional mechanisms to monitor China’s riparian activities. No dedicated multilateral cooperation mechanism exists, however – only limited institutionalized cooperation between the two neighbors.
The historical territorial dispute between the two countries further complicates matters. The two countries assert competing claims to territory in the Eastern Himalayas, administered by India as the state of Arunachal Pradesh but claimed by China as South Tibet. The disputed area is home to more than 1 million people and occupies an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers. The dispute has severely strained trust between the two governments on all issues relating to their border regions – including water sharing.
Both countries have accused the other of hydro-hegemonic behavior. Transboundary water interactions are political and influenced by the greater socio-political context of the river-basin countries. Due to their geographical position, upstream countries can often manipulate water flows for strategic ends.
China, the “upstream superpower” of Asia, does not have an independent transboundary river policy but manages these issues as part of its bilateral foreign policy with downstream countries. Drivers of its water diplomacy include domestic challenges such as water insecurity and the need for energy security, as well as international programs such as Beijing’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Given its distrust of multilateral frameworks to resolve international disputes, Beijing has not signed a water-sharing or international transboundary water treaty. Although China is criticized for refusing to do so, most of China’s 17 downstream neighbors, including India, have not themselves signed such an agreement. China abides by the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC), even if it has not signed it. There are questions about India’s adherence to the convention.
Others have also argued that New Delhi encourages the narrative of “Chinese hegemony” to defend its own hydropower development projects.
Nonetheless, despite an information-sharing agreement between them, China refused to share hydrological data with India during the 2017 Doklam standoff between their two militaries.
The Prospect of Sino-Indian Water Wars
India has long speculated about China’s intention of using hydropower dams to control the Brahmaputra. Many Indian analysts argue that China’s water ambitions and the growing competition over water between China and India will inevitably lead to “water waters” between the two nations. Indian politicians, media, and officials frequently warn of the consequences of dependence on China for water supplies.
In 2013, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that China is stemming the flow of the Brahmaputra. In 2017, the Siang – a tributary of the Brahmaputra – turned black, making the water unsuitable for drinking, damaging the ecology and disrupting local agricultural production. Indian officials publicly blamed China. Nonetheless, China dismissed the complaints as highly exaggerated, given its much smaller contribution to the river flows.
In this context, the proposed Chinese super dam is contributing to the water wars narrative by raising fears in India that China will eventually use control of the transboundary river to gain complete control over disputed territory. By contrast, Chinese media has downplayed the dispute, calling the accusations an “absurd theory.” PowerChina declared that the proposed project represents a “historic opportunity for the Chinese hydropower industry.”
How to Reduce the Heat
As China only contributes a small volume to the total flow of the river, any attempt to alter the flow of the Brahmaputra would be unlikely to affect India’s water supply. This would undermine the water wars narrative. Yet, rather than addressing India’s concerns, Beijing merely denies any ill intent, a reaction that only provokes Delhi’s fears and inadvertently raises concerns about possible conflict.
Without publicly releasing hydrological data or the plans for the dam, it is difficult to accurately predict the proposed mega-project’s impact on India. The withholding of information simply increases India’s mistrust of China.
The lack of transparency suggests that India’s fears may not be entirely unfounded. But the blame for mounting tensions cannot rest entirely on Beijing. Although the prospect of water wars between the two countries is overhyped by India and downplayed by China, without a water-sharing agreement or basin-wide governing mechanism in place, the proposed dam and questions about the governance of the Brahmaputra are becoming yet another major irritant in Sino-Indian relations.
To reduce tensions, China could work with India to establish an inclusive mechanism – a river basin organization (RBO) – for all relevant riparian parties to institutionalize cooperation for effective governance and socio-environmental sustainability of the Brahmaputra basin. The RBO could be led by China. Establishing such an institution to strengthen collaboration and communication and build trust would reduce tensions among all parties involved, while reducing, if not impeding, India’s attempts to restrict China’s dam construction through claims of prior use rights.
The benefits of such a mechanism are numerous: Regular communication through established channels and procedures can prevent conflict from occurring over transboundary water resources. RBOs can significantly reduce tensions over disputes by strengthening mutual trust and facilitating information sharing for proper transboundary water governance as well as the protection of ecological systems. Basin-wide cooperation would be seen as part of a framework for greater regional and economic cooperation.
The super dam issue, while complex, with multisectoral and multidimensional implications, contributes to worries of future water wars between India and China. Although it has not yet been built, its size, the potential impact on river flows, and the lack of transparency on China’s part have heightened India’s fears of water shortage and an over-dependence on its neighbor for supplies, unnecessarily complicating an already tense geopolitical relationship.
This piece was originally published by AsiaGlobal Online.