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China’s greater water wall

by Brahma Chellaney

The Chinese government’s recent decision to build an array of new dams on rivers flowing to other countries is set to roil inter-riparian relations in Asia and make it more difficult to establish rules-based water cooperation and sharing.

Asia, not Africa, is the world’s driest continent. China, which already boasts more large dams than the rest of the world combined, has emerged as the key impediment to building institutionalized collaboration on shared water resources. In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbors, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

The long-term implications of China’s dam program for India are particularly stark because several major rivers flow south from the Tibetan Plateau. Just the Brahmaputra River’s annual cross-border runoff volume, according to United Nations data, is greater than the combined flow of three rivers that run from Tibet into Southeast Asia — the Mekong, the Salween and the Irrawaddy.

India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream to it: The Indus pact with Pakistan guarantees the world’s largest cross-border flows of any treaty regime, while the Ganges accord has set a new principle in international water law by assuring Bangladesh an equal share of downriver flows in the dry season.

China, by contrast, does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbor.

Yet most of Asia’s international rivers originate in territories that China annexed after the 1949 communist takeover there. The sprawling Tibetan plateau, for example, is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood of China and South and Southeast Asia. Other Chinese-held homelands of ethnic minorities contain the headwaters of rivers such as the Irtysh, Illy and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

China’s dam program is following a well-established pattern on international rivers, such as the Mekong, the Salween and the Brahmaputra: First build modest-size dams on a river’s difficult uppermost reaches, and then construct larger dams in the upper-middle sections as the river picks up greater water and momentum, before embarking on the construction of megadams in the border area facing another country.

The cascade of megadams on the Mekong, for example, is located in the area just before the river enters continental Southeast Asia. Chinese engineers already have built six giant dams on the Mekong, including the 4,200-megawatt Xiaowan, which dwarfs Paris’ Eiffel Tower in height, and the 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu, whose first generator began producing electricity last autumn. At least four more dams are planned in this frontier region.

Most of the new dam projects announced recently by China’s state council, or Cabinet, are concentrated in the seismically active southwest, covering parts of the Tibetan plateau. The restart of dam building on the Salween River after an eight-year moratorium is in keeping with a precedent set on other river systems — Beijing temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests flare so as to buy time, before resurrecting the same plan.

In fact, according to a 2008 report in Time magazine, work on laying the foundation of four Salween dams continued during the moratorium by reclassifying them as transportation projects.

The Salween — Asia’s last largely free-flowing river — runs through deep, spectacular gorges, glaciated peaks, and karst on its way into Myanmar and along the Thai border before emptying into the Andaman Sea. Its upstream basin is inhabited by 16 ethnic groups including some, like the Derung tribe. As one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, it boasts more than 5,000 plant species and nearly half of China’s animal species.

The decision to formally lift the moratorium and construct five dams — with work to start without delay on the Songta dam, the farthest upriver structure located in Tibet — threatens the region’s biodiversity and could uproot endangered aboriginal tribes. There is also the risk that the weight of huge new dam reservoirs could accentuate seismic instability in a region prone to recurrent earthquakes.

No country is more vulnerable to China’s reengineering of transboundary flows than India. The reason is that India alone receives nearly half of the river waters that leave Chinese-held territory. According to United Nations figures, a total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 347.02 billion cubic meters (or 48.33 percent of the total) runs directly into India.

China already has a dozen dams in the Brahmaputra basin and one each on the Indus and the Sutlej. On the Brahmaputra, it is currently close to completing one dam and has just cleared work on three others. Two more are planned in this cascade before the dam building moves to the water-rich border segment as the river makes a U-turn to enter India.

Whereas the newly unveiled projects on the Salween and the Mekong are mega-dams with big reservoirs, China claims that its dam building on the Brahmaputra involves only run-of-river plants — a type that generates hydropower without reservoir storage by using a river’s natural flow and elevation drop.

However, unlike India vis-a-vis Pakistan or Bangladesh, Beijing is neither willing to share with New Delhi the technical designs nor permit on-site scrutiny.

The relatively large Chinese projects at the Dagu, Jiexu and Zangmu sites on the Brahmaputra indeed raise the possibility that they might impound water in reservoir. Indeed, such is the lack of Chinese transparency that the flash floods between 2000 and 2005 that ravaged India’s Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh states — located on opposite ends of the Himalayas — were linked to unannounced releases from Chinese dams.

Asia awaits a future made hotter and drier by climate and environmental change and resource depletion. The continent’s water challenges have been exacerbated by consumption growth, unsustainable irrigation practices, rapid industrialization, pollution, environmental degradation, and geopolitical shifts.

If Asia is to prevent water wars, it must build institutionalized cooperation in transboundary basins that co-opts all riparian neighbors. If a dominant riparian state refuses to join, such institutional arrangements — as in the Mekong basin — will be ineffective.

The arrangements must be centered on transparency, unhindered information flow, equitable sharing, dispute settlement, pollution control and a commitment to refrain from any projects that could materially diminish transboundary flows. International dispute-settlement mechanisms, as in the Indus treaty, help stem the risk that water wrangles could escalate to open conflict.

China — with its hold over Asia’s transnational water resources and boasting over half of the world’s 50,000 large dams — has made the control and manipulation of river flows a pivot of its power and economic progress. Unless it is willing to play a leadership role to develop a rules-based system, the economic and security risks arising from the Asian water competition can scarcely be mitigated.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2011).