NEW DELHI – Just as China is working to change the territorial or maritime status quo from the western Himalayas to the East China Sea, its dam-building frenzy is designed to appropriate internationally shared water resources. Beijing is seeking to present a fait accompli to its downstream neighbors by quietly building dams on the transnational Amur, Arun, Brahmaputra, Illy, Irtysh, Mekong and Salween rivers.
In the latest development, Beijing has announced that it has completed — ahead of schedule — the world’s highest-elevation dam at Zangmu, Tibet. It said that all six power-generating units of the $1.6 billion project on River Brahmaputra have become fully operational.
China is now racing to complete several additional dams located in close proximity to each other on that river. This cascade of dams is likely to affect the quality and quantity of downstream flows into India and Bangladesh.
Only five rivers in the world carry more water than the Brahmaputra and only one — China’s Yellow River — carries more silt. The Brahmaputra is the world’s highest-altitude river. It represents a unique fluvial ecosystem largely due to the heavy load of high-quality nutrient-rich silt it carries from forbidding Himalayan heights.
The Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle helps fertilize overworked soils in northeast India’s Assam plains and large parts of Bangladesh, where the river is the biggest source of water supply. The silt-movement impediment by China’s upstream dam projects constitutes a bigger threat to the biophysical vitality of the river and downstream plains than even diminution of cross-border flows.
Several factors have whetted China’s drive to increasingly tap the resources of international rivers, including an officially drawn link between water and national security, the country’s emergence as the global center of dam building, the state-run hydropower industry’s growing clout and the rise of water nationalism at a time of increasing water stress in the northern Chinese plains. With dam building reaching virtual saturation levels in the ethnic Han heartland, the hydro-engineering focus has shifted to minority homelands, from where rivers flow to other countries.
China’s centralized, mega-project-driven approach to water resources has turned it into the world’s most dam-dotted country. This approach is the antithesis of the policy line in India, where water is a state (not federal) subject under the Constitution and where anti-dam nongovernmental organizations are powerful. India’s Narmada Dam project, which remains incomplete decades after its construction began, symbolizes the power of NGOs.
The largest dam India has built since its independence — the 2,000-megawatt Tehri Dam on River Bhagirathi — pales in comparison to China’s giant projects, such as the 22,500-megawatt Three Gorges Dam and the new mega-dams on the Mekong River like Xiaowan, which dwarfs Paris’s Eiffel Tower in height, and Nuozhadu, which boasts a 190-sq.-km reservoir.
The water situation in India, however, is far worse than in China. China’s population is just marginally larger than India’s, but its internally renewable water resources (2,813 billion cubic meters per year) are almost twice as large as India’s. In aggregate water availability, including external inflows (which are sizable in India’s case), China boasts virtually 50 percent larger resources than India.
India’s surface-water storage capacity — an important measure of any nation’s ability to deal with drought or seasonal imbalances in water availability — is one of the world’s lowest. Amounting to 200 cubic meters per head per year, it is more than 11 times lower than China’s. The 2030 Water Resources Group, an international unit, has warned that India is likely to face a 50 percent deficit between water demand and supply by 2030.
Yet, even as China’s dam builders target rivers flowing to India, including the Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej and Arun (Kosi), New Delhi has failed to evolve a strategic, long-term approach to the country’s pressing water challenges. In fact, no country faces a bigger challenge than India from China’s throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major transnational rivers and from its growing capability to be the upstream controller by re-engineering trans-boundary flows through dams.
New Delhi has to brace for China moving its dam building from the upper and middle reaches to the lower, border-hugging sections of the rivers flowing to India. The Brahmaputra is particularly a magnet for China’s dam builders because this river’s cross-border annual discharge of 165.4 billion cubic meters into India is greater than the combined trans-boundary flows of the key rivers running from Chinese territory to Southeast Asia. China is expected to embark on Mekong-style mega-dams as it gradually moves its dam building on the Brahmaputra to the area where the river takes a horseshoe bend to enter India, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon in the process.
To be sure, China’s riparian dominance poses a wider challenge in Asia as it remains impervious to the interests of downstream states and to international norms. Backed by its political control over water-rich minority homelands and by its rapid expansion of upstream hydro-engineering infrastructure, China’s riparian ascendancy is creating a tense and potentially conflict-laden situation where water allocations to co-riparian states in the future could become a function of its political fiat. Indeed, Beijing pays little heed to the interests of even friendly countries, as illustrated by its heavy upstream damming of the Mekong and Salween — Southeast Asia’s largest rivers.
The situation serves as a reminder that power equations are central to riparian relations. If upstream actions are undertaken by a power armed with superior military and economic capabilities and geopolitical influence, the lower riparian state can do little more than protest, unless a water-sharing agreement between the two countries provides for international adjudication or arbitration at the request of one side.
China, however, has refused to enter into a water-sharing arrangement with any co-riparian nation, even though its control over the Tibetan plateau (the starting place of major international rivers) and Xinjiang (the source of the transnational Irtysh and Ili rivers) has armed it with unparalleled hydro-hegemony. Such refusal means it can persist with its frenetic construction of upstream dams, barrages, reservoirs and irrigation systems on international rivers flowing to Central, South and Southeast Asia and to Russia.
By contrast, treaties, agreements or arrangements relating to major shared rivers govern relations between riparian neighbors in South, Southeast and Central Asia.
A balance between rights and obligations is at the heart of how to achieve harmonious, rules-based relations on water-resource issues. Transparency, collaboration and sharing are the building blocks of water peace. China’s unilateralist course on shared freshwater resources, however, indicates that — as in the South China Sea — it wants and insists on getting its own way.
Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis”