In November 2020, Beijing announced plans to build an enormous “super hydropower dam” in Tibet on the section of the Brahmaputra River near India. In March 2021, the National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025). A key objective listed in the document, which sets out the country’s national socio-economic and development goals, is 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.
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 at Medog (Tibet) on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra, near the Indian border to generate 60-gigawatts of electricity annually. This amount is 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 of the 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 through Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (South Tibet), where it is called the Brahmaputra. Many of the river’s tributaries begin in China, while others start in Bhutan, each of which holds significance in terms of socio-economic and political value. 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 such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Sino-India relations over shared water resources remain undoubtedly complicated. The Brahmaputra is the most important of the rivers that transverse the Sino-Indian border. For India and China, two of the world’s most populous countries, the Brahmaputra is essential to their socio-economic 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 plays a significant role in Tibet’s agricultural and energy industries as well as civilization. Yet, their growing populations mean water resources are under increasing stress and demand in both countries. Despite China’s basin coverage, it only contributes between 22 percent and 30 percent of the total basin discharge.
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 dam and water-diversion projects on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches, affecting the river’s flow and course. As the upper riparian, China can make decisions that have a direct impact on the quantity of water available downstream, giving it unequal power over and triggering alarm in India due to changes in flows. Despite Beijing’s insistence that the dam construction is for hydropower generation and will not cause a reduction in river flow, Delhi remains skeptical. It has responded by unsuccessfully claiming prior user rights and attempting to establish additional monitoring mechanisms to monitor China’s riparian activities. No dedicated multilateral cooperation mechanism exists, however – only limited institutionalized cooperation between the two neighbors.
The Sino-Indian territorial dispute is a factor
The historical territorial dispute between the two countries further complicates matters. As China and India disagree on border demarcation, there is no official mutually agreed border between the two countries, which assert competing claims to territory in the Eastern Himalayas. The disputed area, known as Arunachal Pradesh State in India and South Tibet in China, is home to more than one million people and occupies an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers. The competing claims to the territory are connected to their respective assertions of sovereignty. If China should somehow abandon its claim to South Tibet/Arunachal Pradesh State, its claim of sovereignty over Tibet will weaken. India, for its part, is unwilling to cede the land to its rival as the territory is the site of China’s victory against India during the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Nationalist sentiment sustains Delhi’s persistence.