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  • Krisha Suri


The Brahmaputra (called the Yarlung Tsangpo in China) is one of the longest rivers in the world. Starting in the Himalayas in Tibet, it enters India in Arunachal Pradesh, then passes through Assam, Bangladesh, and empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Brahmaputra, a perennial river, is the lifeline for communities living along its banks. They use it for irrigation, fisheries and inland water transport. In its lower course, the river is both an advantage and a disadvantage. On one hand, it deposits huge quantities of fertile alluvial soil suitable for agriculture, but on the other, due to geographical and climatic conditions, it causes periodical, disastrous floods in Assam and Bangladesh.

The dam is to be built on the river in Medog county, where it drops by 2,000 metres, making it an ideal place to harness hydropower. This region is located in the Tibet Autonomous Region, governed by China The new dam could help generate up to 60 gigawatts of power, three times that of central China’s Three Gorges Dam, which has the largest installed hydropower capacity in the world now. The new dam could provide 300 billion kWh of clean, renewable and zero-carbon electricity annually. The power generated would help Beijing meet its clean energy goals and strengthen water security, according to Yan Zhiyong, chairman of the Power Construction Corporation of China. India has agreements with China that require the latter to share hydrological data of the river during the monsoon season between May and October. The data is mainly of the water level of the river to alert downstream areas in the event of floods. However, during the 2017 Doklam border standoff between India and China, China stopped communication of water flow levels from its dams. Though data sharing resumed in 2018, India has reasons to believe that China may withhold data.

India has urged China to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activity in upstream areas. Meanwhile, India is considering building a 10 gigawatts (GW) hydropower project in the Dibang valley in Arunachal Pradesh, to mitigate the adverse impact of the Chinese dam.

India has expressed concerns to China over the four planned dams on the upper and middle reaches, though Indian officials have said the dams are not likely to greatly impact the number of the Brahmaputra’s flows in India because they are only storing water for power generation, and the Brahmaputra is not entirely dependent on upstream flows with an estimated 35% of its basin in India. Dams on the lower reaches and at the Great Bend would, however, raise fresh concerns because of the location across the border from Arunachal Pradesh and the potential impact downstream.

A draft of China’s new Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), which is set to be formally approved on March 11, has given the green light for the first dams to be built on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet before it flows into India.

The draft outline of the new Five-Year Plan (FYP) for 2025 and “long-range objectives through the year 2035”, submitted before the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s ceremonial legislature, on March 5, specifically mentions the building of hydropower bases on the lower reaches of the river as among the priority energy projects to be undertaken in the next five years.

China's plan to dam the Yarlung Zangbao, the world's highest river, threatens to spark conflict with downstream India, The Yarlung Zangbao Dam plan is moving ahead without China discussing or entering into water-sharing agreements with downstream India or Bangladesh. Bangladesh, which maintains cordial relations with China, protested over the Yarlung Zangbao Dam.

The Himalayan water war will affect India and Bangladesh as both rely on Brahmaputra's water for agriculture. Both India and Bangladesh worry that these dams will give Beijing the ability to divert or store water in times of political crisis. Everyday policy concerns like water sharing and usage often receive less attention, are combined with larger security or border concerns, or are dealt with only when natural disasters occur. Yet water politics has far-reaching consequences for the prosperity and security of countries.

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