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HomeChina China’s Hegemonic Hydropower Projects are a Curse for its Asian Neighbours..

 China’s Hegemonic Hydropower Projects are a Curse for its Asian Neighbours..

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Hydroelectricity, China’s primary source of renewable energy, makes China its largest producer in the world. The country’s relentless efforts for the past decade in constructing numerous dams for this purpose is a testament to Beijing’s goal of maintaining this record. According to official records, China has currently more than 98,000 dams.

The construction of 2,335-metre long Three Gorges Dam started in 1994 with the aim to boost China’s economic growth as well as for China to be able to tame its longest river—Yangtze. Located in the west city of Yichang, China’s Hubei province, the 200 billion yuan ($28.6 billion) project was completed in two decades and has the capacity of generating over 22,500 MW of electricity. Currently this makes the Three Gorge world’s largest hydropower project.

After the Three Gorges Dam, China planned for rapid infrastructural projects, to increase its hydropower capability. In 2021, the Chinese government announced that it had turned on the first two generating units of the world’s second biggest hydroelectric dam. Located on the upper section of the Yangtze river in south-western province of Sinchuan, the 300-metre tall dam known as the Baihetan Dam, came as a surprise to observers as with the help of artificial intelligence and technology, the dam that is now the world’s largest arch dam took only four years to complete its construction.

When the world was going through a pandemic in November 2020, China announced its plan to build the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam on the lowest reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo river in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). This plan was also included in Beijing’s 14th Five Year Plan as part of the country’s socio-economic and developmental goals. China pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 that further boosted its hydroelectricity generation efforts, especially in resource-rich Tibet. Considered to be the world’s highest river, the almost 3,000-km long trans-border river has its origination in the Mansarovar lake flowing 2,900 km across Tibet, and runs through India’s Arunachal Pradesh (as Siang) and Assam (as Brahmaputra) before flowing out to Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. The proposed dam is said to be a 50-metre high hydropower dam on Brahmaputra’s Great Bend and in Tibet’s Medong bordering India, expecting to generate 60,000 MW of electricity annually, more than three times that of Three Gorges Dam.

This year, new satellite images revealed of Chinese dams under construction close to Line of Actual Control (LAC) since 2021, on the Chinese side on Mabja Zangbo river in Tibet’s Burang county, risking a possible escalation of Sino-Indian tension since its military face-off. Located in the north of the tri-junction of China’s border with India and Nepal, this move has created apprehensions among Beijing’s neighbours as it is seen as a move to control water flow downstream to lower-riparian countries that are dependent on Brahmaputra river. The apprehensions have a valid ground considering 50 per cent of its river basin is in Chinese territory.

These Chinese mega projects that are believed by China to make it a hydro-hegemon, have adversely affected the lower riparian countries in South and Southeast Asia. Bangladesh, the most riparian nation heavily dependent on international rivers, especially Brahmaputra, has faced the consequence of Chinese hydropower plant projects (HPPs) on the lower levels of Brahmaputra. This has led to the rise to riparian issues for Bangladesh. Its officials remarked that Chinese leverage as an upper riparian nation to withdraw and release water as per its own requirement without considering the needs of the lower riparian nations has caused irreversible damage to the flora, fauna and livelihood of Bangladesh.

Besides Bangladesh, countries like Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have been equal sufferers of China’s hydropower ambitions. At least 11 out of 13 hydropower dams operated by Beijing have come under accusation of holding back upstream water during drought periods. As a result, the flow of the Mekong river showed a significant drop in recent years that impacted agriculture, fishery and livelihood of millions of people in these countries.

It is believed that besides climate change impacts, human activities such as infrastructure development and water management have been major contributing factors behind such change. The intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) report showed significant variations of water level under natural conditions and after dams began operational. The year 2020 witnessed the worst drought recorded in lower Mekong countries. Chinese mega projects involving hydropower dams clearly affected the natural water level and flows of the Mekong river—Southeast Asia’s most productive river.

Despite its impressive speed, the 170 billion yuan ($26 billion) Baihetan dam was not without controversy. The construction of the dam has led to relocation of more than 10,000 residents with environmentalists expressing apprehensions about its effect on the ecological system and animal species. The Three Gorges Dam which took almost two decades to complete its construction has been reported to lead to displacement of about 1.5 million people who lived in the floodplains between 1992-2008.

The world’s largest hydropower dam has also fuelled landslides and floods and threatened the biodiversity of the area. Bangladesh-based Daily Asian Age reported that Chinese investments in water-based resources have adversely impacted the environment, displacement of people and huge debt for low riparian countries in South and Southeast Asia due to China’s resource-intensive dam/hydropower projects.

As an upper riparian country, China is the starting point of Asia’s major rivers—Brahmaputra, Indus, Salween, Irrawady, Mekong and Yangtze. This puts Beijing at an advantage to exploit water resources for its own interest while completely disregarding those of river-dependent other countries in Asia. Moreover, China not being a signatory of any transboundary water treaty is another reason for its outright unilateralism and intimidation, treating rivers not just as an economic resource but also as part of its national security. This explains Beijing’s increasing interest in building dams in the Tibetan plateau.

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