International Relations

Chinese hegemony over the Brahmaputra River

To counter China’s proposed 60,000 MW Medog hydropower project on the Brahmaputra River, India plans to build a buffer reservoir in the proposed Arunachal hydropower project.

Brahmaputra hydrology: A Chinese military tool?

  • China has continued to use the water of the Brahmaputra for its own benefit, knowingly creating hazardous conditions for downstream states such as India and Bangladesh.
  • Concerns about China’s proposed 60,000 MW hydropower project in Medog, Tibet, are influencing the design of an Arunachal Pradesh hydropower project in the Upper Siang district.
  • A ‘pre-feasibility report’ on the 11,000 MW project, which is more than five times the size of the largest such projects in India, has been submitted.

What is Medog super-dam Project?

  • China is planning a mega dam in Tibet that will generate three times the electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station.
  • The bridge will span the Brahmaputra River before it flows into India from the Himalayas.
  • It is expected to produce 300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year and will be the largest dam in the world when completed.

India’s plan to construct a buffer reservoir

  • During monsoonal flow, the proposed project’s design incorporates a “buffer storage” of 9 billion cubic metres (or approximately 9 billion tonnes of water).
  • This could serve as a reservoir for a year’s flow that would otherwise be available from the Brahmaputra, or as a buffer against sudden releases.

The Medog Project’s Threats

  • Because Chinese dams can hold large amounts of water, during droughts China could cut off the river’s flow, endangering the lives of millions of people in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Bangladesh.
  • Reduced flow in the Brahmaputra: The 60,000 MW dam in Medog may reduce the Brahmaputra’s natural flow.
  • Artificial floods: Away from India during dry spells, it could be used to cause “artificial floods” in the Brahmaputra basin.
  • Degradation of the entire basin: Dams would trap silt carried by the river, lowering soil quality and eventually reducing agricultural productivity.
  • Seismic threats: According to seismologists, the Himalayas are the most vulnerable to earthquakes and seismic activity.
  • Ecological risks: The combined impact of these two megaprojects could exacerbate ecological degradation by converting lotic ecosystems to lentic ecosystems.
  • Water security: Damming the Brahmaputra would provide water security in an era of unprecedented climate change.
  • Catastrophic threat: Any damage to the mega dam, if built here, will result in dam breaching and flooding in India and Bangladesh.

Why are such issues unaddressed?

  • There is no bilateral or multilateral treaty or other effective and formal instrument of understanding for collaborative management of the Brahmaputra River.
  • Border hostility: Undrawn borders are at the heart of all hostilities between India and China.

India’s dilemma

  • Flood control dichotomy: While India’s hydropower projects have the potential to help control flooding from the Brahmaputra in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
  • No strategic deterrence to China: This may not serve as a strategic deterrent to China.
  • Resentment toward Bangladesh: While a large dam in India may help control floods within the country, it may also spark new disputes over water sharing with Bangladesh downstream.

Way Ahead

  • Our shared rivers must be managed collaboratively.
  • Because India shares river basins with its neighbours, hydrodiplomacy should be an important component of Indian foreign policy.
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