China has launched an array of dam projects along the Tibetan section of the Brahmaputra River. Photo: Xinhua

The world’s highest altitude river, cutting through the Tibetan plateau and rugged terrain along the Chinese-Indian border, carries troubled waters amid a new era of border tensions between the two Asian giants. 

Those tensions are set to rise with Beijing’s aggressive new plan to build mega-hydropower plants and dams across the 2,900-kilometer Yaluzangbu River, or Yarlung Tsangpo, with work on the projects scheduled to take 15 years. 

The projects are unlikely to break ground anytime soon but Beijing’s move has caused trepidation in New Delhi over water security in the downstream Brahmaputra River basin in its northeastern state of Assam and nearby regions.

The strategically vulnerable Indian states border Tibet in the north and are connected to India’s main parts by the thin Siliguri Corridor, also known as the Chicken’s Neck, near Bangladesh. 

With recent lethal border skirmishes with China still rankling, New Delhi has not taken lightly Beijing’s revived bid to harness one of the largest and most important international rivers in South Asia. 

The Brahmaputra River runs from its origin in western Tibet through northeastern India before flowing into the sea in Bangladesh. Photo: Pfly/WikiCommons

China’s blueprints for dams, reservoirs and hydro plants along the Yaluzangbu’s gorges were made public last week. Technical details are still lacking but the plan, said to dwarf the Three Gorges Dam in scale, has been interpreted in both countries as a clear Beijing tactic to block and divert the river from northeast India should new hostilities break out. 

The amount of electricity that could be generated will be as much as three times that of the Three Gorges plant in central Hubei province, which since this year fed 103.1 billion kilowatt-hours of power into the national grid as of mid-November. 

Yan Zhiyong, president of the state-owned China Power Construction Corporation, was quoted last week in the People’s Daily saying that the central leadership’s approval of related projects along the Yaluzangbu at the just-concluded October Communist Party plenum marked a “momentous step towards harnessing the world’s highest river” and would usher in an unprecedented “bumper decade” for China’s hydropower sector.

Yan added that some preparatory works had already been included in the 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025.

China Energy Daily, a paper under the People’s Daily umbrella, revealed that the Yaluzangbu’s downstream valley off the northern slope of the Himalayas, in particular at the so-called “Great Bend” canyons, boasts the world’s richest hydropower resources. It noted that the river’s resources are still largely untapped and that the Yangtze that fuels the Three Gorges Dam pales in comparison due to its low downstream elevation.   

The Yaluzangbu’s Great Bend area in Tibet has been tipped as a likely location of a massive dam. Photo: WeChat

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao and Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspapers previously reported that China aimed to erect a giant dam near the Great Bend area that would be at least twice the size of the 3,335-meter-long, 185-meter-high Three Gorges Dam.

China Power Construction Corporation did not respond to Asia Times’ e-mailed inquires about the proposed dam. At least 11 small-to-medium hydropower plants, however, have been up and running along the Yaluzangbu since 2010. 

In the past decades, many other grand plans for dams in Tibet have been vetoed or otherwise disappeared in a region rife with racial tensions and geopolitics. It remains to be seen if Beijing’s push this time will actually materialize. 

It is also believed that the new Yaluzangbu hydropower plan underlines Beijing’s new vision for Tibet after Chinese President Xi Jinping convened a top-level conference on the far-western autonomous region at the end of August.

Beijing has moved to exert a tighter grip and spur economic development in the region through major infrastructure programs as well as local poverty alleviation and natural resources development. 

“China is not pouring staggering amounts of manpower and money for big dams just to cut off the Yaluzangbu so the Brahmaputra in India’s Assam will have no water left,” read an op-ed in the state-backed Global Times. 

“It is irresponsible and common sense-defying for the Indian authorities and media to purvey such an outlandish conspiracy… If some of the future dams are indeed close to the border, it’s not because China wants them to stop the water flow, but simply because thorough hydrological investigations find the water flow there is big enough to be harnessed for electricity.”

One example often cited by Indian media about the impact of China’s upstream hydropower projects is the Zangmo Dam in Tibet. Satellite images show the changes to the river after the dam was expanded.

Zhang Jiadong, dean of Shanghai Fudan University’s Center for South Asian Studies, said reservoirs upstream in Tibet would still need to discharge water into the Brahmaputra during peak flood seasons and if there was no flow of water from the river then electricity could not be generated.

“Unless China announces a plan for new water storage facilities or river diversion projects in the upper reaches, a plan that is non-existent as far as I know, then India should not read too much into China’s hydropower projects on its own soil,” said Zhang.

He said in an interview with China News Service that with new dams upstream China could also help “stagger water discharges and regulate and make even” seasonal water flows along the Brahmaputra so that farmers in Assam could still have enough water for irrigation during dry seasons “provided that Beijing and New Delhi can work out their differences and disputes and amend ties.” 

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his India visit in 2014. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing resumed sharing key hydrological data with neighbors in Southeast Asia and South Asia in 2018. Other than the Brahmaputra, six other major transboundary rivers in the region, including the Mekong, all rise in southwestern China’s Tibet, Yunnan, Guangxi and Sichuan provinces.  

The Global Times said that despite the ongoing tense border standoff, Chinese and Indian water resource authorities still maintained contact and share water flow data on the Yaluzangbu.

The state mouthpiece paper said New Delhi could propose taking a page out of the Mekong Cooperation Mechanism to set up a similar platform to pool India, China and Bangladesh, where the Brahmaputra empties into the Indian Ocean.