China is constructing a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which Indians call the Brahmaputra. The dam has Indian authorities worried, as some experts fear the dam might be the start of larger water diversion projects.
With an average altitude of 4,500 meters, the Yarlung Tsangpo River is the highest in the world
At over 3,000 meters above sea level, the Zangmu Dam will be China’s highest dam. Located just over 300 kilometers from Lhasa and less than 200 kilometers from the Indian border, it will have six 85-megawatt generating units, which are expected to be put into operation in 2014 to generate electricity for the Tibetan capital.
Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies says China is following a new form of politics with the construction of the Zangmu Hydropower Station. By supplying Tibet with electricity, China hopes to create economic growth and prosperity there. According to Holslag, Chinese leaders believe this approach will give birth to long-term social stability and national unity. Holslag says it is a "kind of internal political dimension, namely, the belief that economic development in Tibet will make locals a little bit more amicable and favorable vis-à-vis the central unification policies."
But environmentalists are concerned about China’s new Zangmu Dam. For one, dams change the course of rivers; they can cause droughts or flooding and thus also pose a threat to local ecosystems. Hermann Kreutzmann of the Centre for Development Studies at the Free University of Berlin is worried about the sheer numbers. He says of the world’s 46,000 hydropower dams, half are located in China. So for the Chinese, according to Kreutzmann, the Zangmu Dam is "just one of many."
Rights groups fear the Zangmu Dam will harm the fragile ecosystem of its surroundings
Just the beginning
According to Chinese statements, this dam will be a so-called run-of-the-river dam. That means it will not be withholding or diverting water. But Kreutzmann warns that this could be the start of something bigger – a whole cascade system of dams. He says it is not usual to have only one dam on a river; "The whole point is to create a network of dams so you can use the water optimally. And I don’t think this is going to be an exception."
Kreutzmann adds one of the major threats to dams in the region is seismic activity. Some geologists believe that the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, in which over 80,000 people were killed, was linked to the Three Gorges Dam.
But with growing energy needs and increasing pressure for clean, renewable energy from the world community, Jennifer Turner, Director of the China Environment Forum in Washington D.C., says many countries turn to hydropower so "they don’t have to be dependent on global oil markets and mining coal."
She adds that China is still largely dependent on coal, which, she says, can be very destructive to the environment and to human health. She says though hydropower can be a good alternative, it needs to be implemented responsibly, "in a way that is transparent, where people have a voice," especially "when it goes across country borders."
The Brahmaputra River is a lifeline in the Assam and Arunachal states of India and is one of Asia's largest rivers
The lack of transparency is exactly what has Indian critics worried, as official statements on the dam had not been given until after construction began. Amid criticism, Turner points out that Chinese President Hu Jintao has since vowed to make the construction of the Zangmu Dam a more transparent process.
China has long had plans of a so-called "Western Development," which, among other things, includes plans to tap water from the Tibetan Water Tower and transfer it to more arid areas of China. This is fuelling Indian skepticism, says Holslag. Water scarcity created by diverting water would affect India’s prospects for development very drastically and also derail Indian ambitions to modernize agriculture. Holslag says, for India, it would be a matter of "national security," should China decide to embark on major water diversion projects and it could very well spark a water war: "there would really be a very serious risk of a major political, if not military showdown."
Experts agree China and India need to resolve their many issues; Peter Bosshard of International Rivers says transparency is the only solution. He also adds that his home country, Switzerland, could act as a good example of how to handle river conflicts with neighboring countries.
Activists criticize that dam projects often cause the relocation of local people
But he is not sure China and India are willing to negotiate just yet. According to his observations, it appears as though countries in the South Asian region are readily entering into conflicts over water usage. He says many countries are responding by "building as many of their own dams as quickly as possibly." India is worried, he adds, "because China is right at the source, but India has its own plans to dam the river, which could very well end up affecting Bangladesh."
Bosshard is worried about the ecological impact of dams, especially in the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau. He says hydropower dams can be built responsibly, but more times than not, they do have a negative impact on the environment. As fresh water ecosystems are the most endangered on the planet, Bosshard says, it is time "to draw the line and say, 'enough is enough!' economic growth cannot justify the destruction of the environment."
Author: Sarah Berning
Editor: Adrienne Woltersdorf