HYDRO HEGEMONY IS CHINA’S NEW GAMEPLAN
Earlier, the Chinese had persistently denied undertaking any dam construction activity on the Brahmaputra. It was only in April 2010 that Yang Jiechi, Chinese Foreign Minister, officially acknowledged the construction of Zangmu dam. Beijing gave an assurance that being a “run of the river” project, it will not adversely impact the flow downstream. In 2005, there was the Pareechu episode, which had resulted in flash floods in the Sutlej, causing extensive damage. The Chinese had refused an Indian proposal for a joint inspection. In view of Beijing’s system of closed-door functioning, lack of transparency and the prevailing state of trust deficit between the two neighbours, the issue merits a pragmatic review. Possible implications for India need detailed examination both from the scientific and strategic dimensions, should the Chinese go ahead with their ambitious plans.
Three Gorges Dam in China. China is the world’s biggest consumer of energy and plans to double its installed capacity of 213,000 MW to 430,000 MW in a decade
The Tibetan plateau has enormous strategic importance given its vast natural unexploited reserves. Due to its rich water resources, it has come to be known as the water tank of Asia. Ten to 20 per cent of the area is covered by glacial ice and 30-40 per cent of the region gets seasonal snow fall. This translates into 100,000 sq km of area covered by glaciers and 12,000 cubic km of fresh water. Its glaciers feed a number of river systems in South and South East Asia. The perennial run of rivers results in stable flow of water to different regions, which is augmented by the monsoon.
Major Chinese rivers which originate from Tibet are Yangtze, the longest river which carries half of the total national water and Huang He (Yellow River). Indus, Brahmaputra and Sutlej are the Indian rivers with Tibet plateau as the origin. Tibet is also home to Salween and Mekong Rivers which traverse through Indo-China peninsula.
The Chinese water resources are distributed unevenly. The upper parts of China, north of the Yangtze, are water deficient. Comparatively better developed northern region with 42 per cent population, it has only 14 per cent of the available fresh water. On the other hand, the agrarian south, lesser industrialized with 58 per cent population, has 86 per cent share. Over the years, the Chinese water consumption pattern has undergone a significant change. Whereas agricultural consumption has shown a downward trend, industrial and domestic usage has gone up substantially.
China’s threat perception
In the Chinese threat perception calculus, stability tops the list, implying continued hold of the Communist Party. To ensure this, the country has to sustain a fast pace of economic progress. Water, food and energy security are non-negotiable in the Chinese security matrix.
In 2010, China emerged as the biggest consumer of energy, with an installed capacity of 213,000 MW. It aims to double its current capacity to 430,000 MW in a decade. This implies adding one project of the size of the Three Gorges Dam every year. At the same time, it also plans to lift the proportion of non-fossil fuel usage in the energy sector to 15 per cent by 2020. Officials of the Chinese Society of Hydropower state that in view of the rising demand for energy and pressure to reduce carbon emissions, China has to tap all available sources. A study concluded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences reveals that hydroelectric power generation capacity of the Tsang Po River basin is 114,000 MW; 79,000 MW from the main stem alone.
The Chinese have adopted a multi-pronged approach to meet the challenge of water and energy shortage. The Three Gorges project, the biggest of its kind on the Yangtze River, became operational in 2008. Besides generating 18,000 MW of electricity, the project has enabled transferring water to the northern region, contributed towards flood control and improved the inland water transport system.
Yet another ambitious project on the anvil is the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). It entails augmenting the capacity of the Huang He and transfer of water to the deficit northern region. The project envisages diverting the waters of the Yangtze along three axial routes. The Eastern route diversion is aligned with the existing Grand Canal. It is designed to draw 14.8 bcm (billion cubic meters) annually from the Yangtze to the eastern plains. The central route project envisages diversion of 13 bcm from Nanjing River to Beijing-Tianjin region. In the western route diversion, three tributaries of the Yangtze, namely Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu will be tapped to divert 17 bcm of water through an elaborate tunnel network. These projects being confined to the Chinese mainland do not have external ramifications as such.
One project that will be of serious concern to India is the Great Western Route Water Transfer Project (GWRWTP). The proposed project is extension of the western route diversion scheme. It entails construction of a mega dam at Namcha Barwa. Here, the Tsang Po River makes a steep loop to form a U-bend before entering India. Initially the project is only for power generation with a proposed capacity of 38,000 MW. Subsequently, plans are to divert water to the tune of 200 bcm annually to irrigate the deserts of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. This mammoth project could take decades to become operational. It will entail major tunneling effort to the tune of 56 km, with longest tunnel envisaged to be 26 km. The Chinese possess proven expertise in creating engineering marvels. In case this project is implemented, it will significantly impact the water flow in the Brahmaputra River.
The Chinese are in the process of constructing 13 dams on the Salween River (Nu) in Tibet and Yunnan. Six mega dam projects on Mekong, including the 4,200 MW at Xiaowan and 5,850 MW at Nuozhadu, also stand approved. These two rivers are the lifelines of lower riparian states.
India needs to address the issue holistically, in the long-term perspective. Given Beijing’s shrouded system of functioning and unilateralism, coupled with a hegemonic approach, our options should be based on the realistic assessment. Factoring China’s strategic imperatives and grand designs, the major implications for India could be:
As China does not believe in the concept of water sharing, there is no treaty between the two countries on the subject. Hence, India has to take recourse to crafty diplomacy, including building up international pressure to dissuade China from going ahead with the planned projects. India must insist on transparency on the issue and raise its concerns forcefully. Instead of following the policy of appeasement, we must insist on having constitutional mechanisms in place. There is an urgent need to constitute a body of experts from different fields to understand and address this vital issue in totality.
While China being an upper riparian state it enjoys “restricted territorial sovereignty” as per the international law, it also has the onus to protect the interest of the other nations. Our approach should be to build consensus amongst the affected nations. Support of Bangladesh, besides Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos should be garnered to confront China on the issue.
Damming the Tsang Po in Tibet is one more addition to the list of contentious issues between India and China. While it may not be prudent to raise an alarm and press the panic button yet, its ramifications cannot be brushed aside. The issue merits a holistic review in the realm of emerging geo-political realities.
Initial vehement denials and later justifications are typical of the Chinese unilateralism. The issue of water and energy must be seen in the larger context of China’s global aspirations. While keeping a close watch, it is time to evolve a long term strategy to effectively respond to the new challenges.
India’s approach should be both bilateral and multilateral to persuade China to give up the precarious approach of hydro hegemony. Persistent efforts should be made to evolve a legal framework to address the water sharing mechanism. Political will along with astute diplomacy are needed to checkmate China’s grand designs.
The writer has commanded a Division in the East and served as the Defence Attaché in China