(February 9, 2013) A dramatic push by China’s new leadership has revived a political passion for large dam projects and ignited concerns for neighbouring countries and environmentalists.
By Lisa Peryman, for Probe International
Already the most dammed country in the world and the world’s largest exporter of dams, China’s new leadership has received approval from the country’s State Council to move ahead with shelved plans for a number of controversial mega-dam projects.
Unveiled on January 23, China’s energy development plan for 2011-15 includes the renewal of dam construction on the Yarlung Zangbo, Nu (Salween) and Lancang (Mekong), all major rivers flowing from the Tibetan Plateau.
Three new hydropower dams slated for the middle reaches of the transboundary Yarlung Zangbo River (known as the Brahmaputra once it reaches India) have now been given the green light, ending a two-year halt in the approval of new projects for the river. The news has rekindled debate in India over the downstream impacts of these projects, with some fearing China will take control of the Brahmaputra, a major artery of Central and South Asia, and leave India’s north-east regions parched.
India’s Daily Pioneer newspaper quotes Dawa Tsering, a senior MP and chairman of the Representative Committee of the Tibetan Parliament in-exile, who warns China’s plans to divert waters of the Brahmaputra to north and central China will likely lead to grave water scarcity in the north-east regions of India.
China’s control over the upstream sources of most of Asia’s major rivers, and its aggressiveness and poor record of transparency and data-sharing when it comes to energy exploitation in the region, has earned it deep suspicion on the part of its neighbours.
Hong Lei, the foreign ministry spokesman for China, addressed a press conference last month to clarify his country’s position.
“The Chinese side always takes a responsible attitude towards the exploitation of cross-border rivers and every new project will be planned and reasoned in a scientific way (before being started),” he said, Xinhua reports.
Meanwhile, China’s reopening of plans to build a controversial cascade of dams on the Nu River has provoked alarm. The Nu, also shared by Burma and Thailand, is located in the seismically active and flood-prone southwestern province of Yunnan in China, but seemingly little consideration has been given to the calamity that dams could unleash.
According to a report by Probe International last year, the dams China is building in the south-west part of the country are vulnerable to damage from earthquakes and could induce earthquakes in a phenomenon called reservoir-induced seismicity. In a worst case scenario, says geologist John Jackson, the report’s author, the cascade-positioning of dams could also create a domino effect if one dam breaks and causes a tsunami to travel downstream. There is no terrain between cascaded dams for energy to dissipate in the event of catastrophic dam failure, he said.
Other projects also listed in China’s energy blueprint include nine hydro projects slated for the Lancang-Mekong River, which passes through or along the borders of five other countries after exiting China. According to Elise Potaka, writing for Asia Calling in 2011, upstream dam development of the river is already thought to have caused irregular tide flows, floods, droughts and ruined crops for downstream communities who depend on the Mekong for income and food. Neighbours fear China will be the only country to benefit from changes to the 5,000-km river, she reported.
Meanwhile, China Dialogue notes with interest the absence from China’s energy blueprint of a monster dam proposed for the “great bend” of the Yarlung Tsangpo. If built, the 48,000 MW colossus, twice the size of China’s Three Gorges dam, would become the world’s largest hydro-electric project. The dam remains under active consideration, reports China Dialogue, but its construction depends on the completion of related infrastructure and ultra-high voltage power transmission lines first.
“A large dam on the Tibetan plateau would amount to a major, irreversible experiment with geo-engineering,” Peter Bosshard of International Rivers told the U.K.’s Guardian in 2010. “Blocking the Yarlung Tsangpo could devastate the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau, and would withhold the river’s sediments from the fertile floodplains of Assam in north-east India, and Bangladesh,” he said.
China’s renewed passion for dam development rises in contrast to the tenure of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao, who slowed down the pace of construction considerably in an effort to ward off threats to social stability, a core focus for Wen, posed by protests from local populations.
China’s relations, both internal and external, are bound to be tested as news of the country’s plans to dam, and dam big, settles. China has still not signed a key 1997 UN convention on transnational rivers – a treaty that requires countries to notify, consult and negotiate with other countries affected by transnational waterway development and, in the past, has typically rebuffed requests by neighbouring countries for information about development plans, as well as dam operations and their effects on river flows.
Although India and China have since instituted a working group mechanism to exchange data, including measurement of water flows, reports The Hindu, neither country has “taken any concrete steps towards a formal water-sharing agreement.”