China’s dam-building spree on the Tibetan Plateau has given Beijing immense leverage as controller of the region’s “blue gold” and with that power comes responsibility. For starters, to permit an open assessment of the impacts of these projects – particularly given the region’s vulnerability to seismic risk – and to share those findings with neighboring countries and the people most directly affected by dam construction upheaval.
China’s control over “blue gold” wealth on the Tibetan Plateau has armed China with tremendous leverage, making them a potential water power in a way Saudi Arabia is an oil power.
Moreover, the country which has the largest number of dams in the world, with two-thirds located on the Tibetan Plateau, is still in the process of developing more dams to satiate its industrial sector’s growing power demand. As of now, China has more than 87,000 dams and in the last decade the country has installed more hydropower capacity than the rest of the world combined. This means that China continues to play a leading role in global hydropower development.
Furthermore, Chinese companies and Chinese banks now fund the largest dam projects in the world. By August 2012, Chinese companies and banks were involved in almost 308 dam projects in 70 different countries. As of now, Chinese state-owned Sinohydro Corporation is the largest hydropower company in the world and the China Export-Import Bank (China Exim Bank) has emerged as the biggest funder of large dams.
China is developing at what cost?
In the ongoing debate over the ecological impact of large dams, Mark Tercek, CEO of Nature Conservancy said: “Environmentalists generally hate dams, even though they’re clean energy.”
Unfortunately, dams are not “Clean Energy” as Tercek has described. In fact, dams are one of the major factors causing climate change.
According to Ivan Lima and other experts from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the world’s large dams emit 104 million metric tonnes of methane annually, which suggests that methane emission from dams are responsible for at least 4% of the total global warming caused by human activities.
Taking into consideration the case of Mekong river, Chinese officials claim that the dam which was built on the upper reaches of the Mekong River would have a positive environmental impact. They assert that during the wet season, the dam will control floods and river bank soil erosion and, above all, provide clean energy. Conversely, releasing water during summer will help ease water shortage during the dry season.
A river can be dammed in an environmentally considerate manner. But what China is doing is over-damming rivers. However, they fail to acknowledge that hydropower development alters the hydrology of the river by forcing variation in water flow such as reducing and delaying wet season flow and increasing dry season flow. This affects the ecosystems and livelihoods of people who are dependent on the natural flow of rivers. Also, these water fluctuations are made considering the rise and fall in electricity demand.
Moreover, controlling the flow of flood water has another adverse effect. The seasonal flooding is key to productive farms and the health of fisheries as the floodwater inundates land with valuable nutrients and sediments. These nutrients stimulate the food web and enrich the soil and thereby promoting farming and fisheries. However, with the damming on the Mekong River, it has created a huge net loss to the people dependent on the river for their livelihood.
Furthermore, the dams built on the upper reaches of the Mekong River are located in a highly seismic area. Although, Chinese regulations stipulate that dams are designed to withstand seismic activity. In case, big dams built on the upper reaches of the Mekong River fail due to natural catastrophe, it will create a “domino effect”, triggering a cascading sequel collapse of dams further downstream.
A 2012 Probe International report noted that “98.6% of all of these dams, and 99.7% of western China’s electricity generating capacity will be located in zones with a moderate to very high level of seismic hazard”. [See: Earthquake Hazards and Large Dams in Western China]
Adrian Moon, a geologist who has been monitoring earthquake activity on the Tibetan Plateau, southeast Tibet and west of Sichuan since 2009 contends that: “In an area like South-Eastern Tibet, with such complex geology and fault lines, just because nothing’s happened in the past doesn’t mean nothing will happen in the future,”
China has turned a blind eye to the warnings and continues its frenetic dam building on the Plateau, including six large hydropower dams on the Lancang(Mekong) River and the Rumei (or Rongmei in Tibetan) hydropower project, which once completed will be the second highest in the world at 315 meters.
More dams in Tibetan Plateau and other parts of the world.
In March this year, China set out its development plan for the next five years. According to its 13th Five Year Plan, China has successfully taken over the European Union in clean energy investment in the last five years and they further intend to dominate the clean technology market both at home and abroad for the next five years.
So, the question arises, will hydropower be considered the clean energy as described in the 13th Five Year Plan?
If so, there will be a further escalation in dam building on the Tibetan Plateau and other parts of the world.
The impacts of China’s dams on the Lower Riparian Countries
China’s control over Tibet brings a special privilege – that being the upper riparian country of most of Asia’s major rivers. Beijing is using this vantage point in the game of water diplomacy.
Since late 2015, countries along the Lancang-Mekong River have suffered from severe drought and the Chinese government blames it on El Nino weather phenomenon, as they always turn their blame away from their dams.
So, in order to show their leverage over riparian countries, China announced the release of emergency water supply from Jinghong Hydropower Station from May 15 till April 10, 2016 to help overcome drought in the Mekong Delta. From this we can observe that Beijing had already highlighted its dominance over the Mekong River and the downstream countries are dependent on China’s goodwill and charity of this life sustaining resource.
Likewise, geostrategist Brahma Chellaney had also described how China could use its leverage to deter downstream countries from challenging its broader regional interests, citing that “smaller downstream countries in Southeast and Central Asia now use only coded language to express their concerns over Chinese dam building. For example, calling for transparency has become a way of referring obliquely to China, which smaller states are wary of mentioning by name.”
One of the most recent examples of China using its vantage point as an upper riparian country is the stalled multi-billion dollar Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River (backed by China). Once completed, China will import 90% of the electricity generated, leaving hardly any profit to the people of Myanmar despite the fact that Myanmar suffers daily power shortages.
With the new government in power, the decision of resuming the project rests with the senior leadership, particularly Aung San Suu Kyi. If she decides to resume the project, it would seriously tarnish her claim of moral and political leadership and may even prompt protests in the country.
China continues to put pressure on Myanmar giving them three options regarding the future of the dam.
According to China, Myanmar can cancel the dam project and be liable to pay $800 million in compensation or resume work on the project and earn $500 million a year in revenue when it is completed, or do nothing and pay $50 million in interest for as long as it remains suspended.
Moreover, most of Myanmar’s rivers have their source on the Tibetan Plateau and China may use this as a tool to pressure the new government. Beijing, with its diplomatic and economic clout, has put the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in deep dilemma. On one hand, they have their own people who protest against the dam project and on the other, they have the Chinese government pressuring them to resume the dam project.
In addition, neighboring countries, like India and Nepal, are concerned over an increase in natural disasters in Tibet – such as glacial avalanche, mud floods, landslides, dammed rivers bursting and earthquakes.
When asked about the flooding from Tibet, officials from the Central Water Commission of India say they have concerns about flooding from Tibet too but they’re focused on dam building on Tibetan rivers. “If waters from them are released in a larger quantity, they may become floods and if we have no storage in the Indian portion, that may create havoc,” the Commission’s chairman, Ghanashyam Jha, told the BBC.
Considering the impact of China’s dam building spree on the Tibetan Plateau and in neighboring countries, this article is an attempt to highlight the importance of the need for South Asian countries to come together to seek sustainable ecological and cost effective solutions instead of continuing dam building through collaborative efforts.
There is no right without responsibility, so for China to represent as a responsible Asian power and upstream state on an international river, it has a duty to allow independent, comprehensive and expert assessment of the risks involved in the extension of dam projects in and around Tibet. Findings of the experts should be made available to the affected people and the countries downstream must be given due consideration acted upon by the Chinese government.
*Dechen Palmo is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.