Concerns Arise Over China's Dam Building Drive in Tibet

by Richard Finney
Map showing the Yarlung Tsangpo river, going from west to east in Tibet and then turning south into India and Bangladesh as the Brahmaputra.

Updated at 09:45 p.m. on 2013-04-23

China’s construction of a series of dams on the Tibetan Plateau has raised concerns both among neighboring countries downstream and among experts, who fear adverse environmental impacts including the interruption of water flows on shared rivers and the possibility of earthquakes.

To feed its growing demand for energy, China is building a hydropower dam called the Zangmu on Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River, which flows into India and Pakistan as the Brahmaputra, and plans to build three others.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Tibet, China is building a series of dams on rivers that flow into Southeast Asia.

“Our concerns about the possible impact of these dams include the potential impact on downstream nations’ access to a safe, stable water supply,” Alison Reynolds, executive director of the International Tibet Network, said in a statement last month.

Other concerns include “the risks of damming rivers in areas of seismic activity, and threats to the most bio-diverse region in the world.”

More dams planned

China may eventually build as many as 60 dams on the Tibetan Plateau, with 20 already built or under construction, and another 40 in the planning stages, Reynolds told RFA.

“China is rapidly building hydro dams in Tibet,” acknowledged Australia-based Tibet environmental expert Gabriel Lafitte.

These include “an extraordinary cascade series on all major rivers as they descend from the plateau, with electricity sent by ultra-high-voltage cable all the way to Guangzhou and Shanghai,” said Lafitte, author of a forthcoming book on Chinese mining operations called Spoiling Tibet.

Where reservoirs are built, “the impoundment of such huge amounts of water will be harmful for migratory fish and other species, and may even be heavy enough to trigger earthquakes,” Lafitte said.

India's concerns

Meanwhile, news media and politicians in India have expressed alarm over China’s construction of the large Zangmu dam on Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River, fearing interruptions in water flows to downstream countries.

Reductions in water flow have already occurred in Southeast Asian countries fed by the Mekong River, on whose upper reaches China has built a series of reservoirs and dams.

But the Zangmu and other dams China is currently building on the Yarlung Tsangpo River are run-of-the-river projects, said Tashi Tsering, a PhD candidate in Resource Management and Environmental Studies at the University of British Columbia.

“So it may be—as several Indian leaders [now] seem convinced—that these will not impact water flows into India,” Tsering said.

“However, the concern is that not just one or two dams, but a series of dams, will be built on the river.”

“No one knows how all of these dams will cumulatively affect the river’s environment and flow—especially given the uncertainties of the impact of climate change on the glaciers that feed these rivers,” Tsering said.

China has previously told India that the development of dams upstream will not harm downstream interests, noting especially that the Zangmu dam is a run-of-the-river hydroelectric project, "which does not store water and will not adversely impact the downstream areas in India."

Willing to talk?

China’s new president Xi Jinping has signaled a willingness to address India’s concerns, said Ed Grumbine, a visiting scholar with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province.

Xi met with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of an international meeting held in South Africa last month, “and they discussed getting together to discuss specifics of the dam that may impact India,” Grumbine said.

“Singh initiated [the discussion] and got a positive response,” Grumbine said. “We’ll see what happens next.”

But China will likely be no more open with India than it has been with Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong, said Brahma Chellaney, an Indian expert on transnational water issues and author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

“Beijing is neither willing to share with New Delhi the technical designs of its dam project nor to permit on-site scrutiny. Furthermore, China refuses to enter into institutionalized water sharing or other cooperative arrangements with any other downstream riparian state.”

“This has been all talk and no joint cooperation thus far,” Chellaney said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included incorrect paraphrasing of a quote by Tashi Tsering of the University of British Columbia.


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