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China plans to build a super dam on the Brahmaputra river, rises security and environmental concerns in Tibet and India

The proposed structure will be laid over the Brahmaputra River, just before the river leaves the Himalayas and enters India, at a height of 4900 feet, across the world's deepest and longest canyon.

China is planning to build a super dam on the Brahmaputra River in Tibet which will dwarf the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power project in the world. The dam is expected to produce triple the amount of electricity that the Three Gorges Dam produces at 300 billion kilowatts. This potential project has raised serious political concerns for India, on top of the grave environmental concerns.

The proposed structure will be laid over the Brahmaputra River, just before the river leaves the Himalayas and enters India, at a height of 4900 feet, across the world’s deepest and longest canyon. It is located close to the Indo-Tibet border at Arunachal Pradesh.

The proposed project is mentioned in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, which was released in March at an annual congress of China’s top leaders and lawmakers. However, the plan does not have any details attached to it yet, including timeframe or budget.

The Brahmaputra River is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet. The river already has two other projects built on it, with six more either in the planning stages or under construction. However, the super dam, which would be the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world when constructed, would be a much more massive project in scale.

The Project’s history

In October 2020, the local Tibetan government under China signed a “strategic cooperation agreement” with PowerChina, a specialized construction company with regard to hydroelectric projects.

After a month, the head of PowerChina, Yan Zhiyong, partially revealed the project ‘Medog Dam’ to the youth wing of China’s ruling party, the Communist Youth League.

Sharing his enthusiasm about “the world’s richest region in terms of hydroelectric resources”, Yan Zhiyong explained that the super dam would draw its electric power from the huge drop of the river at this particular section.

Serious concerns raised regarding the project

The proposed project has raised some serious political concerns for India, with analysts noting that the Chinese Communist Party is in a prime position to control the water supply of much of the Indian subcontinent.

Brahma Chellaney, an acknowledged geo-strategist writes, “Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centred power over the most essential natural resource.”

The Brahmaputra mega-dam, which is to be built in a seismically active area vulnerable to earthquakes, will be a “ticking water bomb” for communities residing downstream, warns Chellaney.

“The expanding water war is clearly part of China’s integrated, multidimensional strategy against India, which seeks to employ all available means short of open war. Its unconventional war is profoundly impacting every core Indian interest,” Mr. Chellaney wrote.

There are also grave environmental concerns associated with this project, partly because of the legacy of the Three Gorges Dam which displaced 1.4 million inhabitants upstream.

“Building a dam the size of the super-dam is likely a really bad idea for many reasons,” said Brian Eyler, a program director at the Stimson Center, a U.S. think tank.

In addition to being known for its seismic activity, the area also contains unique biodiversity which would be severely threatened by the project. The dam would block the migration of fish and sediment flow which makes the soil fertile during seasonal floods downstream, Eyler said.

Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, an environmental policy expert at the Tibet Policy Institute, noted, “We have a very rich Tibetan cultural heritage in those areas, and any dam construction would cause ecological destruction, submergence of parts of that region.”

“Many local residents would be forced to leave their ancestral homes,” he said, adding that the project will encourage migration of Han Chinese workers that “gradually becomes a permanent settlement”, further eroding the historic and ethnic demography of Tibet.

In reaction to this super dam idea, India has floated the prospect of building another dam downstream on the Brahmaputra River in order tp shore up its own water reserves.

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