The Race for Dams in the Great Himalaya

Last November, the biggest hydroelectric dam in Tibet started to produce electricity. Standing 3,300 meters above sea level, the RMB9.6 billion (US$1.54 billion) dam sent ripples of concern across the neighboring state of India.

That is because the Zangmu Dam is on the Yarlung Zangbo River which in India becomes the Brahmaputra, whose lower reaches are sacred to Hindus. The dam is a part of a chain of dams China has planned to build in the Himalayas, indicative of a continuing dams race in the region. In response to the official announcement about the working of the dam, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that they knew that the dam was “coming up.” In 2013, India already cautioned China “to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas" of the river.

The race for dams in the Himalayas affects all of the river systems flowing out of the Tibetan glacier – the Ganges, the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy, the Yangtze and many more. The race could turn the region into a virtual desert if it continues unabated, environmentalists say. During the past three decades, tens of millions of people have been displaced in India and China due to the construction of big dams such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in India and the Three Gorges on the Yangtze.

But geopolitics overshadows human misery and destruction of ecology. Little attention is being paid to human and environmental factors. No state has actually put forward any comprehensive plan for rehabilitation of those who would be directly affected. Although some states such as India have assured their citizens that large scale dislocations would not occur and that many of the projects are merely run-off-the-river electricity generation units, whenever people have been displaced due to the construction of hydro-electric projects, dams and other such things, relocation fails due to one basic reason: they are unable to adjust to the new locality they are shifted to.

Not only India but other Southeast Asian states have also repeatedly voiced their concerns over China’s massive dam projects. Construction in China has been vociferously blamed for reduced water flow into and sudden flooding of the Mekong River, which flows into Southeast Asia and is a source of life for millions of people. As such, massive dam construction in the Tibetan region in the great Himalayas is also regarded as having serious ramifications for the lower riparian states.

In response to such widespread concerns, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in late 2014 that “the hydropower stations China builds will not affect the flood prevention and ecological system of downstream areas."

However, China is certainly not the only state involved in harnessing the waters of the Himalayas. As a matter of fact, a number of regional states, especially India, are also planning and or constructing hundreds of dams. Not only is this a part of the strategy to meet national needs and to cater for the ever growing population’s needs, but it is also geostrategic necessity. Control over the flow of water directly translates into a strategic asset and can potentially be used as a weapon in the wake of war or as a threat to deter any possible aggression from an adversary state.

Such a situation is certainly a direct result of the peculiar geographical configuration of this part of the world. Conflict over water resources is a function of upper-lower riparian relations. India, as both an upper and lower riparian country, thus finds itself in dispute with downstream neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh, which accuse it of attempting to dominate water flows. India rejects these claims. However, ironically enough, India fears the same of upstream China, which has plans to build large dams over, for instance, the Tsangpo River, which flows into eastern India, also into the Brahmaputra.

Angry Indian politicians, activists, bloggers and journalists claim that water-starved China (with 8 percent of the world's fresh water but 20 percent of its population) has plans to divert the Tsangpo/Brahmaputra to farmers in its central and eastern regions. Feelings ran so high that India's former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, felt obliged to issue a statement saying that China's leaders had assured him there were no such plans afoot.

Apart from China and India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan are also fast-running actors in a huge race for dams as they seek new sources of electricity to power their economies. Taken together, the countries have plans for more than 400 hydro dams which, if built, could together provide more than 160,000MW of electricity. In addition to these projects, China alone is going to construct 100 dams to generate a similar amount of power from major rivers rising in Tibet. A further 60 or more dams are being planned for the Mekong river which also rises in the Tibetan plateau and flows south through south-east Asia.

This is perhaps the largest heist for dams going on anywhere around the world. Partly it is a result of fast growing populations and partly a result of the fact that many of these states, or their sub-regions, don’t receive much rainfall and are forced to build dams to store water. A major part of Pakistan is dry and receives too little rain to provide for basic agricultural needs.

However, these factors must not lead us to shut our eyes to the imminent danger that this part of the world—countries that depend upon the Himalayan rivers—faces. The Himalayan glaciers are melting. A Dutch study conducted a few years ago reckoned that shrunken glaciers will cut the flow of the Indus by some 8 percent by mid-century. Flows may also get less regular, especially if glacial dams form, withholding water, and then collapse, causing floods.

It is a fact that most of the Himalayan Rivers until now remained largely untouched by dams near their base sources. However, the situation has changed fast in a few recent years. Many of the proposed dams would be among the tallest and highest in the world, able to generate a massive amount of electricity (4,000 MW according to some estimates) and store huge amounts of water.

The result of such a massive politico-economic and strategic campaign could be extremely dangerous, however. It could turn the Himalayas into what R. Edward Grumbine, an authority on the region, calls “the most dammed region in the world.”

Others have given even scarier predictions. Sundeep Waslekar, who heads a Mumbai think-tank, the Strategic Foresight Group, which has picked water as a long-term threat to Asian stability, sees a “mega-arc of hydro insecurity” emerging from western China along the Himalayas to the Middle East and farther west.

It is believed that the strain of bigger populations, diminishing water tables and a changing climate could all conspire to produce a storm of troubles. South Asia is especially vulnerable: Waslekar foresees a cut of 20 percent in total available fresh water over the next two decades.

Ironically, the states involved in this water heist are aware of these facts. Their decision to build more and more dams and enhance storage capacity are precisely based on the fact that fresh water will be short in future. Instead of devising ways and means of greater co-operation at the regional level to conserve water, the governments in South and Southeast Asia are instead resorting to building dams for storage. The question is: what would they store when availability of fresh water in coming decades is itself a question mark?

Although states, especially lower riparian states, do need dams to control floods that are emerging due to environmental fluctuations, another fact stands out: this water heist is geostrategy rather than for human needs. Take, for instance, China which is involved in building dams not only in China but also in many other states. Within its own territory, China is building multiple dams on all the major rivers running off the Tibetan plateau, and is therefore most likely to emerge as the ultimate controller of water for nearly 40 percent of the world's population.

That is a massive strategic advantage for an emerging super–power, which would allow it to turn this advantage over waters into political advantage. On the other hand, China is also involved in financing and building mega-dams in Pakistan, Laos, Burma and elsewhere and making agreements to take the power. It leaves minimum of doubt that in the long run China would utilize this capacity as a form of power to manipulate not only domestic but also foreign policies of these states towards its own advantage.

This policy is, however, not restricted to China alone. During last two years or so, and perhaps still, India too has been trying to gain similar advantages in neighboring states. Both India and China have remained, in the recent past, locked in competition for construction contracts in Bhutan and Burma as well, two countries that are similarly spanned by the Himalayas.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel