China is planning a massive dam in Tibet capable of generating three times the electricity generated by the Three Gorges – the world’s largest power plant – sparking fear among environmentalists in India.
The structure will span the Brahmaputra River before the waterway leaves the Himalayas and flows into India, crossing the world’s longest and deepest gorge at an altitude of more than 1,500 meters (4,900 feet).
The project in Medog County Tibet is expected to dwarf the record-breaking Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in central China, and is estimated to be capable of generating 300 billion kilowatts of electricity annually.
This was mentioned in China’s strategic 14th Five-Year Plan, which was launched in March at the annual congress of the country’s leading legislators. The river, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan, is also home to two other projects further upstream, while six others are either under construction or under construction.
Last October, the Tibetan regional government signed a “strategic cooperation agreement” with PowerChina, a public construction company that specializes in hydropower projects. A month later the head of PowerChina, Yan Zhiyong, revealed part of the project to the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of China’s ruling party.
Enthusiastic about “the richest region in the world in terms of hydroelectric resources”, Yan explained that the dam would draw its strength from the massive fall of rivers in this particular section.
Beijing may justify the massive project as an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but it risks sparking strong opposition from environmentalists in the same way as the Three Gorges Dam, which was built between 1994 and 2012.
The Three Gorges created reservoirs and displaced 1.4 million people upstream. “Building a dam the size of a super dam is likely a very bad idea for many reasons,” said Brian Eyler, director of the energy, water and sustainability program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank.
Apart from being known for its seismic activity, this area also has unique biodiversity. The dam will block fish migration as well as sediment flows that enrich the soil during seasonal flooding downstream, said Eyler.
There are ecological and political risks, said Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, an environmental policy specialist at the Tibetan Policy Institute, a think tank linked to the exiled Tibetan government based in Dharamshala, India.
“We have a very rich Tibetan cultural heritage in the area, and any dam construction will cause ecological damage, submerging parts of the region,” he told AFP.
“Many local residents will be forced to leave their ancestral homes,” he said, adding that the project will encourage the migration of Han Chinese workers who “gradually become permanent settlements”
New Delhi is also worried about the project. The Chinese Communist Party is effectively in a position to control the origins of most of South Asia’s water supplies, analysts said.
“Water wars are a key component of such wars because they allow China to increase its Tibet-centered upstream power over the most important natural resources,” political scientist Brahma Chellaney wrote last month in the Times of India. The risk of seismic activity will also be a “ticking water bomb” for residents downstream, he warned.
In response to the dam idea, the Indian government has raised the prospect of building another dam on the Brahmaputra to support its own water reserves.
“There is still plenty of time to negotiate with China about the future of the super dam and its impact. A bad result will see India build a dam downstream,” said Eyler.