Trouble Brewing on the Brahmaputra

There is little doubt that China is becoming more assertive on the world stage. Once again, China has set off concerns in its South Asian neighbours, this time by announcing plans to install hydro-electric dams on the Brahmaputra. But assertive dam building is no outlier in Chinese policy. Both domestically and internationally, China has a history of controversial dam-building and hydro-engineering projects; the new Brahmaputra Dam is little different.

Image courtesy of PP Yoonus, © 2010, public domain

Image courtesy of PP Yoonus, © 2010, public domain

The Brahmaputra begins as the Yarlung Tsampo, flowing eastwards through Tibet. After 1,625 kilometres, it makes a massive turn southwards at the Great Bend, heading towards India. It flows through Assam state, over six miles wide at points, before joining with the Ganges in Bangladesh to form the largest river delta in the world. Unsurprisingly, the river is essential to the economic stability, as well as the cultural legacies, of the areas through which it flows. Agriculture depends on it, and as the population of both countries continues to grow, each state’s water endowment is stretched more thinly every year.

The Brahmaputra project has two parts. One is a series of hydroelectric generators which would dam a significant amount of the rivers flow. In addition to blocking the river’s flow, the intermittent operation of turbines ‘means that the waters are held back in pondage and released when the turbines need to operate, resulting in huge diurnal variations – from 0 percent to 400 percent in a day – in downstream flows,’ according to Ramaswamy Iyer. The result would be the devastation of all wildlife downstream from the dam. The second part of the plan is a diversion of a portion of the rivers flow north, to irrigate agriculture in central China, or perhaps to add volume to the currently low level of the Yangzi River. But the second project is less likely to occur: though the river flows through Tibet at 3500 metres, it would be necessary to haul the water another 1000 metres uphill. It is feasible, but the costs and technical complications make the completion of the project unlikely.

The damming of the Brahmaputra River is no doubt a massive threat to the livelihoods, and food security of those living in riparian areas downstream. Assam State has lagged behind the rest of India economically since the 1970’s, and much of the state’s economy is still reliant on agriculture, particularly tea production.  Blocking even a portion of the flow of the Brahmaputra would prove devastating to Assam state’s agriculture sector, and would have similar effects even further downstream in Bangladesh.

This is not the first time that Chinese domestic dam building has had serious impacts on Chinese foreign relations. China has built a number of dams across the Mekong, upstream of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar. As with the Brahmaputra, the Mekong begins its course in Tibet, flowing through China for a great distance before crossing borders into Southeast Asia. According to Michael Richardson, ‘Cambodia’s great central lake Tonle Sap, the nursery of the lower Mekong’s fish stocks, and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, its rice bowl, were particularly at risk from changes to the river’s unique cycle of flood and drought.’ Damming the Mekong weakens this cycle, and so will lead to irreparable damage to the ecosystems of Southeast Asia. Though the hydro-electric potential of the Mekong is massive, electricity generation must be balanced other economic needs. As long as China continues to unilaterally construct dams on the Mekong without consulting the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission, such careful balancing of needs cannot take place.

On the other side of China entirely, the Irtysh river flows from the Altai Mountains through Xinjiang Autonomous Region, crossing the border into Kazakhstan and then Russia. Again, Chinese water usage has led to concerns from Kazakh environmentalists. China has implemented policies attempting to increase Han migration to the province, which has greatly increased domestic water use in Xinjiang. Similarly, industrial development requires a great deal of water, which has been retained through the usage of dams over the Irtysh. The damming of the Irtysh and other rivers in Xinjiang has been accomplished in the absence of international input through regional bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

It seems then, that a clear pattern of behaviour has been established. Dates for the beginning of China’s assertive often begin in 2006. But looking at the record of Chinese dam construction on transnational water ways, such assertive policy has a much longer record than that. China began its series of dams across the Mekong in 1986. Project 635 Dam across the Irtysh was began in 1998. To say that China’s assertiveness is a recent development, then, is to ignore a history of decisive policies on transnational waterways.

The structural logic here makes sense. China is most effective at asserting itself when it negotiates with its neighbours directly rather going through multilateral institutions where it’s influence is more diluted. It has attempted to do exactly the same with regards to many of the ongoing disputes over territorial waters in the South China Sea. The clearest example is China’s refusal to submit to international arbitration to resolve disputes over the Spratly Islands with the Philippines. In bilateral negotiations, China is much more powerful than any one of its neighbours—it is harder to exercise that power via a multilateral institution.

However, Chinese dam construction is not limited to Chinese soil. The famous Myitsone Dam, planned to be built at the head of the Irrawaddy in Myanmar’s unstable Kachin state, has been controversial since its inception in 2005. Construction began in 2007, but was halted by President Thein Sein in 2011. The Chinese government has pressed for its resumption, to the point of straining Sino-Myanmar relations. Environmentalists are concerned about the dam’s effect on the Irrawaddy’s fishing and rice industries; with 90% of the dam’s electricity being returned to China, it’s not hard to see why Myanmar’s people might find the dam objectionable.

Similarly controversial projects exist all over Asia and Africa. The Merowe Dam at the Nile’s fourth cataract in the Sudan has displaced 50,000 people without a proper environmental assessment. Sinohydro Corp, one of the largest dam-building companies, has also been involved in the controversial Murum Dam on Sarawak, as well as projects in Ghana and Indonesia.

Dam building is a major part of China’s assertive foreign policy. Moreover, aggressive damming of transnational waterways predates what some scholars consider the beginning of China’s period of assertive foreign policy in 2006. While it’s clear that the dam building programs of state-owned companies have expanded internationally in recent years, dam building is only one of the many facets of an increasingly assertive China.