India Fast Tracks Hydropower Dams in Response to China’s Brahmaputra River Diversion

Via Future Directions, an interesting report on how China’s US$62 billion South-North Water Transfer Project has India scrambling to establish a “prior use” claim over the affected water resources of the Brahmaputra River, streamlining a number of large-scale dam projects near the border:


The Brahmaputra is a strategic water resource for both India and China. In 2003, a Chinese plan to divert 40 billion cubic metres of water from the river was revealed, creating alarm in India. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Xi Jinping met late in October this year to discuss the ongoing dispute, but both failed to offer details of their respective development plans along the river. The dispute is fuelled by China’s battles with water scarcity and pollution and India’s attempts to improve its electricity supply, in the wake of the world’s largest power outage across Northern India in 2012.


China’s diversion of the Brahmaputra is intended to supply water to the arid Xinjiang region and Gansu province. China has serious issues with water scarcity; the World Bank estimates that shortages and pollution will cost it 2.3 per cent of national GDP this year. Earlier in 2013, China approved the construction of three new hydropower dams in the region. China’s track record on dam construction is chequered; the Chinese Dam situated on the border’s Great Bend was responsible for a large landslide in the late 2000s. India’s response to Chinese developments in the region is fuelled by security fears. India claims that Chinese control of dams along the Brahmaputra could potentially either limit the flow during dry periods, or cause flooding.

In a strategic move, India has fast-tracked a series of projects in the state of Arunachal Pradesh to establish prior use rights; pre-empting any Chinese threat over the river’s resources. Under international law, a country’s right to trans-boundary natural resources becomes stronger if it can prove it is putting the resources to use. Dams and other developments in Siang, Subansiri and Lohit basins will be granted rapid approval by the Government, with minimal need for environmental impact assessments. Construction in these areas, however, faces significant challenges including relocation and rehabilitation processes for local communities, seismic issues and a lack of infrastructure to support large scale construction.

Hydropower developments in India are regularly delayed by land acquisition issues and slow government approvals. Currently, hydroelectric dams only supply 17.43 per cent of India’s electricity capacity. The Brahmaputra is severely under-utilised for electricity production, with only one per cent of the river’s capacity currently in use. Thus, the development of dams in the region would serve to remedy security concerns about China, while also working to address substantial electricity shortages in India. A technical expert group has been assigned strategic duties over the developments, providing recommendations for the establishment of major dams in each of the three basins, as close to the Chinese border as possible. A 2000 megawatt (MW) dam project at the Subansiri basin has been specifically targeted, to establish India’s downstream rights of prior use; the aim is for a constant output of 250MW. This, and a number of other large storage dam projects, are being emphasised ahead of run of the river dams for their ability to supply water and electricity during off-peak flow periods. The Arunachal Pradesh state government is sceptical of the larger dam developments, however, due to the sensitive nature of community relocation processes, which could affect thousands of locals.

There is growing concern in India over the perceived military modernisation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region by China. India is also worried about the strategic aspect of China having control over sections of the Brahmaputra River. In the case of a military dispute, China could control the flow of strategic dams at will, altering India’s water supply. This dispute demonstrates how water resources in the region may be a precursor to future military conflict between the world’s two most populous countries.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 7th, 2013 at 8:45 am and is filed under China, India.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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