The rapid pace of China’s dam construction, which includes at least eight new dams on Tibet’s Brahmaputra River, has raised concerns about Chinese attempts to throttle India’s water supply. The proposed dams on the Yarlun Tsangpo River in Tibet are close to the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh.
In this region, the Chinese have managed to build three dams on the Brahmaputra River at a distance of 24 km in 10 years. This construction of dams at an unprecedented speed and scale took place in Sangri Lokha, Tibet. The construction of a similar “triple dam” has been observed on the Nyan River near the town of Ningchi in Ningchi County, Tibet.
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Lokha, also known as Shanan, is in northeast Bhutan and south of Lhasa, while Ningchi is further east, both bordering Arunachal Pradesh.
To find out the purpose of these massive construction projects, the India Today OSINT team studied them using Google Earth imagery.
The ability of the Chinese to control India’s water supply has always been a legitimate concern. China could use this to cause floods or divert water that could dry up India’s rivers.
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A comparative analysis of satellite images of the Zangmo Dam shows how its width has quadrupled from 100m in 2012 when construction began to 400m as seen on August 4, 2020, while the water level has risen almost by 150 m.
Thus, the nearly 10 km long reservoir can hold more than 600 million cubic meters of water, indicating that a huge amount of water is under Chinese control in Tibet.
However, government sources say the construction of these dams is being closely monitored. “It’s something that has always been discussed closely between the two governments,” a government official monitoring developments in the matter claimed. Asserting that the threat of China using these dams to cause flash floods or block water into Indian territory is not visible, the sources said.
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Amid the India-China military standoff in eastern Ladakh, Chinese activities, including the construction of dams along the Indian border, are again under the scanner.
New dams have been proposed on the Brahmaputra
China has proposed to build eight more dams on the Brahmaputra River in Tibet. These dams are to be built over the next 10 years in Bayu, Jieksi, Langta, Dakpa, Nang, Demo, Namcha and Metok, which each have less than a hundred households. This has led to speculation that the purpose of these dams is only to build reservoirs and export electricity from Tibet to mainland China.
The need for general data on the construction of dams, water flow
Satellite images show very clearly that China is not building a large number of dams on the Brahmaputra River for the benefit of the Tibetan people. The area is sparsely populated and the electricity requirements in the region can be met by a single hydroelectric project such as the Zangmo Dam.
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The Chinese may also aim to use the reservoirs of these dams, such as the Dagu Dam, to divert Brahmaputra water to Xinjiang or arid areas in Central China. Evidence of such sabotage has yet to emerge. However, reports cite local residents talking about it in recent years.
A third and perhaps most worrisome explanation for China’s stockpiling of water in eleven dams on the Brahmaputra River may be control of water flowing to India.
Experts believe that China’s dam construction is a key concern and the Chinese administration should be more transparent about it. Ambika Vishwanath, director of the Kubernetes Initiative, follows water diplomacy and security around the world. He believes that not only the quantity of water but also the quality should be a concern in the long run.
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“There needs to be a closer study of not only the quantity of water flow, but also the quality, which can be extremely harmful in the long run. This can have an impact on the lives of people in downstream areas. There is very little information and insight into the region. The entire Himalayas are a black hole of data,” says Ambika. He added: “Scientists, researchers need more access to those areas and need more data to understand the short-term and long-term impacts to help make better policies.”
Ambika also says that one way to ensure more transparency is through joint initiatives such as data sharing or building dams under joint river basin management, but that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. “If there are joint constructions, then the responsibility is also distributed for the maintenance of the facilities located in one of the parties,” he notes.
Using water supply as a weapon against India.
Blocking India’s water supply for even a few days could cause rivers to dry up across the country.
On the other hand, many feel that the low-lying areas of India will be completely flooded if China suddenly releases all this stored water, as seen with the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province. A targeted release of water from all the Brahmaputra dams could wreak havoc in India, many believe.
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Under Indo-China bilateral agreements, China is expected to share monsoon data with India to monitor water levels and prepare for floods.
After Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh, the Brahmaputra river widens to a width of 10 km. Its width varies from 8 to 10 km in Assam. Bridges in these states are surprisingly smaller than the width of the river. Every year during the monsoons, the bridges are washed away with their supports almost always underwater.
Close monitoring of these dams will provide 15-day early warning, as that is the time it takes for river water to flow from Lokha district of Tibet in Pasighat Arunachal Pradesh.
Zangmo, Gyatsa and Dagu
There are three dams on the main Brahmaputra river, built unusually close together. These dams are located at a very short distance of 24 km. With only the village of Gyatsa and a population of barely 150 farms, having three dams is unprecedented.
While the Zangmo Dam has been commissioned, the Gyatsa Dam has been completed and is awaiting commissioning. The third and largest of the three, the Dagu Dam has been under construction since 2017.
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Dagu surprisingly has two inlets and two outlets, with water passing through the mountain, despite being a hydroelectric dam on the river. Such dams have power generators underground, below the dam, and do not require additional tunnels for water flow.
This led to suspicions, supported by rumors, that Brahmaputra water could be diverted to the arid Xinjiang deserts through underground tunnels using the Dagu Dam. When all three are completed, the triple dams will be able to store almost one billion cubic meters of water in their reservoirs.
Pagsum, Langsai and Nyang
The three dams in the Nyanchi district are being built on a tributary called the Nyang, which feeds the Brahmaputra River. The Pagsum, Langsa and Nyang dams are much smaller in size but hold enough water to add to the flow of the Brahmaputra River.
In October and November 2018, there were rumors that China had dammed the Brahmaputra River and the flow of water almost stopped. The water was also reported to be unusually murky at the time.
Satellite images revealed much later that a large landslide from the southeast face of Mount Sodong Ri had almost completely blocked the Brahmaputra.
International obligations dictate that China must seek permission from downstream countries before building a dam upstream of the Brahmaputra River. Despite bilateral agreements with India, China is yet to share any data in this regard.
Although New Delhi pays Beijing a whopping Rs 80 lakh every year for this data, the response India gets from the Chinese every time is the same. The water of the Brahmaputra river washes the measuring instruments.
(Source: India Today)