Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bend it like Beijing

Bend it like Beijing

November 10, 2015

China's increasing willingness to dam up the Brahmaputra in Tibet sparks fears of India losing out in the race for harnessing hydropower.

The Zangmu hydropower station in Gyaca county in Lhoka, Tibet. Photo: Getty images

On October 13, China operationalised its first major dam on the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlung Zangbo in China and Siang in Arunachal Pradesh), a 510-MW hydropower project at Zangmu, 140 km southeast of Lhasa on the river's middle reaches. The project, triggering concern in India about the impact on downstream flows, could, however, be just the beginning of a Chinese plan to build a series of dams to tap the river's fierce waters in Tibet for hydropower.

Zhang Boting, the deputy secretary general of the Chinese Society of Hydropower Engineers, an influential pro-hydropower advisory group, believes the Brahmaputra is the country's last great energy hope. "This river alone," says Zhang, "has the power for two Three Gorges dams," referring to the 22.5-GW mega-dam that China built on the Yangtze river, and is the world's largest.

If Zhang has his way, China will in the coming decade embark on its most-ambitious hydropower project, surpassing the Three Gorges in scale and power: a 38-GW mega-dam that will come up right on the Brahmaputra's Great Bend, a stunning canyon where the river drops ferociously over close to 1,000 metres before it changes course towards India.

Chinese and Indian officials, as well as hydropower experts, say the Zangmu dam will have minimal impact downstream as it is a "run-of-the-river" project without a large reservoir, and doesn't divert the river's waters. However, what may worry India is a series of projects that Chinese companies have planned for the river. New proposals for dams put forward by the Chinese government and state-run hydropower firms, and interviews with officials and experts in Beijing, suggest that there is a willingness to proceed with projects that were earlier seen as either technically challenging or too costly. With Beijing moving forward with an ambitious target to reduce carbon emissions, announced when President Xi Jinping visited the US in September, coupled with a slowdown in China's nuclear sector amid ongoing safety reviews, the government appears to be betting increasingly on hydropower as the way forward


In March, the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region government's National People's Congress (NPC) approved plans to develop hydropower projects, highlighting three projects on the Yarlung Zangbo: a 640-MW dam upstream of Zangmu in Dagu, a second dam in Jiexu estimated at 500 MW, and a smaller 321-MW dam in Jiacha (see graphic). The three projects were approved in 2013, and the NPC report called for them to be accelerated, suggesting they may be operationalised within three years.

Leading the charge is the Gezhouba Group, a state-owned hydropower firm based in Wuhan in central China. The heads of Gezhouba wield more power than officials of China's environment regulatory authority that is responsible for approving dams, according to a former official of the National Development and Reform Commission, the top planning body. On its website, Gezhouba has announced an ambitious agenda to pursue projects in Tibet, including at Motuo, or Medog, at the Great Bend. The company estimates China's next two five-year plans-the 13th (2016-2020) and 14th (2021-2025)-will push hydropower plans more aggressively in Tibet, specially after 2020. Details of a new dam posted on Gezhouba's website underline the firm's keenness to build a hydropower base in Motuo. The plans reveal that it has already invested 2 billion yuan (around Rs 2,000 crore) in a dam in Motuo-not on the main reaches of the Zangbo but on a connected tributary. Gezhouba expects all four units to go into operation by the end of this year.

Zhang argues that there is a need to build dams "on the whole of Yarlung Zangbo". It will help "manage water better and also generate a great quantity of electricity and reduce the use of fossil power and greenhouse gas emissions". He says that hydropower projects can provide the equivalent of 250 million tonnes of raw coal. "If China wants to reduce emissions, the energy will have to come from hydropower. Although China's wind energy generation is the highest in the world, it is only equal to one-sixth of hydropower." The proposed Motuo dam alone, he says, will provide energy equivalent to what 100 million tonnes of coal would yield.

The downstream impact

India's North-eastern states, specially Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, are alarmed by China's plans on the Brahmaputra. While Assam CM Tarun Gogoi has flayed the Narendra Modi-led central government for failing to stop the Chinese dam as it would "cause irreparable damage" to India, people in Arunachal Pradesh's Pasighat recall the flood in 2000 caused by the collapse of a dam on the Yigong river in Tibet.

On June 9, 2000, the water level of the Siang rose suddenly by 30 metres, inundating almost all of Pasighat. "I had never seen such a catastrophe," says Oyen Moyang, 51, who has farmland on the banks of the Siang at 21 Miles in Pasighat. Moyang got another shock of his life in March 2012 when he found the Siang dry near his farmland. Moyang's kin Tako Dabi, who was then the adviser to Arunachal Pradesh CM Nabam Tuki, went public suggesting that China's dams in Tibet could have stopped water from reaching Arunachal Pradesh.

However, expert opinion is divided on how China's grand plans will affect lower riparian India and Bangladesh.

Currently, there are no Chinese plans to divert the river's waters despite persisting alarm about diversion projects. Beijing's planners have long discussed adding a western route to an ambitious 'South-to-North Water Diversion Project' that will transfer 40 billion cubic metres of water every year from the Yangtze river to the dry north. Adding the Yarlung Zangbo to this project has been shelved for now.

Narendra Modi with Xi Jinping in Xi'an, China. Photo: Getty images

"The theories of China utilising the Brahmaputra through dam constructions that will eventually dry up the river do not hold true as long as these proposed projects are limited only to non-consumptive uses such as hydropower," says Nayan Sharma, professor at the Water Resources Development and Management Department at IIT-Roorkee. He estimates that 40 per cent of the annual stream flow of the Brahmaputra comes from the catchment area in China. But there is no agreement on this figure, and Sharma stresses the need for estimates and data "to be thoroughly verified to establish the exact flow dependency on China". The Brahmaputra's tributaries within Indian territory along with precipitation in India also contribute to its supply.

Big dams vs small dams

Experts say run-of-the-river dams such as the Zangmu project will have a minimal impact on downstream flows. However, if China goes ahead with a series of dams, and particularly a project at the Great Bend, there will likely be a long-term impact on both downstream flows and the river's ecosystem. Tashi Tsering, an expert on Tibet's water resources at the University of British Columbia, says the speed with which China is going forward with the Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha projects is "alarming".

"It's only been a few years since projects got operationalised. Now, they are in the middle reaches. They will slowly go lower down, and then to the Great Bend," he says. A dam on the Great Bend, he adds, will "have a huge impact even if it is run-of-the-river". "The whole point of a dam on the Great Bend is to tap the huge drop in altitude of the river over a short distance. It will require blockage of water and a reservoir. The impact of a potential dam burst will be unprecedented."

"The blocking of sediment by dam means blocking of the nutrients in it and it affects agriculture. Dams also obstruct passage of fish and other water species," says Debojit Baruah who teaches botany at Lakhimpur Girls' College in North Lakhimpur, Assam, a district on the banks of the Brahmaputra bordering Arunachal Pradesh.

Beijing's planners stress that these dams that aim to generate electricity-and not divert or store large quantities of water-will not have an adverse impact on downstream flows. "These dams will be beneficial to India. It has an equalisation effect on the volume of water, reducing yield in the floods season and increasing it in the dry season," Zhang says, pointing to how the US saw it as in its interests to urge upper riparian Canada to dam the Columbia river.

Even officials in India's Ministry of Water Resources claim that dams on Brahmaputra are the only way to avoid devastations caused by floods in Assam. The Brahmaputra's flow in the normal season is 40,000 cumecs, measured at Pandu near Guwahati. In spate, it touches 69,000 cumecs. "If we build a mega-dam on Siang, it will not only be able to control floods but also provide additional water during lean season," says a ministry official.

Independent experts say for energy needs India must explore hydropower potential but in ecologically sensitive areas such as the North-east, the best way forward will be construction of small multi-purpose dams. "As the North-east falls in zone five of seismic zones in India, there will certainly be concerns over big dams as dam breaks will have devastating impacts. The North-east needs power and hydropower is a clean source. So the solution can be found in several small dams instead of a few mega-dams to minimise environmental impact," says Shyam Kanu Mahanta, an expert on river dams.

India's diplomatic outreach

Indian officials say they are monitoring Chinese projects and are in close contact with Beijing on the issue. "We are in touch with the Chinese side at various levels," says Indian Ambassador to China, Ashok Kantha. "Our objective is to move towards an expanded framework of cooperation for trans-border rivers. We have an expert-level mechanism which meets and shares hydrological data." During PM Modi's May visit to China, both sides agreed to broaden the scope of the mechanism and exchange views on issues concerning both countries, beyond data-sharing. A senior Indian official points out that it is not easy for China to hide what it is doing on the river today compared with a decade ago due to availability of satellite imagery.

While India continues to push China diplomatically for more information through its expert-level mechanism, the fact is that in the absence of a water-sharing treaty, the scope of India's recourse in stopping future projects is limited. China was one of three nations to vote against the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which seeks to strike a balance between upstream and downstream interests. India had abstained from voting.

Officials in the water resources ministry admit India is certain it cannot stop China from building more dams on the Zangbo. So it now aims to counter China's dams with its own projects on the river in Arunachal Pradesh, which India estimates has a potential of 54 GW. According to ministry officials, it will earn India a geopolitical advantage in Southeast Asia. "India can sell power to Bangladesh and Myanmar. This power dependency will give India an edge over China in terms of diplomatic and economic relationship with these two countries," says a ministry official.

But even to start such projects, India will have to wait, at least until the 2016 assembly polls in Assam. The state has witnessed anti-dam protests leading to complete halt of work on the 2,000-MW dam at Subansiri river along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, and before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had taken a position against building this dam. However, last year Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal's comment, saying that the government will ensure that the dam is completed, was resented even by the state BJP leadership. The BJP would not like to rake up the issue as the state is split down the middle on the debate over the ecological impact of river dams on the state. "We will create public opinion in favour of dams once we come to power after the 2016 polls. Until then, we would not like to touch this volatile issue," says a top Assam BJP leader.

Sharma says besides the obvious energy benefits to deficit states in the North-east, India "is also aware that under international law, a country's right over natural resources it shares with other nations becomes stronger if it is already putting these resources to use". "China has already begun first use of the Brahmaputra waters. If India does not move fast and establish its claims over water use, it could lose out in subsequent water-sharing discussions under international law."

Yet there is danger in such a response, cautions Tsering. China will likely respond to an Indian dam-building push by speeding up its own projects. Given China's record in executing such projects, India will be in a disadvantageous position. Doing so, he adds, will also antagonise lower riparian Bangladesh, whose support India will need if it aims to arrive at a joint management mechanism of the Brahmaputra basin with China.

The best-case outcome for India, experts say, is pushing China towards a more robust arrangement on trans-border rivers. "The popular myth that China does not go into water-sharing agreements with others needs to be dispelled as China has signed river water-sharing agreements with Mongolia, North Korea, Russia and Kazakhstan, the most recent being signed in 2011. These agreements have been brokered without involving any international arbitration," says Sharma.

Dispute redressal mechanism

Brahma Chellaney, an expert on trans-border rivers and professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, notes that India has water pacts with all its riparian neighbours except China. Treaties with Pakistan and Bangladesh contain dispute-settlement mechanisms. China's experience in this regard is mixed. India is not the only neighbour worried about Beijing's dam-building plans. Dams in Yunnan on the Mekong river have alarmed lower riparian Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, who have set up a joint inter-governmental Mekong River Commission to manage the river.

To the west, China's disputes with Kazakhstan stretch back for over a decade when Chinese projects on the Ili and Irtysh rivers resulted in decreased water flows and pollution problems. While China initially dragged its feet over addressing Kazakh fears, it finally signed a treaty in 2011. This change in stance followed an increasingly close relationship between the two countries. China began turning to Kazakhstan for both energy imports and support in tackling a growing terrorism problem in the border province of Xinjiang, underlining that Beijing is indeed willing to play ball when it suits its own interests.