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China's Belligerence: Twisting flows, Weaponising water

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Update: 2021-07-15 20:46:37
China's Belligerence: Twisting flows, Weaponising water [photo collected]

In sync with contemporary geopolitics, it seems like China intends to take advantage of natural resources as a warfare strategy2 resembling the scorched earth policy3 in which enemy troops were devoid of resources necessary for survival. To this effect, China is constructing the world's largest dam in the Tibet Autonomous Region in an attempt to showcase its superiority in building infrastructure through an act that no other country has completed at any point in history.4

Furthermore, it has been reported that China intends to build hydropower plants on different rivers such as the Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and the Brahmaputra capable of generating power to the tune of 120 Gigawatts.5 On the western front, the country is financing and constructing the North Indus River Cascade by building dams in the Pakistan Administered Kashmir region,6 which is being widely perceived as a Himalayan Blunder.7 It is back in 2010 when China initiated the building of small dams alongside the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) mainstream of which two have already been completed and some more are expected to be ready soon.8 The world’s largest dam as proposed on the Yarlung Tsangpo is alone expected to support 60 Gigawatts of power generation, more than three times the capacity of China's existing large dam, the Three Gorges Dam.9 By influencing the flow, speed and direction of this massive river and its tributaries, China could essentially block  or divert the river to its advantage considering the large-scale infrastructure developments projects that are associated with the same. For instance,  the South-North Water Diversion Project and West-East Power Transfer Project and the linking of major rivers to take water from the water-rich regions to the water-stressed regions are all part of this grand plan of making China self sufficient with respect to water resources irrespective of the consequences for the lower riparian states.10 However, this has an inexcusable environmental price as seismologically, this zone is amongst the most vulnerable zones in the world harbouring the most nascent mountainous range i.e. the Himalayas. It is also capable of turning into a technological nightmare for construction activities which could eventually devastate the fragile ecology of the region.

No doubt, the above moves by China have evoked serious concerns in the lower riparian countries: India and Bangladesh. Though China has downplayed these anxieties, the apprehensions of these two countries are not out of the blue. The prevailing geopolitical situation and insatiable expansion of Chinese ambitions go hand in hand in fuelling these concerns. Dams constructed on the Mekong River could be considered a precursor to such a crisis giving a glimpse of what is bound to follow. For instance, during the 2019 Mekong basin drought11 the upper reaches in China received record rainfall but the dams were made to keep nearly all the water and hardly any of it flowed downstream despite the lower riparian states desperately seeking the same. Conversely, China's dams are suspected of causing floods, such as those a decade ago along the Mekong in Laos.12 China sees these projects as part of a tributary system wherein being the upper riparian state and the larger country in the region, it believes the lower riparian states which are comparatively smaller have no means of effectively resisting or engaging in a substantial bargain in the negotiations for water.13

China's intransigence on determining the course of these rivers has also led to suspicion that these constructions with blasting techniques intend to divert the flow towards China.14 It should be noted that China has also obstructed the movement of one of Brahmaputra's Tibetan tributaries on Xiabuqu River.15 Not long ago, China also tried to hinder the course of the Galwan River16 that originates in the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin area which recently witnessed clashes between the two countries – India and China.

With these gigantic dams, India's agriculture would also be severely affected as these structures would retain a substantial quantity of silt brought down by the river which otherwise add fertility to the soil in the lower regions and play a considerable role in the agriculture productivity of India's northeast & Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh being the lowest riparian state faces the worst threat.17 Most of the country's population resides in flood-prone areas of Padma, Meghna, Jamuna, and Barak. The excess water discharge in Jamuna (lower stream of Brahmaputra) could lead to massive floods, forcing the displacement of millions of people. This also has implications for the refugees who may try to take shelter in the neighbouring country which in turn may result in cross-border complications.18

As an upstream state China has an immense advantage in altering the flow of the river drainage system with the potential to significantly use the same as a threat/ tactic to bully the downstream states during any standoff. For instance, though India has a hydrological data-sharing agreement with China, during the Doklam confrontation, China unilaterally suspended the agreement19 affecting millions of lives who depend on these water bodies. Despite resuming status quo subsequently in 2018,20 this one act was a clear indication of China’s belligerence leaving a permanent mark of mistrust between the two countries with the realization that China is capable of weaponising natural resources as part of its pressure tactics. It is also probable that this very Chinese tendency of unilaterally hoarding resources led to the skirmish in Pangong Tso21 considering its proximity to Shaksgam valley, an area home to vast amounts of silica22 which is used as a raw material for the multibillion-dollar electronics chip industry & essentially gifted by Pakistan to China in 1963.

Moreover, the International Panel on Climate Change has highlighted23 in its reports that the Himalayan region is highly vulnerable to earthquakes and consequent natural disasters, owing to its unpredictable & volatile seismic movements. Any enhanced interference with its topology and ecology in the garb of modern infrastructure projects is likely to put the whole region and the billions of people living across sovereign boundaries under grave peril.

Nevertheless, China keeps arguing that these hydropower constructions on the Brahmaputra River are run-of-the-river dams, without any storage or diversion of flow being planned. However, independent experts assert that at no point can it be guaranteed that such projects would not cause diminished water flows downstream particularly during the dry seasons or conversely not cause floods during the monsoons. Thus, the concerns of the lower riparian states seem genuine as they need to battle excess monsoonal water discharge which could possibly inundate the states & trigger calamitous floods.24

Given the current global scenario and the threats of climate change, melting of glaciers, vulnerable ecosystem, erosion of fertile soil, frequent landslides and a weakened economy there is definitely a necessity then to enlarge the scope of cooperation beyond state players in order to fulfill regional aspirations. With a difficult natural landscape, the construction of dams is quite challenging technically within the limited approach of green engineering. As this piece goes to print, a major glacial portion of the Tibetan Plateau continues to melt and will possibly disappear soon. In fact, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change categorically asserts that the remaining glacier on the Tibetan plateau will also be gone soon if the current rate of destruction continues incessantly causing global warming and climate change.25 Augmented melting of glaciers, rise in sea level and intensifying temperatures could also increase the frequency of natural disasters. Admittedly, Chinese authorities are also aware of the risks involved in engaging in infrastructure projects in sensitive ecological zones given the avalanches and debris associated with such activities but that doesn’t seem to be deterring them from pursuing such environmentally damaging endeavours. Not just this, in the past China is known to have sabotaged a trans-boundary river26 by polluting it to the extent that it was rendered unfit for use having repercussions on human consumption, an impact on agriculture production and a bearing on the fisheries economy as well.27 

Critical Assessment
From a position of privilege, being the upper riparian state, China is a storehouse of information on the status of rivers and their water which if used well could aid in better flood management for lower riparian states and downstream rivers. It is this dependence on China for vital information that gives it an upper hand in manipulating and withholding critical water data. As in the case of India, with the lack of mutually agreed dispute-settlement mechanism on water sharing for the trans-boundary rivers, and with China's public refusal to submit to international dispute settlement,28 there are few diplomatic solutions available to concerned countries. India now has constrained options with efficient utilisation of domestic rivers and optimum harvesting of rainwater being some of the major possibilities. Other nations of Southeast Asia are also alarmed at China's denial of consulting with downstream neighbours.29 It is time nations in South and Southeast Asia negotiate with China as a united group for their survival. After all, physical features of nature know no boundaries and China must accept that their sustainable usage should not emerge from the hegemony of one country but rather remain the collective obligation of responsible nation-states.  

Writer: Salma Kouser Asif, an alumni Jawaharlal Nehru University, based in Hyderabad India

BDST: 1742 HRS, JULY 15, 2021
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