Among the slew of newly approved dam projects are five on the Salween, three on the Brahmaputra and two on the Mekong.
China has already built six mega-dams on the Mekong — the lifeblood for continental Southeast Asia — with its latest addition being the 254m-high Nuozhadu Dam, whose gargantuan reservoir is designed to hold nearly 22 billion cubic meters of water.
The current dam-building plans threaten the Salween River’s Grand Canyon — a UNESCO World Heritage site — and the pristine, environmentally sensitive areas through which the Brahmaputra and the Mekong rivers flow.
These three international rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau, whose bounteous water resources have become a magnet for Chinese planners. The Salween, which runs from Tibet through Yunnan Province into Burma and Thailand, will cease to be Asia’s last largely free-flowing river, with work on the first project — the giant, 4,200-megawatt Songta Dam in Tibet — to begin shortly.
The State Council’s decision reverses the suspension of dam building on the Salween announced by the then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) in 2004, after an international uproar over the start of multiple mega-projects in the National Nature Reserves, adjacent to the world heritage area — a stunning canyon region through which the Salween, the Mekong and the Jinsha flow in parallel.
This reversal is consistent with the pattern established elsewhere, including on the Yangtze: China temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests in order to buy time while public passions cool, before resurrecting the same plan.
Meanwhile, China’s announcement of three new dam projects on the Brahmaputra, the main river running through northeastern India and Bangladesh, has prompted the Indian government to advise China to “ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed” by the upstream works.
Water has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations.
China’s new focus on building dams in the southwest of the country also carries larger safety concerns. Indeed, Chinese scientists blamed the massive 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern rim, killing 87,000 people, on the newly constructed Zipingpu Dam, located next to a seismic fault.
The weight of the water impounded in the dam’s massive reservoir was said to have triggered severe tectonic stresses, or what scientists call reservoir-triggered seismicity.
China’s rush to build more dams promises to roil relations across Asia, fostering greater competition for water and impeding the already slow progress toward institutionalizing regional cooperation and integration. If China continues on its current, heedless course, prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of the forthcoming Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.
Copyright: Project Syndicate