The future of the world’s most famous mountain range could be endangered by a vast dam-building project, as a risky regional race for water resources takes place in Asia.
New academic research shows that India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan are engaged in a huge “water grab” in the Himalayas, as they seek new sources of electricity to power their economies. Taken together, the countries have plans for more than 400 hydroelectric dams which, if built, could together provide more than 160,000 megawatts of electricity.
In addition, China has plans for about 100 dams to generate a similar amount of power from major rivers sourced in Tibet. A further 60 or more dams are being planned for the Mekong River, which is also sourced in Tibet and flows south through southeast Asia.
Most of the Himalayan rivers have been relatively untouched by dams near their sources. Now the two great Asian powers, India and China, are rushing to harness them as they cut through some of the world’s deepest valleys. Many of the proposed dams would be among the tallest in the world, able to generate more than 4,000 megawatts, as much as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the US.
The result, over the next 20 years, “could be that the Himalayas become the most dammed region in the world,” said Ed Grumbine, visiting international scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming.
“India aims to construct 292 dams ... doubling current hydropower capacity and contributing 6 percent to projected national energy needs. If all dams are constructed as proposed, in 28 of 32 major river valleys, the Indian Himalayas would have one of the highest average dam densities in the world, with one dam for every 32km of river channel. Every neighbor of India with undeveloped hydropower sites is building or planning to build multiple dams, totaling at minimum 129 projects,” said Grumbine, author of a paper in the journal Science.
China, which is building multiple dams on all the major rivers running off the Tibetan plateau, is likely to emerge as the ultimate controller of water for nearly 40 percent of the world’s population.
“The plateau is the source of the single largest collection of international rivers in the world, including the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtse and the Yellow rivers. It is the headwater of rivers on which nearly half the world depends. The net effect of the dam-building could be disastrous. We just don’t know the consequences,” said Tashi Tseri, a water resource researcher at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
“China is engaged in the greatest water grab in history. Not only is it damming the rivers on the plateau, it is financing and building mega-dams in Pakistan, Laos, Burma [Myanmar] and elsewhere and making agreements to take the power,” Indian geopolitical analyst Brahma Chellaney said.
“China-India disputes have shifted from land to water. Water is the new divide and is taking center stage in politics. Only China has the capacity to build these mega-dams and the power to crush resistance. This is effectively war without a shot being fired,” Chellaney added.
According to Chellaney, India is in the weakest position because half its water comes directly from China, but Bangladesh is fearful of India’s plans for water diversions and hydropower. Bangladeshi government scientists say that even a 10 percent reduction in the water flow by India could dry out great areas of farmland for much of the year. More than 80 percent of Bangladesh’s 50 million small farmers depend on water that flows through India.