China's dam frenzy a threat to water security

Brahma Chellaney says its aggressive building programme disregards neighbours' needs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 3:16am

As if to highlight that Asia's biggest challenge is managing the rise of an increasingly assertive China, Beijing has unveiled plans to build large new dams on major rivers flowing to other countries. The decision to ride roughshod over downstream countries' concerns shows that the main issue facing Asia is the need to persuade China's leaders to institutionalise co-operation with neighbours.

China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries; so, in the absence of Chinese participation, it will be impossible to establish a rules-based regional order. How, then, can China be brought on board?

This challenge is most striking on trans-boundary rivers in Asia, where China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled on any continent.

Most of China's dams serve multiple functions, generating electricity and meeting the water needs of manufacturing, mining, irrigation and municipalities.

The State Council, seeking to boost the country's already-large hydropower capacity, has identified 54 dams as "key construction projects" in the revised energy-sector plan up to 2015. Most of the new dams are planned for the biodiversity-rich southwest, where natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures are increasingly threatened.

After slowing its dam-building programme in response to the serious environmental consequences of completion in 2006 of the Three Gorges Dam, China is now rushing to build a new generation of giant dams.

Asia, the world's driest continent in terms of per capita freshwater availability, needs a rules-based system to manage water stress, maintain rapid economic growth and ensure environmental sustainability.

Yet China remains the stumbling block, refusing to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour - much less support a regional regulatory framework.

China's new focus on building dams in the southwest of the country also carries larger safety concerns. Indeed, Chinese scientists believe the then newly constructed Zipingpu dam, located near a seismic fault, could have caused the massive 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan plateau's eastern rim, killing 87,000 people.

China's rush to build more dams promises to roil relations across Asia, fostering greater competition for water and impeding the already slow progress towards institutionalising regional co-operation and integration. If China continues on its current course, prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, is the author of the forthcoming Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis. Copyright: Project Syndicate