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China’s plans for a new hydropower plant on the Yarlung Tsangpo River are likely to upset India. Photo: Xinhua

China-India relations: Beijing should speed up hydropower project, Tibetan official says

  • Planning and environmental impact assessments for dams on Yarlung Tsangpo River ‘should be approved as soon as possible’, region’s Communist Party deputy chief says
  • Chairman of development company said in November the project would help to ensure China’s ‘water resources security and homeland security’
China should accelerate plans to build a hydropower plant on a river near its disputed border with India, a senior official said at a meeting on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress.
A proposal to construct dams on the lower reaches of the 2,900km (1,800 mile) Yarlung Tsangpo River was first presented in November and is included in China’s latest five-year plan, which was released on Friday at the ongoing legislative meeting in Beijing.
The river rises in Tibet before flowing through the Himalayas and into India, where it is known as the Brahmaputra.

River deep, tensions high: China assures India over Tibet dam plans amid spectre of drought

Che Dalha, deputy Communist Party chief of western China’s Tibet autonomous region, said authorities there should “strive to begin construction [of the dams] this year”.

“Comprehensive planning and environmental impact assessments for the project should be approved as soon as possible,” he said on Saturday, according to a press release published on Monday on an official regional government website.

Che said also that the exploration of natural gas in northern Tibet should be one of the focuses of the country’s energy development goals over the next five years.

The Yarlung Tsangpo rises in Tibet before flowing through the Himalayas and into India, where it is known as the Brahmaputra. Photo: Getty Images

Beijing is keen to boost its energy capacity and resource-rich Tibet is seen as ripe for development. But the hydropower project on the Yarlung Tsangpo is likely to stoke tensions with India, with which China has been locked in a bloody border dispute since May last year.

Yan Zhiyong, chairman of Power Construction Corporation of China, the state-owned firm leading the development, said in November the dams would have a combined generating capacity of 60 gigawatts, or almost three times that of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in central China.

“It is a national security project, ensuring China’s water resources security and homeland security,” he said.

In what was widely seen as a response to Beijing’s plans, T.S. Mehra, a senior official with India’s water ministry, was quoted by Reuters as saying in December that the government in New Delhi was considering building a 10GW hydropower project on the Brahmaputra to “mitigate the adverse impact of the Chinese dam projects”.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic studies professor at the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said Beijing’s hydropower plans had major significance.

“China’s decision to build dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo just before the river enters Indian territory will arm Beijing with considerable leverage over India,” he said.

“Just before flowing into India, the river makes a U-turn around the Himalayas to form a huge canyon that holds bounteous water resources.”

The Chinese embassy in Delhi said late last year the power project was still in the preliminary planning stage and that there was “no need to over-interpret it”.

In 2018, China and India renewed an agreement to share data on the flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo, after Delhi complained the previous year that Beijing had stopped doing so. China said at the time that the monitoring sites had been washed away by the monsoon floods, though the interruption coincided with a weeks-long military stand-off between the two neighbours.

Over the past decade China has proposed and/or built 11 hydroelectric projects along the Yarlung Tsangpo. While Beijing defends their environmental credentials, critics have accused it of disregarding the developments’ impact on India and Bangladesh, where the river enters the sea.

Wang Dehua, a South Asia specialist at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies, said water resources had long been a sensitive subject when it came to China-India relations.

“It is difficult to say whether the dam building will grow into a bigger dispute,” he said. “But any sort of problem should be solved through dialogue.”