September 23, 2021

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China’s hydropower project: will the Brahmaputra survive?

The Yarlong Sanspo River in China is very important to the people of China, India and a large part of Bangladesh. Originating from the Chemayungdong Glacier in Tibet at an altitude of 5,000 meters above sea level, it entered Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet as Siang. The river then enters Assam, where its name is Brahmaputra. It then entered Bangladesh, known as the Jamuna River. The river is important as a source of pure water for the three countries mentioned earlier. Both India and Bangladesh rely heavily on the river for irrigation, fishing and power generation. But the river is under great threat as China has started several hydropower projects around it. At the same time, the people living on this river are under threat.

China, which has been criticized around the world for its excessive carbon emissions, is increasing its reliance on hydropower plants as an alternative energy source. But the balance of nature and environment or the ecosystem of this river basin is not being reviewed during the construction of these plants, due to which the people and animals inhabiting this basin are under threat. These projects in China could lead to a major drought in Tibet. At the same time, the areas through which the water of this river flows through India and Bangladesh may face environmental damage. Political instability can also occur.

China has been building dams at Yarlong Sanspo for the past few years. Notable among these is the large dam Jangmu Hydropower Project, which started work in 2015. But a few years after the dam started operating, the river water in the Arunachal Pradesh region of India suddenly lost its usability due to excessive turbidity and black color. Employment in the region is severely hampered by changes in river water, including farming and fishing along the Siang River in India.

In China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, the country’s state-owned hydropower company Power China signed an agreement with the Tibet Autonomous Region to build a large hydropower project to be built on the banks of the Yarlong Sanspo River. Through this 60 gigawatt project, China is announcing that it will achieve ‘zero carbon emissions’ in power generation. The project will play a key role in achieving China’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 2030. Through this, China wants to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2060. At the same time, China is promoting that the project will create a big job market in Tibet. The project will be carried out by diverting large amounts of water from the Yarlong Sanspo River in China’s northern province. At the same time, China sees the project as part of its national security, which will further develop the country through the maximum use of its natural resources. As the world transforms from fossil fuels to green energy, China is creating an easy way to produce energy at low cost.

But where China is thinking of pulling the reins along the course of the river, it is naturally very important. This artificial change in the region will greatly increase the amount of earthquakes and landslides. A magnitude 7.9 earthquake or tsunami in the Chen region of Tibet in 2020 could occur regularly.

China should have gone through more reviews before developing a project that could pose a threat to the lives of people living along the river. At the same time, any change in the speed of the river will threaten the natural life system that has developed around it. India-Bangladesh will undergo major environmental changes. The construction of dams will change the quality of river water, which will benefit the river banks.

China’s hydropower projects will affect the aquatic biodiversity of the river. Water eutrophication (chemical nutrients such as nitrogen and water enrichment elements including phosphorus) can occur in construction sites, posing a threat to use as drinking water. Eutrophication increases algae production. This reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. This results in the death of the fish as well as severely disrupting the entire aquatic environment.

When the issue of water sharing of a river comes up, the country of origin of the river gets more benefits. On the other hand, areas near the sea are deprived of water at the right time. While this is against all international law, it is in most cases. Since China is the source region of the river and India and Bangladesh in the latter part of the river, the main authority for water distribution has always been with China. Therefore, due to drought in the dry season and drainage of excess water from the dam during the monsoon season, floods may occur in Bangladesh and India.

In April 2000, a massive landslide occurred near Jhamu Creek, temporarily shutting off the Yigong River. Then, when the river started flowing again, it suddenly caused floods in Arunachal Pradesh, India. About 50,000 people have been displaced by the floods in an area of ​​500 km. This was the first flood in the region caused by a natural dam burst. This time, if water is suddenly released from an artificial dam, then what can happen, the matter is quite clear to everyone. Meanwhile, the region has been battling regular floods since the 2000 floods. At the same time, due to the construction of dams on this river, the speed of the river is decreasing and the level of silt is increasing. As a result, floods have become a regular occurrence.

Floods are all infrastructures starting from roads in an area

Moke spoils. In many riverside areas there is no communication system other than water communication. There are many such villages in Assam. During the floods, normal life in these areas was severely disrupted. Their lives come to a halt.

If China builds this dam, the amount of sediment in the river can be reduced. As a result, the areas in the Brahmaputra basin will be deprived of fertile silt. But low sediment in the water will cause additional river erosion. In addition, the regular flow of water will be disrupted due to the dam, the river water will be reduced. As a result, the fishing industry will be severely damaged. Fishermen will lose their livelihood. At the same time, one of the alternative communication systems of the region surrounded by rivers will be obstructed due to the depletion of water.

The economic opportunities in the northeastern states of India are already very low and the construction of this dam and hydropower project in China will further hamper the development and economy of this region along the river. Economic risks will increase. Traditionally, people in these areas will be forced to change occupations and find a different livelihood. This will have a direct impact, especially in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Lack of water in droughts and accumulation of excess water during monsoons will lead to social instability due to lack of economic opportunities in the region. The existing political instability and ‘insurgency’ in the region could escalate further.

As Bangladesh is also a riverine country, a large part of its population is dependent on agriculture and fishing. Both of these factors depend on the quality and availability of water. Waterlogging or water evolution at the upper end of the Earlong Sanspo will also deprive Bangladesh and affect the livelihood of its people. In the case of Bangladesh, about ninety percent of the country’s rivers flow into the country from outside. Effective steps must be taken to address the losses that Bangladesh and India are facing due to China.

Pure water is nature’s best reward. Due to the effects of climate change, the flow of water in the Yarlong Sanspo River has already decreased. Having an advance idea about the proper flow of river water to deal with the damage caused by sudden flood or ‘flash flood’ can take people to safe shelter from the affected areas and thereby reduce the amount of damage. In 2016, India and China signed an agreement on the exchange of information on their common river water flows, which is to be provided from May to October each year to prevent monsoon floods. As a result, low-lying countries like India and Bangladesh can prepare for flood damage. But the Yarlong Sanspo River dam could bring long-term ecological, natural, economic and geographical changes to the entire region. The dam will threaten the future of those whose livelihood depends on this river.