Balancing drawbacks and benefits of dam construction

April 7, 2014 by Brendan O'Reilly

Electricity is needed for China’s push to develop its far-western regions, and Beijing is desperate for cleaner alternatives to coal-fired power plants. To meet these needs, the Chinese government has turned, in part, to massive dam construction. However, the projects have significant ecological, financial, and diplomatic costs. Beijing will need to balance the drawbacks and benefits of its increasingly ambitious dam projects.

Ongoing and planned dam projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo exemplify all of these contradictory pressures. The Yarlung Tsangpo is one of the most important rivers on Earth. After running east through the Tibetan Plateau, it abruptly turns west and south to become the Brahmaputra, running through eastern India and Bangladesh before flowing into the Bay of Bengal.

Besides being the source for the waters that sustain hundreds of millions of people in northeast India and Bangladesh, the Tsangpo/Brahmaputra is also potentially a huge source of hydroelectricity to China, particularly in its upper reaches. Three new dams are under construction on the Chinese stretch of the river. There are also plans for a massive dam to harness the energy from the stretch of river that powers through the world’s deepest gorge, with a potential to generate 300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year – enough to satisfy roughly 5.6% of China’s total electric usage from a single power plant.

This potential is very tempting for China, given the massive push to develop the economy of China’s far west and the country’s dire need to lessen dependence on electricity derived from coal. The Chinese government has a goal of deriving 11.4% of China’s electricity from renewables by 2015.

Min Ye, director of the Asian Studies Program at Boston University, underlines the importance of such projects to Beijing: “China’s development is heavily reliant on energy and resources. The development model is unlikely to change soon, thus any programme that will be able to help with energy demands and reduce carbon emission as a strong appeal in the eyes of policymakers. Furthermore, the embedded interests in such projects are very powerful. They include the large state-owned enterprises and their supervising agencies, and many of them are closely connected with top leaders in China. They will push the dam projects as important steps to ease the country’s energy needs.”

There are also huge potential costs for these projects. To being with, the Tsangpo Gorge – the short stretch where the river loses most of its altitude – is reckoned to be the deepest gorge in the world, and one of the planet’s most bio-diverse ecosystems. A 2010-2011 joint investigation by the Institute of Images Biodiversity Exhibition and Tibet Tourism found over 850 animal species in the area, included several species previously unknown to science.

Xu Jian, the head of the investigation, said “you can see abundant species there and it is easy to encounter many large creatures…It shows the primitive environment has been well preserved since it is barely affected by human activities.”

Human activities may still catch up with the area – the Zangmu dam has is already under construction and three more dams have already been announced for the Tsangpo.

Even in the realm of pure economics there are significant costs. A new study from Energy Policy casts further doubt on the economic efficiency of major dam projects in developing countries, such as those underway on the Tsangpo. The study found that dams built in developing countries cost twice as much as initially forecast, and 80% of major dam projects are built behind schedule by an average of seven years.

There is also the risk of a major natural disaster. The Tibetan Plateau, due to the Karakorum fault zone, is one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the world. Seismic events affecting dam reservoirs could be deadly to millions of people downstream.

Downstream Dilemmas

Beyond all these costs are the more intangible – and unpredictable – effects on China’s foreign relations. India and China contest the border in the region where the Tsampo/Brahmaputra flows. Indian media and politicians have expressed concern about China’s dam-building projects on the river. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh specifically raised the issue of dam construction on the river during his first meeting with President Xi Jinping.

Within India The issue of Chinese dam construction has received a great deal of attention. Dr. Sahana Bose of New Dehli’s National Maritime Foundation, writes: “China’s geography gives it a strategic leverage over rest of the lower riparian countries on dam building as it has the largest water reservoirs of Asia and is technologically the most advanced countries amongst these riparian states…The unilateral and non-cooperative decision of China is definitely a sign of exercising power over South Asian region…Just as the border issue is unlikely to be settled in near future, this limited cooperation on water is likely to create geopolitical tensions amongst the riparian countries of South Asia.”

India is by no means alone in its concerns about Chinese dams disrupting the flow of water into its lands. Beijing has launched a project to divert the waters of the Irtysh River southwards into Xinjiang. This has raised concerns in downstream Kazakhstan, where the Irtysh is the most vital waterway in the country.

Furthermore, China’s appetite for dam construction is unsettling many of China’s neighbours in Southeast Asia. Plans to build a dam in Myanmar, which would export electricity to southwest China, had to be cancelled after large protests in the area. Five dam projects underway along the sources of the Mekong River have similarly drawn protests and criticisms in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

China’s hydropower projects have provided another venue in which the United States can seek influence amongst the countries in China’s periphery. Aaron Salzberg, the special coordinator for water issues at the US State Department, has called for China to join the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Salzburg told Radio Free Asia: “In the long run, I think it would be good for China to become a full active member in the MRC…sharing data so that the downstream countries actually understand what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen and they can prepare accordingly for those types of things…China can play an active role in managing their infrastructure for downstream benefits.”

However, China’s deepening relations with some of its neighbours seem to be having a positive effect on the sharing of increasingly valuable freshwater resources. China and Kazakhstan have agreed on a plan to protect water quality along their shared rivers and are working on an agreement regarding the distribution of their waters.

Meanwhile, for now at least, the Indian government has expressed confidence in Chinese assurances regarding the Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. Paban Singh Ghatowar, India’s minister in charge of the development of the northeast, told the BBC “our foreign ministry has checked with China and we have been told that the flow will not be affected, and we will make sure that the people’s lives are not affected by the dams.”

These assurances to India and Kazakhstan may reflect Beijing’s deep strategic interests in both countries. Beijing has been seeking to woo India away from any US-led alliance system in Asia, while Kazakhstan is a vital source of gas and oil imports. Putting strains on these vital relationships could outweigh any benefits of hydropower and water diversion.

Min Ye notes: “There are important groups in China that would like to see progress on territorial disputes between the two countries [China and India], and they would not like to see such progress being compromised by the dams construction…The Chinese government is likely to cooperate, as the leaders badly need to stabilize the border issues and improve economic ties with India, and also because the border issue with India has not become a nationalist hot button, as in the maritime tension with Japan and Southeast Asia.”

China’s neighbours may have little recourse if Beijing decides to take a tougher position on the use of rivers flowing from its borders. China was one of only three countries, along with Burundi and Turkey, to vote against the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses at the UN General Assembly. The Convention requires states to “take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm” to other countries, and “utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner.”

Additionally, China literally holds the high ground along the river courses. Any attempts to retaliate would have to rely on diplomatic or economic initiatives.

The potential for troubles with neighbours is just one of the many costs borne by China’s dam construction frenzy. Effects on the environment, tourism, and even traditional economic costs will also have to be considered. There are signs these costs are now being taken seriously. Beijing approved only 4.82 gigawatts of new hydropower capacity last year, which is a significant slowing from the pace set in recent years.

However, major dam construction will remain tempting so long as China’s needs for cleaner energy continue to rise at a rapid pace. These conflicting interests may be difficult to balance, especially given the opaque nature of China’s current decision making. The policies China’s leaders choose to implement now will have momentous impacts downstream, both within China and in neighbouring countries.

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