Published:  06:48 AM, 23 September 2023

China’s approach to water with lower riparian countries in South and South East Asia

Noman Hossain


Conflict over water has been predicted to be the next theatre of war. Note that the planet is covered with 70 per cent water, but only 2.5 per cent of this is freshwater. This is precisely why nations have begun to preserve fresh water and, in some cases, have gone beyond to become global water hegemons, as they grow and develop. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) provides the best example today, which is a water hegemon! The PRC, a water-stressed country, has made huge investments in water-based resources globally. Apart from the geo-political implications, the PRC’s water hegemony has had an adverse impact on the environment, well-being of local populations and pushed nations into debt traps due to resource intensive investments in dam/hydro-electric projects. The focus in this analysis is on the attitude of the PRC towards the lower riparian states and its impact.

China and its global water ambitions

China is said to have constructed a whopping 308 dams in 70 countries on various rivers (Tibet Policy Institute, September 23, 2016). Recent estimates of China’s dam construction worldwide shows that these dams generate a total of 81 GW of power. Such indiscriminate dam construction has adversely affected river courses, caused environmental degradation and resulted in floods and displacement of thousands of people living in the host nations and further downstream. China’s disregard for environmental conservation and consistent denials of the ecological fallouts of its mega projects on the Tibetan plateau have aggravated global concerns. China’s disregard in this regard was most telling in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Estimates show that between 1992 and 2008, over 1.5 million residents living in the floodplains of the Three Gorges Dam were displaced. China’s territory is the starting point for major rivers that flow into more than a dozen other countries, making it Asia’s “upstream controller” and giving it unmatched power to “weaponise water” against downstream countries. The development of overseas hydropower by China needs to be contextualised in these terms. Pertinently, six of Asia’s largest rivers, Brahmaputra, Indus, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong, and the Yangtse, have their origins in China. These rivers flow into as many as 18 countries, making China the upstream water hegemon! As an upper riparian state, China’s domestic demand has pushed it to dam its rivers with disastrous result for downstream nations. For instance, China’s eleven dams on the Mekong have disrupted aquatic life and flow sediment and has directly contributed to the collapse of river banks. The Mekong dams have also triggered recurring droughts and caused floods in countries like Thailand and Laos.

China’s South East Asia Water Hegemony

A 2019 study by the Stimson Centre in the US shows that even though upstream Mekong received excess rainfall, China blocked the water in its dams, resulting in downstream countries facing unprecedented droughts. Satellite imagery showed that lack of water in the lower Mekong was mainly due to blockage by dams in China (The International Prism, 22 January 2022). The lack of real coordination amongst countries in the region for operating dams has allowed China’s eleven Mekong dams to disrupt aquatic life and flow sediment and has directly contributed to the collapse of river banks and the destruction of communities. Additionally, China has consistently refused to engage in mutually beneficial and cooperative water-sharing arrangements across borders. Despite sharing over forty transboundary water sources, China has very few water governance treaties with its fourteen neighbours. China also shies away from entering into multilateral, basin-wide transboundary water agreements, lending credence to the assertion that China sees water resources as a sovereign rather than as a shared source. In sum, the PRC’s approach to waters is governed by outright unilateralism and a maximalist approach to water sovereignty enabled by its rapid hydro-engineering prowess. This is one of the reasons for China not showing any willingness to share hydro data and sedimentary load data, with either the Mekong basin states or India, the two regions where China has asserted its upper riparian status with full gusto.
Exploitation of Tibet’s Waters

China has attempted to exploit the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), which contains a major portion of the world’s fresh water. Official figures reveal that by the end of 2017, installed hydropower capacity in China had reached 341 million kilowatts, while the installed hydropower capacity in the TAR was only 1.77 million kilowatts, accounting for only 1 per cent of the technically exploitable potential. (Hongzhou Zhang and Genevieve Donnellon-May, The Diplomat, 1 September 2021). The downstream impact of such development is only too obvious. The inclusion of the Medog Dam (near the border with Arunachal Pradesh) in the 14th FYP was driven in part, by the CPC’s push towards Carbon Emission reduction. (Jagannath Panda, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, 7 June 2021). China aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. As China shifts away from coal, which supplies nearly 70 per cent of its energy use, to clean energy sources like hydroelectricity, more dams can be expected to be built. (The Diplomat, 1 September 2021).

Impact on South Asia

A growing source of tension in the Himalayas is China’s plans to dam key rivers before they reach India, leaving India and Bangladesh the losers. It is not just a question of damming a river; China has also taken recourse to blocking the flow of rivers. In June 2020, satellite imagery showed that China had used bulldozers to block the flow of the River Galwan, a tributary of the Indus River in Aksai Chin, thus preventing it from flowing into India. There could be no better instance of a water hegemon than this. China’s proposed Medog Dam, close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh, will eventually have an impact on lower riparian states, particularly India and Bangladesh.

Further, ongoing diversion of substantial volumes of water from the Tibetan plateau watershed by China for northern China, could strain India’s agricultural needs in the North-Eastern states; conversely, Chinese mismanagement could lead to overflows and floods in India. The threat of a water bomb being unleashed on India from the proposed Medog dam cannot be overlooked. For example, a Tibetan dam burst (2000) resulted in massive flooding in India. (Jagannath Panda, Jamestown Foundation, 7 June 2021). In March 2021, a change in flow rate, turbidity and quality of the Yarlung Tsangpo River water was observed. This was attributed to the massive landslide and glacial surge near the Great Bend Region. Landslides in the Great Bend Area of the River in Jialacun Village, Tibet have the potential to cause flooding towards India (Arunachal Pradesh).

China’s Motives

China’s motives in investing in hydropower overseas is clearly a ‘neo-colonial’ drive to capture resources and materials, both as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative and otherwise to fund China’s GDP growth at the cost of other nations. Chinese investment in power projects globally in the past two decades is estimated to be US$ 114 billion, 44 per cent of which went to hydropower. Further, Chinese companies reportedly hold an estimated 70 per cent of the global hydropower market. (International Institute for Environment and Development News, 17 March 2022). This gives us a sense of China’s ambitions and its desire to control resources wherever possible. Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s foremost experts on water, aptly states: “China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas…. has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins.” There is merit in reviewing the India’s position on water security from this perspective and planning for the future. The combination of territory grabbing and water resource hegemony by China is a threat that all countries in South & South East Asia face and their respective security environments.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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