PowerChina has announced plans to construct up to 60 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity on the Yarlung Tsangpo River (known in downstream India as the Brahmaputra River) in The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), prompting concern from downstream riparian countries.
The plans for the project, described as being three times the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam, are viewed in China as a “historic opportunity” to increase China’s clean energy plan and to support the country’s water supply security. The announcement has faced crticism, however, for coming after only very minimal consultation on a project that will have a major downstream impact, not least in Bangladesh and India.
PowerChina Chairman Yan Zhiyong described the development plans as offering more than just hydropower. "It is a project for national security, including water resources and domestic security," Yan said, claiming that the project will also smooth cooperation with South Asia, according to Global Times, a media outlet of China's Communist Party.
In Bangladesh, environment campaign group Riverine People has voiced concerns over the Chinese move, saying that a multilateral discussion should be held before China builds any dams.
Concern in India comes from the absence of detailed water-sharing protocols with China, and possible impacts on India’s Brahmaputra water reserves. China would have control of river-flow, with the poser to withhold water, or trigger flash-floods. There is further concern in India that China ultimately plans to divert the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo to northern China.
As reported by The Third Pole, “Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said: “It is China’s legitimate right to develop hydropower on the river,” adding that “for a long time, China has cooperated well with India and Bangladesh in hydrological flood reporting, disaster prevention and mitigation, and emergency response. China will continue to maintain communication with India and Bangladesh through existing channels.””
China promises cooperation, communication, and that the development will provide more opportunities for downstream nations, citing the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism. But data provision from China to downstream countries in the Mekong has, historically, been irregular and contentious, with allegations of water-hoarding in China's upstream reservoirs.
The Foreign Ministry of China issued a statement on 3 December that “The development of the project is still in preliminary planning and demonstration phase, and there is no need to read too much into it...Over the years, China has conducted sound cooperation with India and Bangladesh in flood reporting, flood control and disaster reduction, emergency response and other aspects. China will continue to stay in touch with India, Bangladesh through existing channels.”
The PowerChina announcement follows on proposals included in the 14th Five-year Plan (2021-2025) that referred to: “implementation of hydropower development plans on Yarlung Tsangpo,” without further details. The proposal will now go to China's National People's Congress in early 2021.