China has recently started work on the highest hydropower project in the world. Engineering teams dammed the Yarlung Zangbo River in the Tibetan Himalayas to build the first in a series of hydropower dams to meet the energy needs of a developing Tibet. The river flows from the glaciers of the Himalayas into India as the sacred Bhramaputra river. Sinohydro Bureau No. 8 began damming the river on November 8th, according to China Daily. The project is the first of its kind in Tibet. The 7.9 billion yuan ($1.2 billion) investment will provide a total installed capacity of 51-megawatts.
On the face of it, the construction project seems innocent enough: the dam actually allows water to run through it as the current powers the turbines that will generate electricity for vast swathes of Tibet. However, the project appears more sinister to neighbors when China’s requirements and knock-on effects of current projects on bordering states is taken into consideration. Already, electricity generated through hydropower makes up 20-percent of China’s power portfolio, or nearly 200-gigawatts. The Three Gorges Dam project alone generates nearly ten-percent of all hydro-electricity, enough to power more than 20-million American-style homes. China believes it will need to double its power generation capacity by the year 2020, nearly 400-gigawatts of which it intends to come from hydroelectric sources. Relentless urbanization, industrialization and consumerism will accelerate the country’s search for and construction of power generation facilities, conventional and alternative. Hydropower is low-hanging fruit, from an engineering point of view: the rivers are open and accessible, and China has already built the largest power generator in the world on the Yangtze River by way of the Three Gorges project, so it has a great deal of experience with the heavy industry involved with such efforts.
The plan has not been lost on southeast Asia, which already blames Chinese hydroelectric dams along the Mekong river for reducing the torrent to a trickle downstream. The Mekong (Méigōng hé, in Chinese) starts in the great glaciers of the Tibetan plateau and reaches into Yunnan Province, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. More than 60 million people rely on the river for their livelihoods, which is the world’s largest inland fishery, according to the Mekong River Commission. Some analysts also blame the dam projects in part on the drought that parched southeast China in the Spring of 2010: waters that would otherwise flow freely were made into reservoirs to conserve water, not irrigate the land. Water levels along the Mekong dropped several meters in southeast Asia, to their lowest levels in recorded history, killing off fish and plant stocks. The drought crippled hydropower stations in Yunnan province and essentially took off-line 90 percent of hydropower stations in next-door Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. Guangdong electrical supply was debilitated because it receives a substantial portion of its power from the Guangxi hydro-stations. Despite – or because of – recent setbacks in power generation in Yunan province, the central authority has its sights set on yet another natural water source.
The Salween River (Nù Jiāng, in Chinese) is one of the world’s longest free flowing rivers in the world, still undammed. The river runs through Burma and Thailand. China would like to change the state of affairs, placing several hydropower projects along its reaches. Numerous political obstacles – cross-border and internal to Burma and Thailand – have seen the hydro-projects repeatedly delayed. However, in the summer of 2010 formerly mothballed hydropower projects met with Chinese central government approval, an indication that the Salween’s days of remaining untouched are numbered.
Understandably, Indian officials are disturbed by developments on the Yarlung Zangbo River, as they have been barred from the construction site, which is located in Gyaca county, 325 km southeast of the Tibetan capital Lhasa, according to the Hindustan Times. The project is the first of four, which are located very near the border of a territory long-disputed by the two countries, Arundal Pradesh (see map).
Most Chinese citizens who have not been resettled in favor of dam building are oblivious to the project, in sharp contrast to the Indian population, which is watching the development with some anxiety. Current and upcoming Chinese projects touch a deep vein of devotion to the Brahmaputra.
China’s designs on some of the most vital rivers in the world have all but convinced downstream neighbors like India, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand that China has eschewed its policy of “Peaceful Rise” in favor of one of “Energy – Whatever the Cost”.