While Indian and Chinese troops face each other in Ladakh, the water war between the two countries has flared up again in the eastern sector. Both nations have pulled out their favourite weapon: big dams.

It began in the last week of November, when the president of Power Construction Corporation of China, a Chinese state-owned company, announced plans to develop a massive hydroelectric project, with production capacity of up to 60 gigawatts, on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river. The Brahmaputra is called the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Yarlung Zangbo in Tibet, where it originates.

India reacted almost immediately. A top official in the Jal Shakti ministry told journalists of India’s plans to build a 10-gigawatt project on the Siang, the main tributary of the Brahmaputra that connects it to the Yarlung Tsangpo, to “offset the impact of the hydropower project by China”.

Picture credit: Wikipedia, by Pfly - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Experts, however, say the “dam-for-dam” response is “short-sighted”. Not only would the ecological costs be extremely high, it is unlikely to “mitigate the adverse impact of the Chinese dam project”, as the government claims. “You want to do this project just because China is doing something upstream, but you do not even know what exactly – that is extremely scary for the people of the region,” said Partha Jyoti Das, head of the Water, Climate and Hazards Programme of the Guwahati-based non-profit Aaranyak and co-author of Damming Northeast India, a study of hydropower development in the region.

The Upper Siang project that has been billed by the Jal Shakti ministry as the answer to China’s plans was envisioned in its current avatar in 2017 by the Niti Aayog. The mega 300 metre high dam was to replace two smaller projects that had been planned earlier – Siang Upper Stage-I and Stage-II. It was to be built on the site earmarked for the latter. But there has been little progress since. Local communities in Arunachal Pradesh rose up in protest against the proposed dam which, engineers believe, would submerge the district headquarters of Yingkiong in Upper Siang district.

Anti-dam protests in Arunachal Pradesh. Picture credit: Facebook

Creating a ‘reservoir’

The idea behind resurrecting the dam now is that Indian officials believe it can act as a large reservoir which can store and release water downstream if the Chinese impede the flow of the river. But critics say a multipurpose dam, as the Upper Siang has been envisioned, may not help with that at all. “The flow from such a project will depend on your power generation requirements,” said Himanshu Thakkar, the founder and coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based advocacy organisation. “So if it operates like a peak-load project, you won’t be able to ensure regular flow of water all the time.”

A hydroelectric dam is typically not operational throughout the day but only during “peaking hours” in the evening, when the demand for power is higher. It is only during this period that water is released; the rest of the time the dam acts as a barrier of sorts for the natural flow of the river.

Yet others said that quantity of water was not a problem here in any case as the Siang was largely fed by monsoon rains on the Indian side of the border. A reservoir, thus, makes little sense. “The whole point in a seismically active zone is not to have such a big reservoir kind of dam with a big head of water,” said Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, visiting research associate at the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi.

‘Prior use rights’

What then is the point of constructing a dam? Analysts believe India invoking the Upper Siang dam could be its way of asserting “prior use rights” over the waters of the Brahmaputra. The United Nations Watercourses Convention of 1997 states that in the case of a transnational river, an upper riparian state has to maintain flow of water adequate for the functioning of an established downstream project. So, it is likely that Indian officials believe that if India begins construction before China, the latter would be compelled to not tamper with the flow of the river.

But critics point out that neither China nor India is a signatory to the convention. “Even if there is a treaty – and there is none – China’s record in international treaty obligations is abysmal, look at the South China Sea arbitration, for instance,” said Rahman. “So, there is no question of India being able to enforce on an international or bilateral platform that China needs to supply an x amount of water to keep downstream dam projects running and operational.”

Thakkar tended to agree. “The prior use rights is a misconception that the Indian bureaucracy has,” he said. “But where are you going to go claiming this right? China does not believe in granting any such rights.”

‘Shadow States’

Despite all these red flags, it is perhaps not unsurprising that India chose to respond to China’s plans of constructing a mega dam by floating a similar idea. It is of a pattern. As historian Bérénice Guyot-Réchard writes in her book, Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas, 1910-1962: “Indian and Chinese state-making and nation-building turned into processes of mutual observation, replication and competition to prove themselves the better state – becoming in short, anxiety-fuelled attempts at self-definition against one another.”

Often, communities in North East India have had to pay a price for this belligerent security-centric approach. “Not everything can be viewed from the prism of security,” said Das. “Because of faulty foreign policies you don’t know how to deal with each other, so you set your sights on the river which is a lifeline for millions of people in the North East.”

Rahman echoed Das. He said, “Communities in the North East have to forego their democratic decision-making rights in the face of a constructed narrative of national security which is all encompassing.”

Observers hope that the prohibitive costs of constructing these mega dams in what is a highly risky landscape – and dwindling electricity markets – will deter both countries from actually following up on the projects. Said Thakkar: “My reading is China is provoking India. I hope India doesn’t take the bait and go ahead with the construction of another needless dam.”