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Secrecy shrouds China’s building in Tibet of the world’s largest, and potentially most dangerous, hydropower dam

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(TibetanReview.net, Jul17’23) – It is now clear that China is building the world’s first super dam, located in occupied Tibet, close to its heavily militarized frontier with India, said strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney in an opinion piece which appeared on asia.nikkei.com Jul 14.

This megaproject, with a planned capacity of 60 gigawatts, would generate three times as much electricity as the Three Gorges Dam, now the world’s largest hydropower plant. China, though, has given few updates about the project’s status since the National People’s Congress approved it in Mar 2021.

This is because Beijing has a record of keeping work on major dam projects on international rivers under wraps until the activity can no longer be hidden in commercially available satellite imagery, Chellaney has noted.

Twice as deep as the US Grand Canyon, the Yarlung Tsangpo (or Brahmaputra) gorge holds Asia’s greatest untapped water reserves while the river’s precipitous fall creates one of the greatest concentrations of river energy on Earth. The combination has acted as a powerful magnet for Chinese dam builders, the author has noted.

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He has warned that the behemoth dam is also the world’s riskiest project as it is being built in a seismically active area, making it a potential ticking water bomb for downstream communities in India and Bangladesh.

He has noted that the southeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau is earthquake prone because it sits on the geological fault line where the Indian and Eurasian plates collide.

Major earthquakes in the past have been linked the building of dams near seismic faults, including the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed 87,000 people.

Another danger is that even without a quake, the new super dam could be a threat to downriver communities if torrential monsoon rains trigger flash floods in the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra. Barely two years ago, some 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam, the author has pointed out.

Thirdly, the super dam would create major ecological problems. The 11 large dams China has built on the upper reaches of the Mekong River have had many negative ecological impacts, including recurrent drought, for downriver nations. But not only is China constructing more big dams on the Mekong, it is now also turning its attention to tapping the bounteous water resources in the Brahmaputra Basin, the author has bemoaned.

The brunt of the environmental havoc that the megaproject is likely to wreak will be borne by Bangladesh, in the last stretch of the river. The environmental damage, however, is likely to extend up through Tibet, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, Chellaney has noted.

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Work on the super dam was already well-underway when the Chinese government began talking about it for the first time. It presented the project for the approval of the National People’s Congress only after it had built sufficient infrastructure to start transporting heavy equipment, materials and workers to the remote site, the author has noted.

Barely two months after approval two years ago, Beijing announced that it had accomplished the feat of completing a “highway through the world’s deepest canyon,” which ends very close to the Indian border.

Once one of the world’s last undammed rivers, China began constructing a series of midsized dams on sections upstream from the famous canyon. With its dam building now moving close to border areas, China will in due course be able to leverage transboundary flows in its relations with rival India, the author has warned.

As per customary international law based on the 1968 Helsinki Rules and the 1997 UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, a lower riparian cannot veto interventions in a river by the upper riparian.

However, a lower riparian, in this case, India, can ask for prior notice of intention of intervention, full detailed technical information, due regard for the concerns of the lower riparian, advance consultations, and the acceptance of the principle of avoidance of “substantial harm” or “significant injury” to the lower riparian. The question remains – would China be mindful of India’s concerns? asks strategic and economic affairs analyst Vaishali Basu Sharma in an opinion piece which appeared on eurasiantimes.com Jul 17.

There is also the possibility that China may divert the river towards the north to mitigate water scarcity in some parts of the country. In either case, the implications for India would be horrendous ecological upheaval or a reduction of water flow, Sharma has noted.

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