Why Is China Reviving Its Plan to Build Dams on the Brahmaputra Now?

While Western and Indian defence analysts have assumed that the move is to "keep India in its place", there could be a more plausible reason.

Even as Chinese and Indian troops are disengaging rapidly in Ladakh, Beijing has taken a decision that, if implemented will, one day, do a hundred times more damage to India than a war in Ladakh can do. This is to lift a decade-long embargo on hydropower ‘projects in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river in Tibet. This anodyne declaration will revive the most dangerous, and unnecessary hydroelectric project ever contemplated by any government on this planet.

Among the 40 dams China intends to build in the Tibetan portion of the Brahmaputra basin, 20,  expected to generate 60,000 MW of power, will be on the Yarlung Tsangpo itself. Nine of these will be monster projects that will generate 40,000 MW of power at the ‘Great Bend’, a few kilometres upstream of the India-China border, where the river makes a huge ‘U’ turn and falls precipitously from 3,500 m on the Tibetan Plateau to 700 m in the lush plains of Arunachal Pradesh, in just a few kilometres.

The Great Bend of the Brahmaputra. Photo: Google Earth

These dams were proposed in 2007-08 for China’s 12th five year plan (2010-15)  by the China Yangtze Power Company (CYPC) in which the family of former Premier Li Peng (of Tiananmen fame) has a controlling interest, in conjunction with the state-owned Three Gorges Dam Company, but were shelved by Premier Wen Jiabao.

The CYPC had proposed building a vast tunnel under the ridge that separates the two arms of the Big Bend and diverts 50 billion cubic m of water a year to the south-eastern slope where it will fall over nine cascading hydropower dams to generate 40,000 MW of peak power.

Beijing has claimed in the past that the dams will not infringe on any of India’s (and Bangladesh’s) rights as lower riparian states, because the projects will be ‘run-of-the-river‘ projects that will deny no water to Assam or Bangladesh. This has been contested by many analysts who have pointed out that the storage created behind the 11 existing dams is already sufficient enough to deny much-needed water to Bangladesh and India during a drought. But haggling over riparian rights will divert attention from the far bigger threat that a hydropower project at the Great Bend will pose downstream.

A history of severe earthquakes

This is the threat of earthquakes. The Great Bend sits at the meeting point of the Himalayas and two other mountain chains and is right on top of one of the most unstable onshore seismic zones in the world, one that has seen five of the most severe earthquakes in recorded history in just over a hundred years.

The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal registered 7.9 on the Richter scale and cost more than 8,000 lives. But prior to it, there had been four mammoth quakes, measuring 7.8 to 8.7 on the Richter scale within a span of 53 years between 1897 and 1950. The first and last occurred just 53 years apart in the region immediately south and west of the Great Bend in the Brahmaputra.

The differences between these numbers may look small, but it is necessary to remember that the Richter scale is a logarithmic scale in which every increase in represents a ten-fold increase in magnitude. The Delhi earthquake of December 18 last year measured 4.2 on the Richter scale. It caused windows to rattle and a few pictures hung on walls to shift out of alignment. Most people did not even know that it had happened. But the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake, which measured 9.0 on that scale was  80,000 times more powerful, killed more than 20,000 persons, displaced more than half-a-million and destroyed $360 billion dollars worth of property.

The 1897 earthquake measured 7.8 on the Richter scale (equivalent to the explosion of 7.6 million tonnes of dynamite, or a medium-sized hydrogen bomb) and caused widespread damage and loss of life in what was then called upper Assam. It was caused by an immense build-up of pressure as the Indian tectonic plate pressed against the Shillong Plate, which is a part of the far older Eurasian Plate.

It occurred when the entire Indian plate suddenly shifted by 11 to 16 m as it dived under the Shillong Plate over a stretch of 110 km along what is known as the Oldham fault. This is one of the largest tectonic shifts recorded anywhere in the world so far.

In terms of energy released, the 1950 earthquake was the severest of the five. It occurred at Rima, in  Tibet, not far from the site of the 1897 quake. Measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale, it is one of the ten most severe earthquakes in recorded history. Its epi-centre also lay on the faultline where the Indian continental plate hits, and is forced beneath, the Eurasian Plate.

An aftershock of this earthquake, a long way to the west of it, was severe enough to register 8.6 on the Richter scale and cause avalanches and floods that destroyed swathes of forest in the Mishmi and Abor Hills in Assam.

In terms of human life, the most costly earthquake was the Bihar earthquake of 1934, which measured 8.1 on the Richter scale and had its epicentre about 10 km south of Mount Everest. That quake killed at least 30,000 people and devastated north Bihar and Nepal.

The 1950 earthquake created mud dykes that blocked several of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra. One, in the Dibang Valley, broke quickly and caused relatively little damage. But another, at Subansiri, broke after water had collected behind it for 8 days. This unleashed a 7 metre-high wave that submerged several villages and killed 532 people in what was then a very sparsely populated area.

In all, the 1950 earthquake killed more than 1,500 persons. Today, the population of Assam is more than four times larger than what it was in 1951. One, therefore, shudders to think of how many lives a crack in even one of the nine proposed dams on the Big Bend will cost, for the gush of water will destroy every dam downstream of it and release most of the 50 billion cubic metres or more of stored water into the river valley at the bottom in one gigantic tidal wave.

Why, after keeping it on ice for a decade, has China decided to revive this project now? It cannot be a need for more power because, by 2015, China had 300,000 MW of new generating capacity that it did not need, and was forced to lower the capacity utilisation in its existing plants to below 50%, in order to give the new plants room in which to survive.

The Brahmaputra, or ‘Yarlung Tsangpo’ in China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Why now?

Western and Indian defence analysts have assumed that it is to show, and keep, India in its place after the confrontations at Doklam in 2017 and last year in Ladakh. But if that were so it would be an extremely expensive and imprecise way of doing so, because even in 2008, the estimated cost of the Great Bend project was $62 billion.

A far more plausible reason is that President Xi Jinping has allowed their revival for the same reason that he floated One Belt One Road (renamed the Belt Road Initiative) in 2014: as a desperate move to prevent mass layoffs in industry after the two-year, 4.3 trillion Yuan ($586 billion) fiscal stimulus programme that began in 2008 had run out of control, and invested 24 trillion Yuan in five years. This had created huge excess capacities in every branch of the engineering, machine building and heavy industries, which suddenly found themselves with no more orders, in 2014.

The main, although not sole, purpose of China’s shift of its investment priorities to developing its western region in the 12th Plan, and Xi’s launch of the BRI in 2013, was to create the demand for these industries so that he could avoid a massive retrenchment of labour – the one thing that the Party had to do to avoid losing the Mandate of Heaven.

The last decade has shown Beijing that the capacity of the western region to avoid investment is limited and, thanks in part to India’s refusal to join, the BRI has made a slow start. This seems to be one, if not the main, reason for the government’s revival of the Great Bend and associated projects on the lower reaches of the Yarlung-Tsangpo and for the announcement to extend its high-speed rail network to Tibet in the next few years.

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India’s riposte does not make sense

India’s riposte, that it will build a ‘parallel’ project to the one China has announced, does not make sense. This is not a competition between adolescents to show who has the stronger muscles. Building a second huge dam in the region will only double the risk to the downstream population. Indians cannot live forever with 50 billion cubic metres of stored water hanging 3,000 metres above their heads like a sword of Damocles. If the nine dams are built, it is as certain as the rising of the sun that a day will come when another mega-earthquake will strike the area and unleash a devastating flood upon upper Assam.

But China cannot be forced, only persuaded, to forego the project. India can do this if it provides an alternative destination for the investment China needs to make to make keep its workforce employed while negotiating its ‘Middle Income Trap’. This requires a reversal of India’s decision not to join the BRI. That will be easier to do if Delhi sees it as an opportunity to rapidly upgrade its infrastructure, and consolidate long term peace with China.

Doing this will require a re-education of the India public because, with its ingrained belligerence towards China, it has lauded Prime minister Narendra Modi’s boycott of the BRI as a demonstration of India’s new muscular nationalism. But now that Modi has taken the first military and political steps towards détente, he would do well to reconsider that decision too.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping had come to India with a well-publicised intention of investing $100 billion over five years in the modernisation of India’s infrastructure, but Modi made light of the offer and later effused to join the BRI. Since then, relentless Western propaganda has convinced our policymakers that they did the right thing because China’s aim was to extend its dominance across the Indo-Pacific region by tying countries to its apron strings.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, at Fishermans Cove in Kovalam near Mamallapuram. Photo: PTI

This is the opposite of what foreign investment actually does. Economic historians, from Fernand Braudel to Eric Hobsbawm, have pointed out that in capitalism, power resides in finance capital, which can be offered and withdrawn at a moment’s notice, and not in fixed capital that gets locked in the recipient nation forever.

What China hopes to gain from the BRI, is hegemony, not power. But, as Gramsci so eloquently noted, hegemony can survive only so long as it is perceived to be benign. China’s leaders not only know this but cannot afford to forget it, because their domestic economic stability, and their rising influence in the world is built upon trade, in sharp contrast to the hegemonies of Britain and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was built upon conquest and the extraction of resources to build industrial power at home. And nothing destroys trade as fast and as completely as war.

This is an updated version of an article that appears on India Climate Dialogue.