Large Chinese dams on the Mekong River have been blamed for disrupting water flows into countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, while Chinese dam-building projects in places such as Burma and Cambodia have been criticized for displacing people and causing environmental havoc.
As its demand for power soars, China has become the world’s largest dam builder, and its latest five-year energy plan, announced last month, laid out proposals for more hydroelectric plants, including three medium-size dams on the Yarlung Zangbo, as the Brahmaputra is known there.
Many experts say the dam proposals pose no immediate threat to India because they will not create large reservoirs. Instead, they are run-of-the-river projects, which harness the water’s energy as it flows through underground tunnels. The dams also would lie upstream from the river’s main water-catchment area.
But the fact that the Indian government learned of the plans through Chinese media reports has raised hackles here. With one eye on public opinion, New Delhi issued an unusually testy statement last week, reminding Beijing of India’s “considerable established user rights to the waters of the river.” India has “conveyed its views and concerns at the highest levels” of the Chinese government, Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.
His counterpart in Beijing said China has always taken a responsible approach toward the development of cross-border rivers.
“Any new project has to go through scientific planning and study with consideration of the interests of lower- and upper-stream countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
Nevertheless, critics here say the developments are typical of China’s secrecy-shrouded dam program, especially in Tibet, and of its lack of regard for downstream neighbors. Indian media have frequently blamed flash floods on unannounced discharges of water from Chinese dams elsewhere in the Himalayas.
“They should give us all the information, the height of the dam, how much water it will hold and how much it is going to divert . . . and then decide how to proceed,” said Yashwant Sinha, who was India’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004 and is a leading figure in the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “Instead we hear about it through the media. They do things very, very stealthily.”
The latest plans also have provided more ammunition for the likes of Brahma Chellaney, who is with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and who has been warning for years that Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra pose a serious long-term threat to the livelihoods of farmers, not only in India but even more so farther downstream in Bangladesh.