One of the characteristics of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ has been its endeavour to control environment, demonstrated mainly by its dam-building policy.
The country is home to half of the world’s roughly 50,000 large dams and many more medium and small-sized ones aimed at flood control, energy production and irrigation.
However, the World Commission on Dams has found several gaping loopholes in the whole exercise of building dams and their functioning, whether in terms of power generation or irrigation or flood control, most importantly its disastrous socio-economic implications.
Many of these dams are built in seismically volatile areas and are allegedly products of “tofu” construction (poorly constructed, involving less time and money)
Construction of reservoirs and dams has led to three major consequences in China – economic impoverishment, social instability and environmental degradation – particularly regarding resettlement.
The displaced are known to have faced immense difficulties in restoring their livelihoods, as well as in getting access to food and water and other amenities such as electricity and transport. In short, “landlessness, joblessness and homelessness” became widespread phenomena in regions that were affected by construction of dams and reservoirs.
Environmental destruction is, among others, a result of construction of dams, small or big. Those relocated in this process lose their traditional connections with the land that would eventually be flooded by the dam. In many cases, people are dislodged from relatively flat and fertile areas and resettled in inhospitable terrain or infertile hill slopes.
People begin to cultivate on steep hill slopes and in other upland areas, leading to destruction of forests and grasslands, causing soil erosion and increased water runoff.
Various studies show that China’s dams are increasingly adding to its geological vulnerability. For instance, the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake was supposedly triggered by the nearby Zipingpu Dam (Adams 2013). Southwest China is seismically vulnerable and not conducive for large projects.
China’s management of the Mekong River that originates in the Tibet has faced criticism from the entire world, particularly Southeast Asia, which is at its receiving end. Four countries of the lower Mekong basin – Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam – depend on this river for food, water and transportation; and they have been distressed by China’s activities on the river.
Dams on this river have been held responsible for drought in some of these countries.
In Thailand, fishing communities are the most-affected as they are forced to stop fishery when the water levels go down significantly.
Vietnam’s farming area that is fed by the Mekong has been threatened time and again. It is already vulnerable to sea level rise. When the freshwater flow from Tibet decreases, seawater intrusion is expected to increase and reduce the agricultural yield further.
China has refused to be a full member of the Mekong River Commission, which was formed by the lower basin countries in 1995 to monitor hydropower development in the lower Mekong basin.
Beijing has always maintained ‘strategic silence’ on its water diversion proposals and projects that makes any form of cooperation between China and its neighbours, including India, a difficult proposition.
China’s determination to implement the Great South-North Water Diversion (SNWD) Project has already unleashed several environmentally catastrophic consequences for itself and now it is alleged that it could have serious environmental implications for its neighbouring countries as well.
It is also speculated that China is planning to build the world’s largest dam and hydropower station on the Brahmaputra at the Great Bend (the place where the river takes a U-turn to enter the plains of Assam via Arunachal Pradesh). China’s lack of transparency has left experts in India and Bangladesh guessing about its future actions with respect to its diversion plans.
The Yangtze River, on which the Three Gorges Dam has been built, is the source of waters for the first two legs of this grand project. Brahmaputra River could be afflicted by the same problems the Yangtze has faced over the past few years, in the future, would directly affect India and Bangladesh.
Moreover, the areas where these giant dams have been built or are being proposed to be built are seismically highly unstable. Any tectonic activity along the border would affect both India and China adversely.
China’s water/river policies could adversely affect not only the population of other countries in its neighbourhood but also its own population. The country is also reeling under cases of corruption and environmental change-related disasters caused by its development policies.
From an Indian perspective, it is extremely difficult to predict the India-China hydro- relations not only because of the uncertainty over the impacts of environmental change on the rivers flowing from the Chinese territory to India but also due to the governance system of China that functions by and large in complete secrecy.
Although Indian and Chinese officials have held talks and the latter have agreed to share hydrological information through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej in flood season, the absence of a bilateral treaty makes it next to impossible for India to verify China’s claims.
India must galvanise the support of its neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh to prevent China from implementing large-scale diversion projects that could affect water security in the South Asian region as a whole.