China begins construction on Brahmaputra dam in Tibet

Nov 17, 2010 12:00 AM

China acknowledged that it has begun damming the Yarlong Zangbo River in Tibet in order to break ground on a 510 megawatt hydro-power project. Rising concerns from India that it will seriously degrade the flow into the Brahmaputra, one of India’s largest rivers, have so far not been addressed. The two countries have not reached an accord over the joint sharing of information related to rivers originating in Tibet that feed into India. The subject is likely to be at the top of the agenda for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao when he visits New Delhi.

The dam is being constructed in Shannan Prefecture, Tibet, about 300 km south-east of Lhasa. China has apparent desires to dam most rivers running through the region to create hydropower benefits and to enable it to sell electricity to neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh, while also servicing consumers in Guangdong Province. China maintains that the $ 1.18 bn hydropower station will be a “run of the river” project, meaning that it would generate electricity using the natural flow and elevation drop of the river with minimum downstream impact.

However, if China ends up diverting or significantly reducing the annual flow of waters into the Brahmaputra, as some suspect, the consequences could have a far reaching and highly damaging impact on Indian lands downstream. Potentially millions of Indian farmers could be affected as less water becomes available to irrigate crops and lands turn to desert. The decision is also highly controversial from the engineering perspective as the region the dam is being built in is subject to earthquakes and landslides. China claims first use rights over the Yarlong Zangbo and all of the river sources in Tibet, most of which ultimately lead into the Indian subcontinent.

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