China nod for downstream dam on Brahmaputra

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Project marks a new phase in the exploitation of the river, with potential ramifications for India

  • China’s media reported on Sunday that authorities have given the go-ahead for a Chinese hydropower company to construct the first downstream dam on the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra river, or Yarlung Zangbo as it is known in Tibet, marking a new phase in China’s hydropower exploitation of the river with potential ramifications for India.
  • The state-owned hydropower company POWERCHINA had last month signed “a strategic cooperation agreement” with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government to “implement hydropower exploitation in the downstream of the Yarlung Zangbo River” as part of the new Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).
  • China in 2015 operationalised its first hydropower project at Zangmu in Tibet, while three other dams at Dagu, Jiexu and Jiacha are being developed, all on the upper and middle reaches of the river. 
  • There is no parallel in history” and the downstream reaches of the river offered “a historic opportunity for the Chinese hydropower industry”.

 

Potential spot

  • This 50-km section alone offered the potential of developing 70 million kWh “which equals more than three Three Gorges power stations”. 
  • The 60-million kWh hydropower exploitation at the downstream of the Yarlung Zangbo River could provide 300 billion kWh of clean, renewable and zero-carbon electricity annually and the project “will play a significant role in realising China’s goal of reaching a carbon emissions peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060”.
  • It is a project for national security, including water resources and domestic security.
  • It remains unclear whether technical feasibility studies for the downstream dams will be approved, as POWERCHINA is not the first hydropower company to push for ambitious dams downstream on the Zangbo.
  • Chinese hydropower groups have long campaigned to tap the “Great Bend”, but projects have so far not taken off over concerns over the technical feasibility in the steep Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon.
  • India has expressed concerns to China over the four dams on the upper and middle reaches, though Indian officials have said the dams are not likely to impact the quantity of the Brahmaputra’s flows in India greatly because they are only storing water for power generation and the Brahmaputra is not entirely dependent on upstream flows with an estimated 35% of its basin in India.
  • A dam at the Great Bend, if approved, would raise fresh concerns, considering its location downstream and just across the border from Arunachal Pradesh.
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