China had announced in November 2020, plans to construct a hydropower project on the Mabja Zangbo (MZ) River in Burang County of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), at a location just 16 km north of Nepal-India-China tri-junction opposite to Kalapani area in Uttarakhand. With the occupation of TAR, China controls originating / starting points of river which flow into 18 neighbouring countries including India, Nepal, Myanmar and other Central Asian and South Asian countries. Despite the fact that these rivers affect 18 countries, China adheres to the Harmon Doctrine asserting that China has absolute control over resources within its territories. This is part of China’s larger game plan to control the water resources of Tibet and their outflows into lower riparian states.
The dam on the MZ River is an embankment type dam with a reservoir and will be used to generate power and provide drinking water supply. The Mabja Zangbo originates in Ngari county of Tibet, flows through Nepal into the Ghaghara (Karnali) River before joining the Ganga in India. Power Construction Corporation of China, began construction of this dam in May 2021 and once completed, China could control/regulate the flow of water in the Karnali River and thereby, the flow of water in the Ganga. The Karnali is the biggest tributary of the Ganga by volume of water. This may create a ‘forced water-scarcity’ to large number of people as the Karnali and Ganga are a lifeline to millions of people living in Nepal and India.
There is also a possibility that China may construct military establishment near the dam, similar to the military base near Yarlung Zangbo River (Brahmaputra) dam near Arunachal Pradesh. This will help reinforce the Chinese claim over disputed areas in the tri-junction area near Line of Actual Control. With occupation of TAR, China controls several originating / starting points of river. In a tweet on 19 January, Damien Symon, a geo-spatial intelligence researcher at Intel Lab, posted on twitter satellite images of the dam’s construction. The images show the activity since May 2021 in the Burang county of Tibet that shares its border with Nepal.
Damien Symon says “Since early 2021, China has been constructing a dam on the Mabja Zangbo river just a few kilometres north of the tri-junction border with India and Nepal. While the structure isn’t complete, the project will raise concerns regarding China’s future control on water in the region.” The images show the formation of an embankment type dam with a reservoir. They also show earth development and dam construction activity “Mabja Zangbo” (Tibetan: Macha Khabab or “the flow from peacock’s mouth”) River in Burang County of Tibet. Pertinently, China could use this dam to not only divert but also store water, which would lead to a scarcity in the regions dependent on the MZ River as also lead to lower water levels, in rivers such as the Ghaghara in Nepal. Dams close to the border could also be used by China to strengthen its claim on the disputed areas in the region.
The Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, originates in the Himalayas in Tibet. It enters India in Arunachal Pradesh, then passes through Assam and Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. China has built several smaller dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo River in recent years, triggering similar concerns related to the Brahmaputra in India’s North-East. In the case of the planned “super” dam at Medog, Chinese state-run media had reported in November 2020 that it would be more than a hydropower project as it would also be meaningful for national security.
It is worth noting that Asia’s water map has not changed overnight. It begins with with the takeover of Tibet by the Communist Party of China in 1949. As Brahma Chellaney aptly states, “It wasn’t geography but guns that established China’s chokehold on almost every major transnational river system in Asia”. The forcible absorption of the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang, China became the source of transboundary river flows to the largest number of countries in the world, extending from the Indo-China peninsula and South Asia to Kazakhstan and Russia. The fact of the matter is that China avoids entering into multilateral, basin-wide transboundary water agreements, lending credence to the assertion that China sees water resources as a sovereign rather than as a shared source.
Six of Asia’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, Indus, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong, and the Yangtse, have their origins in China. These rivers flow into as many as 18 countries, making China the upstream water hegemon. As an upper riparian state, China’s domestic demand has pushed it to dam its rivers with disastrous results for downstream nations. Additionally, China has constructed a whopping 308 dams in 70 countries. Recent estimates of China’s dam construction worldwide show that these dams generate a total of 81 GW of power. Such indiscriminate dam construction has adversely affected river courses, caused environmental degradation and resulted in floods and displacement of thousands of people living in the host nations and further downstream. Ironically, China is a water scare country and with utter disregard for the environment, it has continued to build dams. Before the CPC seized power, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. But today, it boasts more large dams than the rest of the world combined. If dams of all sizes and types are counted, their number in China surpasses 90,000! China is still building dams. The MZ River dam is the latest in this series. The problem is that while dams are built, there is complete disregard for the interests of downstream nations. That is why China is a water hegemon and one who believes that water resources in its territory is its sovereign right. International awareness of this Chinese strategy must be available. Without that it will not be possible to build a consensus, both regional and international, on the subject.