Chinese authorities have given the go-ahead for a 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.
Quoting Chinese media, India’s The Hindu reports 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. The report said this will be the first time the downstream sections of the river will be tapped.
“There is no parallel in history” and the downstream reaches of the river offered “a historic opportunity for the Chinese hydropower industry”, Yan Zhiyong, POWERCHINA’s chairman, told a conference last week, the Global Times newspaper reported.
The report did not mention the location of POWERCHINA’s planned downstream project, but quoted Yan as talking about the particular potential offered at the “Great Bend” of the Brahmaputra and at the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon in Medog county, where the river falls spectacularly over a 2,000 metre-drop and turns sharply to flow across the border into Arunachal Pradesh.
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