Water as a weapon

China’s main aim is to equip itself with strategic leverage over India. Such huge water storage could be used as a tool for consolidating supremacy in the disputed territories. China is using Tibetan waters to further its territorial ambitions

Water as a weapon

China is building a “super” dam on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tibet, a state media report said, in a move that could have a far-reaching impact on India’s northeast water security.

Originating from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the trans-border Yarlung Zangbo flows into Arunachal Pradesh where it is called Siang and then to Assam as Brahmaputra before flowing into Bangladesh. The state media report indicated that the dam could come up in the Medog county of TAR, which is close to Arunachal Pradesh. China has already built several smaller dams on the Yarlung Zangbo River over which India has conveyed its concerns to Beijing.

The new dam’s ability to generate hydropower could be three times that of central China’s Three Gorges Dam, which has the largest installed hydropower capacity in the world. Besides generation of power, the new dam will focus on maintaining China’s national security. After the completion of dam, China will be able to control the flow of water in Brahmaputra River, which is a serious cause of concern to India.


In 2017, China had stopped sharing data soon after the 73day-long standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam near the Sikkim border over the Chinese military’s plans to build a road close to India’s Chicken Neck corridor connecting the Northeastern states.

In 2018, a MoU was inked between China’s Ministry of Water Resources and India’s Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation on sharing hydrological information of the Brahmaputra River in flood season by China with India.

The agreement enables China to provide hydrological data in flood season from 15 May to 15 October every year. It also enables the Chinese side to provide hydrological data if water level exceeds mutually agreed levels during non-flood season. Beijing also shares data on rivers flowing into north India. But the apprehension that China could “weaponise” cross-border rivers remains.

“For India, the one domain in which China’s status as the ‘upper riparian’ provides an almost insurmountable challenge is in ensuring shared access to Transboundary Rivers. And as the recent clashes on the SinoIndian border have made clear, India needs to assess how China might ‘weaponise’ its advantage over those countries downstream. Control over these rivers effectively gives China a chokehold on India’s economy,” a Lowy Institute report in July said. “There is no parallel in history of the project. It will be a historic opportunity for the Chinese hydropower industry,” Yan Zhiyong, chairman of the Power Construction Corp of China, or Powerchina said. The initial work on the dam began with Powerchina on October 16 signing a strategic cooperation agreement covering the 14th Five-Year Plan with the Tibet Autonomous Region government. Yan added that the hydropower exploitation of the Yarlung Zangbo River downstream “is more than a hydropower project. It is also meaningful for environment, national security, living standards, energy and international cooperation.”

China will “implement hydropower exploitation in the downstream of the Yarlung Zangbo River,” Yan said, adding that the plan was put forward in the proposals for formulating the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) and its long-term goals through 2035 made by the CPC’s Central Committee. According to Yan 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. “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,” Yan said.

“Speculations about China planning to build a ‘super hydropower station’ in Medog County, where the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon is located, have circulated for years. Medog, with a population of about 14,000, was China’s last county to be connected to the outside world with a highway,” a report in state-owned Global Times said. Academics have long pointed out China’s strategic advantage over India in terms of international transboundary rivers. “China has claimed express ownership over Tibet’s waters, making it an upstream controller of seven of South Asia’s mightiest rivers ~ the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Yangtze, and Mekong. These rivers flow into Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, and form the largest river run-off from any single location…Nearly half that water, 48 per cent, runs directly into India,” the Lowy Institute said in the backdrop of the ongoing India-China border friction in eastern Ladakh.

The Global Times report quoted an expert saying that dams on cross-border projects cannot be developed without the cooperation between upstream and downstream countries.

“Hydropower projects on cross-border rivers cannot be developed without communication and cooperation between upstream and downstream countries,” Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the newspaper.

Dechen Palmo, research fellow, Tibetan Policy Institute, Central Tibetan Administration has in an article said, “The timing of the announcement of dam can be linked to the ongoing border tensions, which is rooted in China’s refusal to acknowledge the McMahon Line. Instead Beijing claims 90,000 sq kms in Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet (Nan Zang). China’s aggression has been increasing in the Ladakh and Sikkim sectors. Now, the building of a dam so close to LAC in Arunachal Pradesh also underlines China’s strategic intent: To question India’s territorial integrity.”

The main aim of China is to equip itself with strategic leverage over India. Such huge water storage could be used as a tool for consolidating supremacy in the disputed territories. China is using Tibetan waters to further its territorial ambitions.

India must take up with China the 1997 United Nations Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses that specifically focuses on shared water resources. It established two key principles to guide the conduct of nations regarding shared watercourses: “equitable and reasonable use” and “the obligation not to cause significant harm” to neighbours. There is a consensus among experts that international watercourse agreements need to be more concrete, setting out measures to enforce treaties made and incorporating detailed conflict resolution mechanisms in case disputes erupt.