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Does China want to build big dams on Brahmaputra to keep India in its place?

NEW DELHI: At a time when Chinese and Indian troops are disengaging in Ladakh, the China’s recent move to lift an embargo on hydropower projects in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river in Tibet is set to pose a much bigger threat to India in the long run.

Among 40 proposed dams in the Tibetan stretch of the Brahmaputra, 20 will be on the Yarlung Tsangpo. Nine of those 20 projects at the ‘Great Bend’ along the Indo-Sino border, will be gigantic ones designed to generate 40,000 MW of the estimated 60,000 MW of power to be generated by the 20 plants together, an analysis in The Wire said.

The ‘Great Bend’ is a huge ‘U’ turn of the river and falls from 3,500m altitude on the Tibetan Plateau to 700m in the plains of Arunachal Pradesh in just a few kilometre.

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The dams were proposed in 2007-08 by the China Yangtze Power Company (CYPC) in which the family of former premier Li Peng has a controlling interest, in conjunction with the state-owned Three Gorges Dam Company, but were shelved by premier Wen Jiabao.

The CYPC had proposed a huge tunnel under the ridge that separates the two arms of the ‘Great Bend’ and diverts 50 billion cubic metre of water a year to the south eastern slope where it will fall over nine cascading hydropower dams, according to the report in The Wire.

The ‘Great Bend’ sits at the meeting point of the Himalayas and two other mountain ranges and is atop one of the most unstable seismic zones in the world. The zone has seen five of the most severe earthquakes in just over 100 years.

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The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale killed over 8,000. Prior to that, four mammoth quakes took place, measuring 7.8 to 8.7 on the Richter scale between 1897 and 1950.

The 1950 earthquake was the severest of the five. It occurred at Rima, in Tibet. Measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale, it is one of the 10 most severe earthquakes in history. Its epicentre lay on the faultline where the Indian continental plate hits, and is forced beneath, the Eurasian Plate.

According to the article in The Wire, the 1950 earthquake created mud dykes that blocked several of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra. One, in the Dibang Valley, broke quickly and caused relatively little damage. But another, at Subansiri, broke after water had collected behind it for eight days. This unleashed a seven-metre-high wave that submerged many villages and killed 532 people.

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In all, the 1950 earthquake killed more than 1,500 people. The population of Assam has grown more than four times than in 1951. One, therefore, shudders to think of how many lives a crack in even one of the nine proposed dams on the ‘Great Bend’ would cost, for the gush of water will destroy every dam downstream and release most of the 50 billion cubic metre or more of stored water into the river valley at the bottom in a monstrous tidal wave.

If the nine dams are built, it is as certain that a day will come when another mega-earthquake will strike the zone and unleash a devastating flood upon Upper Assam.

But, why would China need that extra 60,000 MW of power now when its power generation was already 3 lakh MW surplus way back in 2015?

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Western and Indian defence analysts assume that it is to show, and keep, India in its place after the confrontations at Doklam in 2017 and last year in Ladakh. But that would be too expensive a way because the projects were estimated to cost $62 billion way back in 2008 itself, The Wire reported.

A far more plausible reason is that president Xi Jinping has allowed their revival for the same reason that he floated One Belt One Road (renamed the Belt Road Initiative) in 2014: as a desperate move to prevent mass layoffs in industry after the two-year, 4.3 trillion Yuan ($586 billion) fiscal stimulus programme that began in 2008 had run out of control, and invested 24 trillion Yuan in five years. This had created huge excess capacities in every branch of the engineering, machine building and heavy industries, which suddenly found themselves with no more orders, in 2014, the portal’s analysis said.

But China can only be persuaded to forego the project. India can do this if it provides an alternative destination for the investment China needs to make to make to keep its workforce employed while negotiating its ‘Middle Income Trap’. This requires a reversal of India’s decision not to join the BRI. That will be easier to do if New Delhi sees it as an opportunity to rapidly upgrade its infrastructure and consolidate long-term peace with China, the analyst summed up in The Wire.

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