China’s mind-bending megadam plan could see international tensions explode

Deep among the soaring majesty of the Himalayas where few people have ever set foot, there lies one of the most incredible natural wonders on the planet.

In the world’s deepest and longest canyon, the Yarlung Tsangpo River – the highest major river on Earth which flows almost 3000km through China, India and Bangladesh – suddenly takes a dramatic 180-degree hairpin turn known as the Great Bend.

From one side of the Great Bend to the other there’s a sheer drop in elevation of more than 2000m that has captured China’s imagination for many years.

While many of us might look at the natural beauty of the sight as something to conserve amid the industrialisation of much of the wold, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees it as an opportunity to do something which many have dubbed crazy or impossible.

They want to build the world’s biggest and most ambitious megadam to turn that remote sheer drop off the Great Bend into a powerful source of hydro-electric energy, the likes of which the world has never seen before.

The party revealed the ambitious project in its 14th five-year plan, a series of guidelines spelling out China’s priorities, which they rarely deviate from.

If built, they reckon it could produce three times more power than the world’s largest hydropower station, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

The wild idea to create a megadam in some of the world’s most inhospitable and rugged terrain has particularly interested the Chinese government in recent years because it is looking to eliminate the nation’s net carbon emissions by 2060.

After building more than 20,000 dams higher than 15m in the past 70 years, hydro-electricity is China’s second-biggest source of energy after coal.

However, this latest plan is being seen as a step too far by many analysts who say it would be the riskiest construction project of all time.

They say the remote region is almost impossible to access with the heavy equipment needed to build a megadam, and it lies in a heavily active seismic area that is not far from the epicentre of one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded.

Deadly landslides are also commonplace in this part of the world and would only be exacerbated by a huge construction project.

Megadam could blow up tensions

Perhaps most worrying of all, there’s the political impact of the construction to factor in, which could see tensions rise between the world’s two most populous nations.

Sickening violence has already flared between Indian and Chinese troops in the region in the past year because of disputes along one of the world’s longest borders, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates the two nations.

Last June, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a “violent face-off” with Chinese forces along the disputed Himalayan frontier in which soldiers battered each other to death using their fists and stones.

Tensions between India and China have not gone away and now there are two armies sitting on the border right next to where China is looking to build its megadam.

Dr Ruth Gamble, a historian of Tibet and Himalayas at La Trobe Univeristy, told the ABC News Channel this week India is concerned the dam will “basically become a hydro weapon for the Chinese”.

Chillingly, she said the fear is that China could build up water behind it and then use it as a threat to release it.

“I don’t think there is any sense in the Chinese wanting to do that, but because there isn’t very good communication between the two sides, we are getting a lot of fear and paranoia on at the Indian side as well,” she said.

Not only that, experts say the project would cause horrendous ecological damage to one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, destroy sacred sites for Tibetans and have devastating impacts on communities who live downstream.

The Yarlung Tsangpo is a transnational river system that becomes the Brahmaputra River in India, which provides 30 per cent of the country’s water. It is feared the megadam project could reduce water flows to India by 60 per cent.

Why does China want to do this?

Even by China’s standards, the megadam project would be wildly ambitious.

To give you an idea of just how crazy it is, one of the proposals is to drill a tunnel under a nearly 8km high mountain and build a hydropower plant at the bottom.

Experts have compared the logistic challenge of building the dam to the first moon landing attempt; others say it is straight-out impossible.

However, given that China usually goes ahead with whatever is in its five-year plans, it appears the CCP is determined to build it.

China has plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060 and the massive output of the proposed dam could certainly help the superpower wean itself off coal.

However, the environmental reasoning seems ironic given the massive ecological damage the structure would cause, and analysts have suggested there is another reason for China’s determination to push ahead with the plans.

Connor Dilleen, who has worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said China has a water-security problem that could pose an existential threat.

The superpower has 20 per cent of the world’s population but only 7 per cent of its fresh water.

In a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Mr Dilleen pointed out that between 1980 and 2010, water usage in Chinese households increased elevenfold and in industrial sectors, threefold, but per capita available water in China amounts to only a quarter of the world average.

Climate change, causing glacial retreat in the Himalayas, will only make this worse and there is also a huge imbalance within China when it comes to water supply.

Over 80 per cent of China’s water is in the south, whereas half of its population and two-thirds of its farmland are in the north.

“Given this context, Beijing’s announcement late last year that it was moving ahead with plans to construct the world’s largest hydropower dam at Motuo on the Yarlung Tsangpo river is likely as much about water security as it is about clean energy,” Mr Dilleen said.

“Beijing’s decision to proceed with the dam makes more sense in light of the likelihood of its being integrated into China’s South-North Water Transfer Project.

“This project is designed to resolve the water shortage problem in China’s north by moving water through 1500km-long canals.”

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