Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Hazardous ideas for the Himalayas


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not Much

Mains level: Anthropogenic threats to Himalayas

By planning hydropower projects, India and China are placing the region at great risk.

China’s new hydropower project

  • Recently China announced that it is planning to build a major hydropower project as a part of its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), on the YarlungZanbo River, in Mêdog County in Tibet.
  • The hydropower generation station is expected to provide 300 billion kWh of electricity annually.
  • The Chinese authorities say the project will help the country realize its goal of reaching a carbon emission peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060.


  • Such ‘super’ dams projects are very unviable as they are being planned in an area that is geologically unstable.
  • There are two hydropower projects being built in Arunachal Pradesh on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra: the 600 MW Kameng project on the Bichom and Tenga Rivers and the 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectricity Project.
  • China has already completed 11 out of 55 projects that are planned for the Tibetan region. In this race, the two countries overestimate their economic potential and grossly underestimate the earthquake vulnerability of the region.
  • High seismic zones coincide with areas of high population concentration in the Himalayan region where landslides and glacial lake outburst floods are common.

Practice Question:‘’Carbon neutrality should not be at the expense of the environment.” Elaborate with proper examples.

Havocs created due to these earthquakes

  • About 15% of the great earthquakes of the 20th century (with a magnitude of more than 8) occurred in the Himalayan region.
  • The northeast Himalayan band has experienced several large earthquakes of magnitude 7 and above in the last 100 years, more than the share from other parts of the Himalayas.
  • The 1950 earthquake just south of the McMahon Line was of 6 magnitudes. It was the largest continental event ever recorded and devastated Tibet and Assam.
  • The earthquake killed thousands, and caused extensive landslides, widespread land level changes and gaping fissures. It resulted in water and mud oozing in the Himalayan ranges and the upper Assam valley.
  • The earthquake was felt over an extensive area comprising parts of India, Tibet, erstwhile East Pakistan and Myanmar.
  • The2015 Gorkha earthquake of magnitude 7.8 in central Nepal resulted in huge losses in the hydropower sector. Nepal lost about 20% of its hydropower capacity consequent to the earthquake.
  • About 30 projects with a capacity of 270 MW, mostly located along the steep river valleys, were damaged.

What are the issues of high concern?

  • The main mechanisms that contributed to the vulnerability of hydropower projects were found to be landslides, which depend on the intensity of seismic ground shaking and slope gradients.
  • Heavy siltation from giant landslides expected in the project sites and headwater region from future earthquakes will severely reduce the water-holding capacity and life expectancy of such dams.
  • Even without earthquakes, the steep slopes made of soft rocks are bound to slide due to deforestation and road-building. These activities will get intensified as part of the dam-building initiatives.
  • Desilting of dams is not an economically viable proposition and is technologically challenging.

A transnational asset under threat

  • The Himalayan range is a transnational mountain chain and is the chief driver of the Asian climate.
  • It is a source for numerous Asian river systems and glaciers which are now under the threat of degradation and retreat due to global warming; these river systems provide water for billions of people.
  • The ongoing low-level military confrontations between these two countries have led to demands for further infrastructural development on both sides, including all-weather roads, much to the peril of regional biodiversity and the livelihoods of the indigenous population.
  • The Himalayas have seen the highest rate of deforestation and land-use changes.

Way Forward

  • There is a need for India and China to sit together to deliberate on the consequences of such misadventures in an area where massive earthquakes are bound to take place.
  • The upper Himalayas should be converted into a nature reserve by an international agreement.
  • The possibility of a Himalayan River Commission involving all the headwater and downstream countries needs to be explored.
  • There is a need to understand that – ‘’Carbon neutrality should not be at the expense of the environment’’.

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