Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Chinese hydro-hegemony over Brahmaputra


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Brahmaputra and its tributaries

Mains level : Hydrodiplomacy over Brahmaputra River


India has planned to build a buffer reservoir in the proposed Arunachal hydropower project to counter China’s proposed 60,000 MW Medog hydropower project on the Brahmaputra River.

Brahmaputra hydrology: A tool of aggression for China

  • China has continued to use the water of river Brahmaputra for its interest and has intentionally created hazardous conditions for downstream states like India and Bangladesh.
  • Concerns over China’s proposed 60,000 MW hydropower in Medog, Tibet are influencing the design of a proposed hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Siang district.
  • Still only in the planning stage, a ‘pre-feasibility report’ on the 11,000 MW project, or more than five times the size of the largest such projects in India – has been submitted.

What is Medog super-dam Project?

  • China is planning a mega dam in Tibet able to produce triple the electricity generated by the Three Gorges—the world’s largest power station.
  • The structure will span the Brahmaputra River before the waterway leaves the Himalayas and flows into India.
  • It is billed as able to produce 300 billion kilowatts of electricity each year and said to be largest dam in the world once completed.

India’s plan: To build buffer reservoir

  • The design of the proposed project incorporates a buffer storage” of 9 billion cubic metres (or about 9 billion tonnes of water) during monsoonal flow.
  • This could act as a store of water worth a year’s flow that would normally be available from the Brahmaputra or buffer against sudden releases.

Threats posed by Medog Project

Chinese dams can hold large amounts of water, during times of droughts China could stop the flow of the river, jeopardizing the lives of millions of people in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Bangladesh.

  • Reduced flow in the Brahmaputra: The 60,000 MW dam in Medog could reduce the natural flow of water from the Brahmaputra.
  • Triggering artificial floods: Away from India during lean patches, it might be used to trigger “artificial floods” in the Brahmaputra basin.
  • Degradation of the entire basin: Silt carried by the river would get blocked by dams leading to a fall in the quality of soil and eventual reduction in agricultural productivity.
  • Seismic threats: Seismologists consider the Himalayas as most vulnerable to earthquakes and seismic activity.
  • Ecological threats: The cumulative impact of these two megaprojects might aggravate ecological degradation, converting lotic ecosystems into lentic ones.
  • Water security: Damming Brahmaputra would result in water security in an era of unprecedented shifting climate patterns.
  • Catastrophic threat: Any damage to the mega dam, if constructed here, will cause dam breaching and consequent flood havoc in India and Bangladesh.

Why are such issues unaddressed?

  • No treaty on water sharing: We do not have any bilateral or multilateral treaty or any other effective and formal instrument of understanding for collaborative management of the Brahmaputra River.
  • Hostility over borders: Undemarcated borders are at the core of all hostilities between India and China.

India’s dilemma

  • Flood control dichotomy: India’s hydropower projects, while potentially beneficial in controlling flooding from the Brahmaputra in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
  • No deterrence to China: This might not necessarily serve as a strategic deterrent to China.
  • Resentment to Bangladesh: A large dam in India may help control floods within India but might open fresh disputes over water sharing with Bangladesh downstream.

Way forward

  • There must be collaborative management of our shared rivers.
  • Hydro-diplomacy should form an important ingredient of Indian foreign policy, especially as India shares river basins with neighbors.

Brahmaputra River


  • Origin → Chemayungdung Glacier (Kailash Range, Tibet)
  •     In Tibet, known as TSANG – PO
  •     In China, known as YARLUNG ZANBO
  •     Forms grand canyon in Tibet
  •     Turns southward near Namcha – Barwa
  •     Enters Arunachal Pradesh as Dihang River at Sadiya, emerging from the mountains
  •     Joined by Dibang river from the north & Lohit river from the south → Known as Brahamputra
  •     Turns at Dhubri to enter into Bangladesh
  •     After joining Teesta, known as Jamuna in BD
  •     Joins Ganga & Megna → Merges to BOB.
  •     Forms many river island of which Majuli is world 2nd largest one
  •     Major tributaries → Dihang, Lohit, Subansiri, Teesta, Meghna (Barack in Assam), Manas


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