Stealing the taps – the environmental and geopolitical consequences of Chinese damming of Tibet
Updated: Mar 28
Tibet is the climate epicentre of the world. Situated on the Tibetan plateau, the highest on earth, it contains the largest reserves of freshwater outside of the Poles. Each of Asia’s ten major river systems originate in the Tibetan plateau, and billions of people depend on Tibet’s waters for their survival. The cyclical heating of the Tibetan plateau is a driving force of Indian monsoons, and its snow cover has been shown to contribute to heatwaves as far as Europe and North America. Tibet’s climate plays a key role in regulating that of Asia and of the wider world. Yet, Tibet is suffering the fastest global warming anywhere in the world, three times faster than the global average. Over 6,000 of its glaciers have disappeared in the past fifty years, and its snow cover is rapidly shrinking. This is already having catastrophic results in the regions downstream. The number of floods in India rose from 67 to 90 between 2006-2015, a steep rise of 34% in less than a decade. The impact is most severe in Pakistan, where floods from the Indus River which originates in Tibet have affected 30 million people and killed over 1,000 since June alone.
China has been rapidly building dams on Tibetan rivers since it invaded in 1949. It has built hundreds across Tibet and 11 on the Mekong River since 1995, and plans to create the world’s largest dam on the Brahmaputra River. More than 50,000 dams have been built on the Yangtze River, Tibet's largest and the third-largest in the world, since 1950 alone. Chinese damming of Tibet’s rivers poses massive threats to not just Tibet’s water security and local population, but that of the Asian continent. Furthermore, it has significant geopolitical implications, giving China enormous strategic advantages over its neighbours in a time where water security is increasingly under threat, and is fuelling a water arms race between it and India, the two biggest powers in the Asian continent. No environmental narrative is complete without the recognition of Tibetan climate change, and this paper seeks to reveal its scale, causes, and effects, and recommend policies that the Asian and international community should take to halt its devastating effects.
Why China is damming Tibet
China has severe water problems. This year it recorded its highest temperatures ever, and average rainfall fell 23% to 82mm, the third-lowest since records began in 1961. The heatwave between mid-June to the end of August was the “most severe” since records began, in terms of duration, extent, intensity, and impact. It has caused widespread droughts and agricultural crises with 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land across six provinces being affected. An estimated 70% of China’s population relies on groundwater as its source of drinking water, yet over 50% of its rivers are too polluted to be drinkable. Its supplies of drinking water are also facing severe shortages.
As well as facing agricultural and drinking water crises, China’s energy production is being weakened. As the drought dries up rivers, hydropower generation is rapidly dwindling. Sichuan, one of the areas suffering drought, produces 30% of China’s hydropower – yet its hydropower production has plummeted by more than 50%, and will only dwindle further as the drought continues. As hydropower decreases and Chinese energy demand rises amidst an effort to revitalise its staggering manufacturing-and-export-based economy, China is forced to use more coal. In a direct response to the energy crunch caused by the droughts, power plants burned 15% more thermal coal each day for the first two weeks of August compared to last year. However, given that the droughts are a direct effect of China’s use of fossil fuels, this is a short-term fix that will only compound the deeper problem.
Worse still, China’s uneven resource distribution further exacerbates the problem. 80% of water is concentrated in South China while its northern and eastern regions require urgent supplies. The northern regions due to their aridity, housing the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts, and the eastern regions due to their roles as the powerhouses of China’s economy. As the northern regions become increasingly dry and the eastern regions seek to boost production, China will need to divert water to those regions.
The local effects and future risks
For these difficulties in irrigation, drinking water, and hydropower, China plans to exponentially increase damming and has turned to Tibet to fulfil its water needs. As of 2020, China has dammed every major river on the Tibetan Plateau, including the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, and the Indus. More than 50,000 dams have been built on the Yangtze River alone since 1950. These dams have devastating effects on the local Tibetan climate and people. The CCP has given the green-light for the construction of the Longpan dam that will alone forcibly displace an estimated 100,000 Tibetans and other ethnic minorities. This is part of a massive campaign of forcibly displacing nomads from their ancestral lands to make way for industrial projects – China has forcibly displaced over 1 million nomads since the 1990’s alone, which is equivalent to an entire sixth of the Tibetan population.
The construction of these dams often causes landslides and floods that damage, largely irreversibly, Tibetan landscapes and communities. In 2016, China constructed a hydropower station on Boluo area of the Yangtze River. A mere two years later, the area was hit by two landslides in three weeks, causing the evacuation of 30,000 thousand people and the total devastation and flooding of the township. Chinese negligence was present even in the response to the catastrophe – China took six days to send machinery to remove earth from the landslide This occurred on an even worse scale in Sichuan. In 2008, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake killed 88,000 people and left millions homeless. Multiple Chinese and international studies concluded that the 320 million tonnes of water in the Zipingpu Reservoir just 5.5km from the earthquake’s centre was the cause. However, Wang Ziaofeng, director of the State Council’s Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, the committee in charge of the reservoir’s creation, dismissed the results of the studies and did not implement any review or change to the dam’s operations. Little wonder, then, that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake occurred again in the region in 2017, as a direct cause of Chinese officials’ complacency and cost-cutting. These seismic risks do not just extend to these two examples. A 2012 study by Probe International found that 99.7% of Chinese dams in Tibet are located in zones of moderate to very heigh seismic hazard. Essentially every one of China’s dams is a severe earthquake risk.
The downstream effects and future risks
As well as damaging Tibet’s climate, damming harms downstream countries too. The Mekong River provides a stark example of this. The Mekong River is home to the largest inland fishery in the world, accounting for an estimated 25% of global freshwater catches, but its fish population has plummeted. An Giang in Vietnam, the first and main distributary of the Mekong, lost over 80% of freshwater fish catches between 2000-2020 – more than 76,100 tonnes, equivalent to the average fish consumption of 3.7 million people in a year. Studies show that China’s Lancang Cascade (the six main upstream dams on the Mekong) have caused “significant alteration of the flow regimes and reduction of the sediment load of the lower Mekong River”, trapping as much as 83% of the sediment generated from the upper Mekong River Basin – some studies predict that only 4% of the Mekong River’s sediment would reach the delta annually if all planned 133 dams are constructed in the future.
Similar things are happening to the Yangtze River. The Yangtze is China’s biggest freshwater fishery, but since the Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam in the world, was completed in 2012 the downstream population of carp has fallen by 90%. Fish is a significant part of diets across China, with 42% of its population eating it regularly, and China is expected to account for 38% of global fish consumption by 2030. Chinese damming is not only affecting the diets of downstream countries, but also its own.
Damming also causes increased flood risk for downstream countries. The Brahmaputra is the largest river in India and the ninth largest in the world, and is crucial for the livelihoods of over 130 million people in the regions of China, India, and Bangladesh it flows through. However, it is posing an increasingly great danger to its downstream countries. Tibetan glacial melt is occurring fastest in Tibet’s south-eastern regions, the same regions which contribute most to the feeding of the Brahmaputra. In 2014, China constructed its first dam on the Brahmaputra, sparking public outcry from India and Bangladesh at having been misled as to its size, and plans to build four more. In the face of increasingly rapid melting of the glaciers that feed the Brahmaputra, these dams are going to rapidly increase its water levels, creating immense water pressure on the dams and exponentially increasing the risks of floods. The Brahmaputra’s levels have already been rising rapidly, with Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the first areas it enters in India, seeing daily rises of 10-20 inches since July 2021. This poses catastrophic risks of flooding for India and Bangladesh, and endangers the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions.
China has also mentioned plans to redivert the Brahmaputra’s waters to create a “western route” for its South-to-North Water Diversion Project. India’s total water demand is expected to rise by over 70% by 2025, and this would not only cause grave flood risks at the points of the river at which the water is diverted, but would also deprive India of the water it needs to sustain itself.
Despite the legitimate concerns of its neighbours about the massive threats that China’s water policy poses to them, China has not shared its water but has continued to hoard it. The Mekong River experienced a severe drought in 2019, with its water levels running so low that irrigation pumps could not reach it. At first, the Mekong River Commission put this down to low rainfall induced by climate change - China, a “dialogue member” of the commission, did nothing to correct this explanation. However, a study by US-based climate consultant, Eyes on Earth, used satellite analysis to show that the headwaters and upper reaches of the Mekong, respectively located in Tibet and China, had an overabundance of water. Using its dams, China had taken the Mekong's water for itself and left the lower reaches of the Mekong to dry. Earth Eye’s data has been described as “beyond reproach” and is clear evidence of Chinese hoarding of water at the expense of downstream countries.
More than hoarding water, China has actively weaponised it as an instrument of punishment. The Doklam crisis was a military standoff that occurred in 2017 wherein China sought to extend a road into Doklam, a disputed territory that China claims as its own and India and Bhutan claim as Bhutan’s. The dispute ended with both sides withdrawing their troops and China undoing its construction of the road. The resolution of the crisis was seen as a diplomatic victory for India and a loss of face for China, prompting anger in Beijing. It is thus no surprise that during the peak flood season, which coincided with the height of the standoff, China shared hydrological data with Bangladesh but not India, leaving it unprepared for massive flooding of the Brahmaputra that killed 85 people and left over half a million homeless. As the frequency of flooding rises, China’s using hydrological information as political tit-for-tat becomes an increasingly serious danger to downstream countries.
The Mekong and Brahmaputra are just two examples which illustrate the dangers of Chinese damming. With this in mind, China’s ambitions to build the world’s largest dam over the Brahmaputra are terrifying. Even though construction of the new dam is not yet completed, China already owns the world’s biggest dam, the Three Gorges Dam. The planned dam will produce over triple the electricity the Three Gorges Dam does. Construction is already underway.
This dam, as do all dams in Tibet, damages not just Tibet’s climate but also its cultural heritage. Both the native pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet, the Bon religion, and Tibetan Buddhism contain a wide pantheon of deities and, given Tibet’s abundance of rivers, water deities are often the most revered of them. The Yarlung Tsangpo is among Tibet’s most culturally significant rivers, representing the body of Dorje Phagmo, one of the highest incarnations in Tibetan Buddhism. Respect of rivers is a fundamental cornerstone of Tibetan culture, and Tibetans would never fish or dump waste and excrement in them out of reverence for water deities. Given the significance of Tibetan rivers in Tibetan culture, Chinese damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo and other rivers is the destruction of one of Tibet’s most precious cultural sites. As well as China’s widescale destruction of Tibetan monasteries, its destruction to Tibetan environment and therefore its culture is what is meant by the “cultural genocide” occurring in Tibet. Tibetan geography is inseparable from Tibetan culture, and thus Chinese environmental destruction of Tibet not only damages the land but the very identity of the Tibetan people.
Apart from the local damage the dam will do to Tibet’s climate, community, and culture, the risks the dam already posed to downstream countries will massively skyrocket and escalate tensions between China and India. In response, India plans to build a dam of its own on the Brahmaputra in retaliation. This will be India’s second-biggest dam and could spark a water arms race between the two superpowers with disastrous effects for the region.
Current policy and policy solutions
Unless China comes to a multilateral agreement with downstream states over water distribution and damming, Chinese damming will not be curbed and will continue to endanger hundreds of millions of people. However, historically, China has proven itself to be disinclined towards cooperation. It was one of three countries to vote against the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. It has also, as shown with India, shown that it is willing to use its hydrological data as a means of political retaliation, as well as misleading other countries with false details of its dam projects. This seriously undermines trust between China and its downstream neighbours, and allows China to act in a unilateral and unchecked manner. Legally binding multilateral agreements with downstream countries are crucial in ensuring China’s legitimacy and the fairness and sustainability of regional water distribution.
In fairness, China has taken some steps towards this. Despite China breaking it in not sharing hydrological data with India in 2017, China and India signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with India in 2002 in which China swore to provide India with hydrological data in the Brahmaputra’s flood season. The two countries also signed a separate MOU on “Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-Border Rivers” in 2013 which the scope for sharing hydrological information of three separate hydrological stations was enhanced. A need for a trans-border cooperation for an early warning system for the Sutlej River was felt by India in 2004, and so they also signed a specific MOU in 2005 wherein China swore to provide India with hydrological information on the Sutlej. It has been renewed twice, with China keeping its word. China should also allow India to inspect and research its dams on the Brahmaputra to allay its fears, and actively help them facilitate this.
In the face of severe mistrust between India and China, MOU’s like these have the potential to rebuild trust and cooperation between the nations. It is in the interests of both China and India to create more in the future.
China has also signed a 2019 MOU with Myanmar which included water resource development strategic policy and plans, multi-purpose management cooperation in water resources, management of natural disasters such as flooding and drought, assessment and prediction of water data, water resource management, and technological training. Given that the Mekong River also flows through Myanmar, this seems like an important and encouraging step in cooperation.
Yet, there have been concerns that China is guilty of hypocrisy in its water policies towards Myanmar. Citing earthquakes and environmental concerns, China suspended all of its projects on the Salween River which flows through its southwest and Myanmar’s east. Environmentalists praised this as a majorly progressive step for the CCP, since it was the first time that the government‘s Five Year National Energy Plan had excluded all 13 dam projects on the Salween.
However, while China stopped dam-building on its side of the Salween, it had been pushing Aung San Su Kyi’s new and inexperienced government to continue with five mega-dam projects approved by Myanmar’s previous regime. Two Chinese corporations, the Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro, have significant financial stakes in the dam, and under the terms of the agreement, 90% of its generated electricity would flow to China and Thailand. The seismic fault lines that China cited as its reason for stopping damming in China continue down into Myanmar, and so Myanmar faces the exact same risks that made China halt construction on its side of the Mekong.
While China was lobbying Aung San Su Kyi’s new government to construct the dams, it had simultaneously not given Myanmar’s Ministry of Energy or the Myanmar Earthquake Committee any warning of the dams’ potential earthquake risks. This is a stark example of how these MOU’s can pay only lip-service to environmental regulations while masking selfish and anti-environmental motives, and other signatories to the deals must ensure that China complies with the spirit, as well as the letter, of its policies.
A similar tension arises in the Lancang Mekong Cooperation Forum. The LMC is a multilateral format between China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam that was established by China in 2016. Its five priority areas are (i) regional connectivity, (ii) industrial cooperation, (iii) cross-border economic cooperation, (iv) water resources management, and (v) agriculture cooperation and poverty reduction. The voluntary establishment of a multilateral framework is an unusual step for China, and could be viewed in a positive light as signs the country desires to accommodate the interests of its downstream neighbours. The LMC has made progress in several areas, such as achieving two-way power transmission between China and Laos for the first time, and in the transparent sharing of hydrological information. However, it is not legally binding and there already exist legally binding agreements between the other members that China can join rather than creating its own. In light of this, it is tempting to see the LMC as another attempt by China to pay lip-service to environmentalism and equitable distribution, and to use concerns of sovereignty to block any external powers from monitoring its activity under the LMC.
It is also important to understand LMC as an extension of the wider Belt and Road Initiative, and therefore the dangers of economic coercion and debt traps it poses. For example, Laos is teetering on the edge of defaulting on its debts to China. AidData Lab at the College of William and Mary tracks debt for China’s BRI projects and found that the total value of Laos’ public debt to China is $12.2 billion – 63% of the country’s entire GDP. Laos’ indebtedness to China can very feasibly translate into it making concessions to China within the LMC. Similarly, China is Myanmar’s biggest trade partner in both import and exports, accounting for over 30% of its trade. Given this, the signatories to the LMC must recognise their susceptibility to the related economic pressures they are under from China, and navigate it carefully and with open eyes.
China must join legally-binding and internationally-monitored water distribution agreements. A powerful way to ensure that China abides by fair principles of water distribution is to appoint extra-regional nations with no interest in the dams to oversee the enforcement of agreements – an example of this could be appointing a relatively neutral country like Kiribati to oversee the implementation of the LMC. It would also greatly increase trust between China and its downstream neighbours if China were to make the LMC and its MOU’s legally binding – they are currently non-binding and as such have very limited effectiveness and are essentially rhetorical. There are already aforementioned legally binding initiatives that China can join such as the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for Sustainable Development in the Mekong River Basin which has substantive rules regarding equitable utilisation, due diligence not to cause human or environmental harm, and information sharing. China is not party to the 1995 agreement, nor to the commission overseeing its implementation, the Mekong River Commission, preferring instead to engage from a distance as a legally non-binding “dialogue partner”. China should join the 1995 and the MRC, which can be amended to include Chinese interests – doing so would be a significant step in showing that it is serious about equitable water distribution and mitigating environmental concerns.
Regarding Tibet, China should immediately curb its industrial activity that is causing accelerated glacial melt, floods, and landslides that devastate Tibet’s climate and communities, and downstream parts of India and indeed China itself. Specifically, it should seek to rapidly curb the activity of its dams and hydrological power stations in order to mitigate the myriad risks they pose.
China should also halt construction of its second dam on the Brahmaputra and find alternate means of generating power and providing water to its dryer regions. The former could include, but is not limited to, increasing solar and wind power use and facilities, especially in China’s hot and gusty deserted regions, upgrading existing power infrastructure to make it more efficient, and imposing regulations on excessive and wasteful power consumption such as when it turned off Shanghai’s famous decorative lights for two days.
The latter could include, but is not limited to, upgrading China’s inefficient water infrastructure, continuing to use measures such as the artificial rain production it used to combat August’s droughts, and cleaning up China’s already existing water supplies. This last measure is of particular importance, given that more than half of China’s rivers are too polluted to serve as sources of drinking water yet 70% of Chinese use groundwater as their source of drinking water.
To give it alternatives to dam-building, China must boost national and international investment in domestic water infrastructure. This and all of the above could be facilitated by opening these initiatives up to private and foreign investment on a case-by-case basis, and loosening the CCP’s protectionist public services model. In parallel to this, it could seek to eliminate some of the cumbersome bureaucracy that is an inevitable effect of having these initiatives under state control and decentralise some initiatives to local governments, while still ensuring transfer of data and communication between them.
China should also actively encourage and facilitate international monitoring of Tibetan climate change, and seek maximum transparency in the publication and availability of data regarding it. Given the global effects of Tibetan climate change, China should enter into scientific and policy dialogue with the international community to mitigate its effects. Crucially, it should also include Tibetan researchers who understand their land and the threats to it better than anyone, and can give key on-the-ground insights and solutions.
As well as this, China should compensate the Tibetan people for the destruction it has done to their lands and way of life. Even though it will never be enough to replace the priceless damage it has done, the millions of Tibetans who have been forcibly displaced or otherwise affected by the CCP’s industrial activity should be given financial compensation and local investment. China should also begin concerted efforts to clean up Tibet, particularly in sites such as disused mines where industry is non-active but its remnants are still damaging the environment.
China has set goals to boost its non-pumped hydro energy storage capacity (hydroelectric dams count as this) to around 30GW by 2025 and 100GW by 2030 – a more than 3000% increase from 3.3GW in 2020. The sheer scale of China’s hydrological ambition underscores the imperative of curbing it and the dangers of it continuing unchecked.
Chinese industrial activity in Tibet has devastating consequences for both it and the rest of the world. Its dams have already caused irreparable environmental damage and loss of life to Tibetans, Chinese, Indians, and all other groups in the basins of Tibet’s rivers across Asia. Tibet’s glaciers are rapidly melting and when, not if, they flood, Chinese dams downstream are not only already weakening the riverbanks but are also going to channel the floods into even more forceful torrents and exacerbate their catastrophic impact on the billions who live alongside and rely upon Tibet’s waters. To avoid irreparably damaging Asia’s water security, China must curb its rapacious damming and work with the international community to engage in legally binding agreements that set out equitable distribution and sustainable management of Asia’s rivers. It must also accept responsibility for the damage it has so far caused, and work with the local and national governments of the affected areas to enact reparations and seek to repair what it can of the harm it has done, not least to the Tibetan people and their land.
Given their global significance, Tibet’s climates and especially its rivers are arguably the most pressing environmental concern our planet and species is facing, and no attempt to address climate change is complete without it.
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