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India-China Hydropower Battle: Who Will Win?

Despite these concerns, India has a lot of potential when it comes to renewables, especially hydropower. As per the Centre for Science and Environment, the North East has the potential to switch to 100% renewable.

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The year 2020 saw multiple instances of standoff between China and India, primarily in the Leh-Laddakh region. The two countries have had a stream of differences on border issues, including the North East, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. There is speculation that the fight now has gone beyond the actual battlefield to energy infrastructure and water supply, with hydropower at the forefront.

Recently, China announced it is working on a massive hydropower project as a part of its 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) in Medog county of Tibet. In the last week of November 2020, the president of Power Construction Corporation of China, which is a Chinese government-owned company, announced plans to develop a hydroelectric project of mammoth proportions of up to 60 Gigawatts (GW). This project will be executed on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river, commonly known as the Brahmaputra river in India.

China says the project will help the country realize its goal of reaching a carbon emission peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060. They claim this project is three times bigger than the existing three gorges dam project. The Chinese government says this will push their energy economy towards renewables, helping make it a green energy nation.  Despite China's claims, some experts are of the view that this is hydropower and water supply warfare, while some others say the timing of this project amidst standoff period is a mere coincidence.

Whatever may be the agenda, this project challenges the water security of India, given that India lies downstream of the Bhramaputra river, where this project will be executed. It will also have a profound impact on the Himalayan ecosystem. Presently, there is a competition for the development of hydropower sector in the Himalayas between the two countries. China already has numerous power plants in operation, namely, Yamdrok Hydropower Station, Pangduo Hydropower Station, Zhikong Hydropower station, etc. All these projects were executed at the upstream or middle stream of Bhramaputra river. The latest dam to be executed at Medong is the first downstream river project by China. The Five-Year Plan of China speaks about the "Great Bend" in Bhramaputra river at Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, where the river falls spectacularly by 2,000 metres and turns sharply into Arunachal Pradesh. Given the proximity to Indian border, it is required Indian border forces stay vigil. In response to Chinese aggression, India has constructed its own set of hydro power projects. Many hydropower plants already in operation along the Bhramaputra, like Subansiri Lower Dam, Ranganadi Dam, Rangit Dam, Diband Dam, etc. Over the last 20 years, both China and India have worked significantly to build hydropower projects, potentially resulting in 21st-century hydro-energy warfare.

Why are the two countries resorting to alternative avenues of competition, over and above the existing standoff at the border areas? In political science, we have a term called "political dilemma", that is, there is distrust between countries due to lack of transparency. This happens when the  two countries are uncertain about the weapon generating potential of the other, and reporting of ammunition deployment in vulnerable areas. Such a situation results in a mutual lack of faith and scepticism. As a result, both countries try to increase their power through other domains. The case of India-China standoff is materializing across domains, one of which is hydro-electricity, which the countries have clubbed with national security. For instance, it is speculated that China has already completed 11 out of 55 projects that are planned in the Tibetan region. India too is taking the initiative to catch up with China's numbers.

In addition to the energy-centric geopolitical tensions, these projects also have a cascading impact on the environment. The Brahmaputra river flows through rugged Himalayan topography, which is ecologically vulnerable and seismically active. The last major earthquake in that region was not long ago in 2015 Nepal, causing 9000 deaths and massive infrastructure damage. The region is thus highly vulnerable to earthquakes, with the next major one potentially taking place anytime. Also, a large number of Hydropower plants are based on the run of the river system, that is, the flowing river system is used to generate electricity. Interrupting the natural flow of water to generate energy can have a devastating impact, which then serves as a major contributing factor to earthquakes and landslides. Dams constructed in the region can cause landslides/ glacial slides, as well as dam-induced earthquakes, which is, incidentally one of the leading causes of man-made earthquakes. The deforestation to create dams also acts as a contributing factor.

Despite these concerns, India has a lot of potential when it comes to renewables, especially hydropower. As per the Centre for Science and Environment, the North East has the potential to switch to 100% renewable.
The image above shows Hydropower is a crucial component of achieving India's renewable goals. The northeast is blessed with a huge hydro potential of about 58,971MW, out of which 1,727 MW (2.92%) has been harnessed so far, as per North East Electric Power Corporation Limited. India has a lot to achieve in this segment. However, merging renewables with geopolitical tensions, as is potentially happening, can lead to massive human displacement, loss of life, and destruction of the environment. This is counter-productive when we imagine hydropower as one ensuring environmental sustainability.

Thus, China's ambition of constructing a dam downriver, along with India's backlash by further dam constructions, is harmful to the communities living there as well as a greater environmental good. The path of renewables is to be treaded with great caution.