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China’s dam construction frenzy must bond India and Bangladesh with ASEAN

The majestic Brahmaputra or the Yarlung Zangbo River and its U-shaped bend (IANS)

As an adamant China seems all set to go ahead with its plan to build a 60-gigawatt mega-dam on the Brahmaputra river — known as Yarlung Zangbao in Tibet, it has stirred deep anxiety in India and other countries in the region with trans-boundary rivers, including some of those belonging to the 10-nation ASEAN.

Announced in November by the Power Construction Corporation of China, the proposed mega dam is just 30 km away from the Indian border. Many believe that though the project is yet to start, China could use this as a political tool by weaponising flow of water across borders to achieve regional geopolitical goals. China has a border dispute with India.

The threat has multiplied as China has been taking unilateral decisions on altering the course of rivers, though Beijing has refuted claims that the construction of the mega dam will not affect the flow of the Brahmaputra. Developing hydropower resources on the Brahmaputra river is one of the main focus areas for the Communist Party of China (CPC), which has also been listed in its Five Year Plan running from 2021-2025.

This could be the world’s biggest dam. Though the details of the plan are yet to be released, the dam is expected to help China adhere to its aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. It will also facilitate China attain the carbon emissions peak before 2030. India, in response, is looking at a proposal to build a 10 gigawatts (GW) hydropower project in the north-eastern region. "The need of the hour is to have a big dam in Arunachal Pradesh to mitigate the adverse impact of the Chinese dam projects," Reuters quoted senior water ministry official T.S. Mehra as saying.

Besides India and Bangladesh, most countries belonging to Greater Mekong sub-region– ,Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand  and Vietnam–have also been severely impacted by China's dam construction spree. China's relations are on edge with Vietnam–a country with which China fought a border war in 1979.

Beijing has already constructed 11 dams in the region leading to the Mekong, the lifeline of a densely populated region. Several reports have highlighted that the Chinese dams have been holding back water, impacting the flow into the Mekong River.

“China’s planned super dam on a major river that flows into India and Bangladesh threatens to turn into another in a series of flashpoints with New Delhi, and has sparked concerns in Bangladesh, which is critically reliant on the river for its fresh water supply,” a Voice of America (VOA) report said.

A report carried by The Diplomat noted that the restrictions on water flows has led to droughts in the region. “The drought’s effects have been felt by millions and hamper efforts to support development in the region. Whether it is done maliciously or out of lack of concern, controlling the flow of the Mekong is another way China exerts influence over its immediate region,” the report said.

Analysts say that India and Bangladesh must bond with  the impacted countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region to ensure food security and ecological sustainability of Asia. According to Brahma Chellany, professor of Strategic Studies, Centre for Policy Research “even after Asia’s economies climb out of Covid-19 recession, China’s strategy of frenetically building dams and reservoirs on transnational rivers will confront them with a more permanent barrier to long-term economic prosperity: water scarcity.”