China’s Plans for Yarlung Tsangpo River Cause India Concern

6 February 2013 FDI Team

Chinese infrastructure plans to dam or divert the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River, are raising water security concerns in New Delhi.


Reports that China plans to build more dams across the Brahmaputra River in Tibet, have caused concern in India. This arises from the fact that the Brahmaputra constitutes a major Indian river system and any reduction in the flow will have a major ecological and agricultural impact on India.


Several major Indian river systems, including the Indus and Brahmaputra, originate in Tibet. The Brahmaputra is the world’s fourth-largest river measured by discharge, averaging twenty thousand cubic metres per second at its mouth. India is very dependent upon the Brahmaputra. Its mean annual run-off volume is approximately 165,400 cubic kilometres per annum, out of a total of 347,000 cubic kilometres of all Tibetan flows into India. Any interference with this flow of water, therefore, will have a major impact on India and, even more, on Bangladesh, which relies on India for approximately 91 per cent of its water. Reduced flow, though, is one thing: an even greater impact would be felt if the Brahmaputra was diverted altogether.

The idea of diverting the Brahmaputra was first mentioned outside China at the first international conference of the Global Infrastructure Fund in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1986. At the time, though, engineering challenges and the controversial nature of the project prevented the plan from progressing beyond a proposal being discussed by China. In 2005, however, the publication of a book, Tibet’s Waters will Save China by Li Ling, brought this issue to the fore again. Prior to this, the People’s Daily in 2003 reported the launch of a feasibility study on diverting the Brahmaputra, adding that, in Tibet alone, the river ‘boasts hydropower reserves of about 100,000 megawatts, or one sixth of China’s total, ranking second only to the Yangtze River.’[1] Detailed planning in 2006 brought the announcement that the project would involve the use of nuclear explosives to blast a tunnel fifteen kilometres long through the Himalayas to “partially” re-route the river northwards.

Interestingly, this planning coincided with China’s renewal of its claim to India’s eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. China has long claimed this territory, which it calls South Tibet. Its demarcation of Tibet as a “core interest” on a par with Taiwan, demands that it claim Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. Arunachal Pradesh’s water resources, however, with hydro-power reserves estimated at 57,000 megawatts,[2] could be playing a part in its claims.

The Government of India previously announced that China planned to build three dams across the Yarlung Tsangpo. These were to be built at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu. Jana Jagriti, an NGO, has published photographs, however, that allege to show China is building twenty six dams across the Yarlung Tsangpo. Jana Jagriti claims these dams will provide hydro-electric power and also act as storage dams to divert water into China from the river’s natural course. According to that organisation, China does not dispute these claims.[3 ]India’s External Affairs Minister, Salman Kurshid, has reportedly stated that his Ministry is awaiting a report to determine whether the dams are “run-of-the-river” dams, or water storage facilities.

The Minister need only look to recent history to make a determination. China has dammed several rivers on the Tibetan plateau to cater to its hydro-power demands, as well as for irrigation. Increasingly, it is building new dams, which are also increasing in size. The damming of trans-national rivers upstream leads invariably to unpredictable flows further down. This may be seen in the current situation with the Mekong River; huge water-based projects in Chinese territory have led to increased tensions with Thailand and Vietnam.

Future and on-going projects, however, do not constitute all of India’s concerns. In 2000, a breach in an upstream dam led to wide-spread flooding in parts of Arunachal Pradesh. The Brahmaputra rose by up to thirty metres, causing severe damage and leaving a reported forty people dead or missing and a further thirty-five thousand displaced. Compounding the issue, China provided no warning to New Delhi and even suppressed the news in its domestic media. Repeated flash floods in 2000, 2001 and 2005, fuelled further concerns in India about China’s ability to manage its water projects.

In summary, China’s burgeoning economy places high demands on water resources, forcing it to obtain these from Tibet, long viewed as China’s “water tower”. The damming of rivers in Tibet, however, has caused much concern in downstream countries, such as India and Bangladesh; much as China’s previous projects on the Mekong River in China caused a good deal of angst in Vietnam, Thailand and other countries downstream. This aside, China’s ability to manage its river projects appears wanting. As the Three Gorges project shows, lack of planning and/or poor execution can cause unforeseen environmental consequences. It appears that India and Bangladesh have good cause to worry.

Lindsay Hughes
Research Analyst
Indian Ocean Research Programme

[email protected]



[1] ‘China to conduct feasibility study on Hydropower Project in Tibet’, People’s Daily, 17 July 2003.

[2] Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Arunachal State Industrial Policy 2008, Department of Industries: Itanagar, India, 2008, p. 1.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.