16.12.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The Political Impact of Medog Power Plant being planned for Construction in Tibet

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It should be noted right away that there is no “construction” of any “hydroelectric power plant” in the Medog Administrative Region of the Tibet Autonomous Region of the PRC. Moreover, so far there is not even a preliminary design for the construction of a hydropower plant, though it is already often designated by the name of the said district, directly adjacent to the (quasi-)border with India, where in the past few weeks analytical articles on the current state of relations with China have used the words “Ladakh Conflict” more and more frequently. These words refer to the most serious unresolved incident in decades on one of the mountainous sections of the same Sino-Indian (quasi-) border.

What is it this time that has disturbed the media in relations between the two great Asian powers? – In general, so far, nothing too bad. Though India does have a definite reason for asking its neighbor to answer a number of questions. In fact, such answers, usually quite positive, are already being offered on the official level. More on that below.

So, there are China’s plans to build some grandiose waterworks in the upper Brahmaputra River, which in Tibet is called Tsangpo. Some thoughts on this topic have been expressed for a long time, but they became more or less definite only after President Xi Jinping spoke at the regular plenum of the CPC Central Committee held in late October of this year.

The Chinese leader’s policy statement and the decisions of the plenum outline the basic positions of the 14th Five-Year Plan (for the period of 2021-2025) of the country’s development, as well as a vision of its future prospects up to 2035. One of the main positions is not even so much in the quantitative growth of the economy, as in its qualitative modernization.

In particular, it sets an ambitious and extremely urgent task for China to drastically reduce harmful emissions into the environment, since the country is among the world leaders in terms of atmospheric pollution. In the available sources one can find frightening figures of estimates of morbidity, as well as deaths in one way or another related to pollution. Which, in turn, was a direct and unavoidable consequence of China’s rapid economic development in recent decades, relying heavily on cheap coal energy.

Its gradual replacement by clean energy with an increasing share of hydropower generation has long been a vital necessity for China’s further development. The 14th Five-Year Plan provided for the design and start of construction of a number of grandiose hydropower plants.

The most important of them will be a cascade of several structures, which will be located sequentially on a relatively short (about 50 kilometers long) mountainous section of the Tsangpo stream. The transformation of the energy from the actual fall (from a height of about 2,000 meters) of a huge mass of water with their help will allow generating electricity in volumes three times greater than the current world record holder, such as the Three Gorges power plant also built by China in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.

Incidentally, this hydroelectric power plant was the object of speculation by Western “well-wishers” of China a year ago. There were even several photos from space, in which the body of the Three Gorges Dam “looked like an accordion”. After all, said the commentators, there are 350 million Chinese living downstream, including the population of the largest city, Shanghai. The real (quite healthy) state of affairs at this dam is described in a recent report from the operating company, based on the rainiest year in many years, 2020.

Among the various speculations about the Medog project (clearly aimed at the Indian public), two stand out. First, it points to the “suspicious proximity” (to a distance of about 30 kilometers) of the future structure to the present Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which in 1914 was separated from Tibet by the so-called “McMahon Line”. China denies both this “line” and India’s ownership of the state in question.

Secondly, it is said that the future dams are not intended at all to generate electricity, but to transfer water accumulated in reservoirs to the Takla-Makan desert (which measures 350 by 1000 kilometers), which is located 1500 kilometers away in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. For this purpose, a water-flow tunnel of an appropriate length will be built at a depth of several hundred (or even thousands) meters in the mountains. Which, of course, would mean disaster for the northeastern states of India and all of Bangladesh.

Let us not, however, join the speculators in multiplying these (completely ridiculous) entities. There is no need for this, since the initiation of the hydropower project precisely in Medog County has a perfectly understandable, rational, environmental and energetic explanation. Potentially useful (let’s stress this) for China’s neighbors as well.

Can Beijing use the future structure for some “unfriendly” purposes? – Indeed, it can. But that, however, can be said about anything anyone does in their everyday life. If your neighbor is chopping wood to heat his own house, and you are annoyed by the sound of his axe and decided to tell him about it, in harsh tones and with the adoption of certain “countermeasures”, the consequences can be the most unexpected and negative. If you wish your neighbor success in his work and even help him, then, perhaps, you yourself might get your hands on some firewood in winter.

The author sees the situation with the future hydropower facility on the Tsangpo River (which, as the reader will remember, is also the Brahmaputra River) in approximately the same way, and the second version of the story with the wood-cutting neighbor does not seem a figment of idle fantasies at all. For there are enough instances of this in the practice of inter-state relations.

Of these, the most suitable example seems to be that of Brazil and Paraguay, which jointly built the Itaipu hydropower plant on the border section of the Parana River, with characteristics similar to those of the Three Gorges. The hydropower plant makes a significant contribution to Brazil’s energy balance and meets almost all of Paraguay’s needs. Although there are some “rough edges” in their relationship. Present, however, everywhere.

China itself also has an experience of quite fruitful cooperation with the countries of the Indochina peninsula in the operation of hydraulic structures in the upper Mekong River located in Tibet as well. The Mekong is also of vital importance to these countries.

Meanwhile, the urgency of regulating the flow of the Brahmaputra was once again demonstrated in a disastrous way in the summer of this year. In the Indian state of Assam, millions of people were affected, hundreds were killed, and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed by all kinds of consequences of its flooding (due to the same unprecedented rains). In addition to preventing such natural disasters, the construction of the Medog hydropower plant could become a source of cheap electricity for India and Bangladesh.

During a regular press conference held in early December by an official representative of the Foreign Ministry of China, among other things, a set of issues related to the future construction project of the Medog power plant was touched upon. Once again, it was emphasized that it was in the very early stages of discussion, and that the interests of “neighbors” would be taken into account as much as possible during the design process.

Finally, it should be noted that playing political games with water (given the global nature of the water scarcity issue itself) is a generally inappropriate activity. Recall that three years ago, after another aggravation of the situation in the state of “Jammu and Kashmir” (for which Pakistan was accused), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a beautiful remark about the “impossibility of water and blood flowing simultaneously”. The implication was the need for some kind of hydraulic structure on the upper tributaries of the Indus, truly the “river of life” for both Pakistan and the northern states of India itself.

In response, Islamabad made it clear that it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons. After that the mentioned verbal “beauties” disappeared from the world’s political air.

In general, as everyone would agree, it is better to “live in peace,” because some or other mischiefs in the direction of one’s neighbor will inevitably come back.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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