China’s Strategic Control Over South Asian Rivers

China's Strategic Control Over South Asian Rivers

Besides engaging in military conflict with India, or implementing authoritarian laws in Hong Kong, China is also using rivers to assert dominance over other South Asian countries using water dams and other measures.

Crux of the Matter

Tibet Control
China annexed Tibet in 1950 but granted it significant autonomy to preserve its religious shrines. In 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet after Chinese hostility increased, after which most of the country got under the control of China.

One of the major reasons cited for the annexation of Tibet is its rivers, which are now a major source of water for China. In recent times, China has been accused of “weaponizing” water through dam construction and the diversions of the river flow.

China And Water Disputes

Diamer-Bhasha Deal
China recently agreed to fund Pakistan in the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam on the Indus river in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). India lodged a protest against the dam as the step would change the status quo of the disputed region and potentially cause water shortage in Ladakh.

Mekong River Drought
A severe drought occurred in the Mekong river in 2019, making it the worst drought faced by Thailand in the last 40 years. The rice fields in Vietnam were severely damaged, while there was an acute shortage of water in Cambodia.

Initially, China claimed that the drought occurred due to “insufficient rain”. However, Satellite images showed that the river was full in China, where water was stored and not allowed to flow. 11 such dams have been constructed on the Mekong river by China so far.

Salween River Dams
China has built several dams on the Salween River to generate electricity, and also proposed to aid Myanmar in constructing the dams for electricity generation there. However, several of those dam projects had to be cancelled after mass protests occurred over the dams, which were a threat to the biodiversity of the region.

Brahmaputra River Flood And Darkening
China refused to share hydrological data amidst floods in the river in India. Reportedly a dam is constructed on the river near its beginning in China, which grants it the power to divert the river flow.

In 2018, Siang river, one of the tributaries of Brahmaputra, showed a “blackish-grey” colour while entering India. While China claimed that an earthquake had contaminated the water, reports showed that the water had been contaminated before the earthquake. Some experts claim that polymer resin adhesives were sprayed while constructing the dams on the river near its starting point in China. These adhesives are avoided being used near water sources as they are harmful to human life.

  • The Yarlung Tsangpo is the upper stream of the Brahmaputra River. It is also the longest river in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
  • The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, also known as the Brahmaputra Canyon, is the deepest canyon in the world and also one of the largest.
  • The Three Gorges Dam is a hydroelectric gravity dam in China and the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity. The dam flooded archaeological and cultural sites, displaced some 1.3 million people, and had caused significant ecological changes.