China builds new dam in Tibet that could affect flows downstream
The Mabja Zangbo river flows into the Ghaghara or Karnali river in Nepal before eventually joining the Ganga river in India
China is building a new dam in Tibet on a tributary of the Ganga, close to the tri-junction of its borders with India and Nepal, that could be used to control the flow of water downstream, new satellite imagery has revealed.
The development comes in the wake of China unveiling plans to build a “super” dam close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tibet on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river, which flows into Arunachal Pradesh as the Siang and then to Assam as the Brahmaputra.
It also comes at a time when satellite imagery has shown that China has substantially ramped up creation of military and dual use infrastructure and villages in the eastern and western sectors of the LAC.
Satellite images tweeted on Thursday by Damien Symon, a geospatial intelligence researcher at the Intel Lab, showed earth development and dam construction activity done by the Chinese side on Mabja Zangbo river in Burang county of Tibet since May 2021.
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The images clearly depict the obstruction of the river’s path, the formation of a reservoir and an embankment-type dam.
The Mabja Zangbo river flows into the Ghaghara or Karnali river in Nepal before eventually joining the Ganga river in India.
The dam is located just a few kilometres north of the tri-junction of China’s border with India and Nepal, Symon said.
According to the latest satellite images, the dam appears to be 350 metres to 400 metres long, Symon said.
“The structure is currently in development, so the purpose is unknown,” he said.
“It appears to be an embankment dam,” he added.
“An airport is being constructed nearby as well”, he said.
People familiar with the matter said the dam, located at the strategic tri-junction of China’s borders with India and Nepal and opposite the Kalapani region of Uttarakhand state, could be used to divert or restrict the waters of the Mabja Zangbo river.
The dam can also be used to store water, whose release could create floods downstream, the people said.
In recent years, China has built several smaller dams on the Yarlung Zangbo river, triggering similar concerns related to the Brahmaputra in the northeast.
Chinese state-run media had reported in November 2020 that the planned super dam on the Yarlung Zangbo would be more than a hydropower project as it would also be meaningful for national security.
Since a military face-off between Indian and Chinese troops began in Ladakh sector of the LAC in May 2020, numerous satellite images and reports have detailed the creation of military and dual-use infrastructure, including airports, missile and air defence facilities and munitions dumps.
China has also built dozens of villages in hitherto uninhabited stretches of the LAC, a move that experts say is aimed at butressing its claim to territory along the disputed boundary.
The Indian leadership has maintained that the overall relationship with China cannot be normalised without peace and tranquillity on the LAC, whereas the Chinese side has said the two countries should take forward their ties while putting the border issue in its “appropriate place”.
Sameer Patil, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), described the new dam as a clear attempt by China to strengthen its existing infrastructure with dual use benefits, as it had done previously on the Yarlung Zangbo river.
“Given the fragile ecology of Tibet, this is surely going to have implications for India’s water security and will further exacerbate the already strained bilateral relations,” he said.