Building a dam no longer just aims to control flooding. Dams now also double as power generators and tourist attractions. China, as of 2019, boasted 23,841 dams. In fact, the largest dam in China is the Three Gorges Dam built on the Yangtze River in Hubei Province. Hence, when China announced another major dam project, the people of China, and of the world, were taken aback.
The new dam is set to be built in the Yarlung Valley, which is formed by the Yarlung Tsangpo River and joins with the Chongye River. Located at the base of the foothills of the Himalayas, it is considered to be the cradle of Tibetian civilization, and it is where China aims to build the world’s largest hydroelectric dam.
The purpose of the dam
China is battling pollution effects and its carbon footprint, especially in the major cities, as it aims to create greener and more sustainable initiatives that span from small pig farms to huge solar plants. The core objective behind this dam is aligned with this goal — reduction of the usage of fossil fuels and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
Said to be the world’s largest hydroelectric dam project, the power generated from water flowing through the dam’s turbines has the potential to equal three times the power output of the Three Gorges Dam.
The river on which the dam is proposed to be built has its point of origin from melting glaciers and springs. The water that flows down from the Himalayas is said to supply the needs of over 1.8 billion people encompassing three countries — China, Bhutan, and India.
Coming to the benefits of the project, a hydroelectric dam definitely has many potential benefits, especially as being a source of alternative and clean energy to fuel electrical appliances and industries. This not only reduces the generation of greenhouse gases but also has a major positive impact on the reduction of carbon. However, all these benefits do come at a cost.
The Tibet angles
While the aims of the dam are noble, Tibetan environmentalists and activists are raising their voices. The prime location of the dam is sparsely populated, having about 14,000 inhabitants. Still, the dam construction will mean reallocation and heavy personal losses to the residents of the region.
The Yarlung Tsangpo River, on which the dam is proposed to be built, is the longest river in Tibet. It also forms the world’s largest and deepest canyon, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, when leaving the Tibetan plateau. Apart from its geographic importance, the Yarlung Tsangpo also is deemed sacred by the Tibetans, which is another reason behind the cries of protests from Tibetan activists.
Stories around the river claim that it is actually the body of the goddess Dorje Phagmo, who is known to be the highest incarnation in Tibetan culture. While Tibet is by no means backward, they have immense respect for the natural world. This was the core reason why no dams were constructed in the past, as many of their waterways are deemed holy.
Another scientific and geographic impact of the dam’s construction will be the heavy loss of the natural ecosystem in the area. This part of the Tibetan plateau is said to be rich in natural resources and has a flourishing aquatic ecosystem.
Another impact of the dam construction will be of a political nature. The proposed area borders many nations, one of them being India. In fact, the area is very close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
With the current geopolitical animosity between the two countries, India has expressed doubts regarding the true reason behind the dam’s construction. This has also led to India planning its own 10-gigawatt dam project on the Brahmaputra River to counter any reverse flooding or other political moves made by China.