India plans ‘buffers’ in proposed Arunachal hydropower project to counter ‘China threat’

The Brahmaputra accounts for nearly 30% of freshwater resources and 40% of India’s hydropower potential

January 17, 2023 09:03 pm | Updated January 18, 2023 08:50 am IST - NEW DELHI

Image used for representational purpose only.

Image used for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Concerns over China’s proposed 60,000 MW hydropower in Medog, Tibet are influencing the design of a proposed hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Siang district. Still only in the planning stage, a ‘pre-feasibility report’ on the 11,000 MW project, or more than five times the size of the largest such projects in India – has been submitted to the Central Electricity Authority for appraisal in December by the National Hydropower Corporation (NHPC) last month, sources told The Hindu.

That the 60,000 MW dam in Medog could reduce the natural flow of water from the Brahmaputra, away from India during lean patches, or worse be used to trigger “artificial floods” is a matter of “concern to India,” said sources.

The design of the proposed project incorporates a “buffer storage” of 9 billion cubic metres (or about 9 billion tonnes of water) during monsoonal flow, said sources connected to the project who declined to be identified. This could act as a store of water worth a year’s flow that would normally be available from the Brahmaputra or buffer against sudden releases.

The Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in China, is a 2,880 km long transborder river that originates in the Mansarovar lake and flows 1,700 km within Tibet, 920 km in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and 260 km in Bangladesh. It accounts for nearly 30% of freshwater resources and 40% of India’s hydropower potential. Diverting its flow could mean agricultural impacts downstream in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

“The project is primarily meant to manage flooding in the Brahmaputra, however, we cannot ignore strategic aspects and this is one way to counter any potential threats,” a person involved with planning the Upper Siang project told The Hindu, but who declined to be identified.

Differing opinions

An independent expert said that India’s hydropower projects, while potentially beneficial in controlling flooding from the Brahmaputra in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, wouldn’t necessarily serve as a strategic deterrent to China.

“China has always maintained that the entire stretch of the Yarlung Tsangpo are run-of-the-river projects [minimal storage] and is unlikely to risk international condemnation via water wars. A large dam in India may help control floods within India but might open fresh disputes over water sharing with Bangladesh downstream. It would be more beneficial if all three countries agreed to be more transparent and share information on the seasonal flow of water,” Rajiv Ranjan, Adjunct Faculty, Institute of China Studies, New Delhi, told The Hindu.

Later this year, the NHPC is expected to commission the 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydro Electric Project –the largest of its kind in terms of installed capacity in India – capable of producing 2,000 MW of power for at least four hours every day annually. This would involve constructing a 160-metre-high dam with a gross storage of 1,365 million cubic metres. There are other hydropower projects worth 2,880 MW under the approval and 6,500 MW in the pipeline.

While Arunachal Pradesh has long been considered a State with rich potential for large hydropower projects, local agitations – primarily because of the threat posed to farmland, displacement and environmental concerns – have seen many projects shelved. Last week, the Arunachal Pradesh government decided to hand over five stalled hydropower projects in the State to Central bodies. These were originally to be executed by private players who backed out due to escalating costs from agitations in Assam downstream.

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