China is the undisputed world champion of dam building. Not only do they have more working large dams than every other country in the world, but they also hold the record for the largest capacity hydroelectric power station in operation: the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Now, the East Asian superpower is in the process of creating the world's first super dam, set to bust all previous records.
China first announced the so-called super dam’s construction back in 2021 when the National People’s Congress approved the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan.
The dam will sit in the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River, known as the Brahmaputra River in India, among the foothills of the Himalayas in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The river carves along the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world that stretches for 504.6 kilometers (313.5 miles) in length, just slightly longer than the Grand Canyon in the US.
It aims to exploit the huge amount of potential energy that's held within the rivers and cliffs of this epically expansive region. In total, it could harness triple the amount of hydroelectric power currently captured by the Three Gorges power stations, according to state media.
However, the scheme has already proved controversial at home and abroad. Over 1.25 million people were kicked out of their homes during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project, while many animal habitats and natural ecosystems were irrevocably upset. Some fear the Yarlung Zangbo dam could prove even more disruptive.
Rumors of the super dam have also stirred tensions among China’s bordering neighbors. In recent times, China and India have butted heads over the Himalayas’ water resources and the latest developments along the Yarlung Zangbo River, aka the Brahmaputra River, have the potential to deepen the dispute.
As political analysts have noted, India and Bangladesh sit downstream of the river system and rely heavily on its waters. Since China’s dam has the potential to drastically change the river system’s flow and course, India is worried that their nation's water supply could essentially be held to ransom.
A spokesperson for India’s water resource ministry told Al Jazeera it was planning on building its own 10-gigawatt project on another tributary of the Brahmaputra to counteract the impact of China’s dam.
Some Indian commentators have asserted that China has a “veil of secrecy surrounding its project” in an attempt to mute the international reaction to the dam’s construction. Without transparency, they argue, the full impact of the super dam will remain unknown until it is completed and any objection will be too late.
Similar disputes have arisen elsewhere in the world. Ethiopia is in the midst of a developing highly controversial hydroelectric dam system on the Blue Nile River, much to the annoyance of Egypt who fear it could sever them from the Nile’s precious waters. Likewise, control of the Tigris-Euphrates River complex threatens to shake up long-standing rivalries in the Middle East.
All of these instances suggest the era of “water wars” may be on the horizon.