Asia’s Dammed Water Hegemon

NEW DELHI – As if to highlight that Asia’s biggest challenge is managing the rise of an increasingly assertive China, the Chinese government has unveiled plans to build large new dams on major rivers flowing to other countries. The decision by China’s State Council to ride roughshod over downstream countries’ concerns and proceed unilaterally shows that the main issue facing Asia is not readiness to accommodate China’s rise, but the need to persuade China’s leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring countries.

China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries; so, in the absence of Chinese participation, it will be impossible to establish a rules-based regional order. How, then, can China be brought on board?

This challenge is most striking on trans-boundary rivers in Asia, where China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled on any continent by annexing the starting places of major international rivers – the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang – and working to reengineer cross-border flows through dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks, and other structures. China – the source of trans-boundary river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon – has shifted the focus of its dam-building program from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers after having already built more large dams than the rest of the world combined.

Most of China’s dams serve multiple functions, including generating electric power and meeting manufacturing, mining, irrigation, and municipal-supply water needs. By ramping up the size of its dams, China now not only boasts the world’s largest number of mega-dams, but is also the biggest global producer of hydropower, with an installed generating capacity of 230 gigawatts.