Originating from the Angsi Glacier on the Chinese side of the Himalayas, the Yarlung River serves as a critical water source and transportation line for China, India and Bangladesh. Relatively unexploited for power generation in the past decade, the river has been increasingly at the center of diplomatic conflicts, since all three countries will face growing water shortages and skyrocketing demand for alternative sources of energy and power generation in the coming decades.
Water shortages are particularly a challenge for China's economic development because many of its important industrial and agricultural heartlands are already severely deprived of water. And that water is critical: China's agriculture and industrial sectors accounted for 62 percent and 23 percent of the country's total water consumption in 2008, respectively. Meanwhile, difficulties in its traditional energy supply and increasing demand have piqued China's desire for renewable energy sources to reduce its reliance on coal and oil. As part of this effort, Beijing unveiled an ambitious plan to raise hydropower's share of its energy profile from 6-7 percent currently to 15 percent by 2020. However, depletion and pollution in most of the North China Plain and Yangtze River have led Beijing to seek an alternative water supply beyond its traditional rivers. As a result, the strategic value of the Tibetan Plateau and its many international rivers flowing from the region will only grow.
But just as these rivers offer a way to alleviate some of China's huge water and energy needs, they also are problematic for its regional ties. Tensions already have flared between China and downstream countries along the Yarlung, Nujiang (Salween) and Mekong rivers, complicating Beijing's relations with India, Bangladesh and many Southeast Asian countries in the lower Mekong.
Beijing's plan to build three additional dams on the Yarlung River mainstream is certain to trigger objections from India, where the water descends into the plains of its northeast state of Assam, whose agricultural production is vital to the region's economy and stability. In fact, facing its own power shortage, India had also identified the river as critical to its future power generation. But New Delhi's concern has another dimension: the historical dispute with China over the state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Territorial disputes over Arunachal Pradesh have been an important factor in Sino-Indian relations since at least the drawing of the McMahon Line in 1914, but their scope, frequency and significance may be increasingly correlated with the water conflicts over the Yarlung River. Although there was a period of relative quiet after the Sino-Indian border war, Chinese territorial claims to "South Tibet" — the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh minus a small southeastern flank — have become more frequent and assertive as Beijing moves to consolidate its boundaries. New Delhi is concerned not only about China bolstering its military presence along the border with Arunachal Pradesh, but it also fears that China's dam construction will cause a sudden drop in water levels in the disputed territory, giving Beijing the upper hand.
The renewed tension over their shared water could add yet another dimension to the geopolitical competition between the two countries. As the need for water and hydropower in both China and India grows, the countries' geopolitical conflict may be decided not only by the constraints of geography but also by the untapped potential locked inside that geography.