A mega dam on the Great Bend of China

By Mark Doman, Katia Shatoba and Alex Palmer

The sheer scale of the Tibetan Plateau can be hard to fathom. Its mountain peaks stretch kilometres into the sky, while canyons below sink so deep that few people have ever been able to reach them.

It’s wild and spectacular but it’s also vitally important to about a fifth of the world’s population that relies on its immense freshwater reserves.

The ice sheet stretching across the plateau is so vast that it’s often referred to by glaciologists as the Third Pole behind Antarctica and the Arctic. After the north and south poles, this region is the world’s largest store of fresh water.

The plateau’s glaciers feed 10 of Asia’s major rivers. For centuries, they have played a crucial role in sustaining life in the region.

In recent decades, the rivers have provided more than just fresh water — they’ve become a vital source of energy for the world’s most populous country. Since the 1950s, more than 20,000 dams higher than 15 metres have been built in the country, including the world’s largest hydropower station, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

Hydroelectricity is China’s second-biggest source of energy, after coal. It makes up almost a fifth of the total energy production — and its dam building shows no signs of easing.

As China seeks to meet its targets of becoming carbon neutral by 2060, it is turning its sights to some of the wildest reaches of the Tibetan Plateau, where it plans to build a hydropower plant so ambitious that it could produce three times as much power as Three Gorges.

Late last year, as the world grappled with the COVID pandemic, the Chinese Government announced it would seek to exploit the hydropower potential of the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo — a transboundary river that flows from Tibet into India, where it becomes the Brahmaputra, and then into Bangladesh as the Jamuna.

The announcement was made as part of the government’s 14th five-year plan, a series of guidelines spelling out China’s economic and social priorities.

Experts believe it could be the riskiest mega structure ever built. Not only is the location prone to massive landslides and some of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, it’s also precariously close to the disputed border between India and China. Meaning any major project could further escalate discontent in a tense territorial dispute between the world’s two most populous countries.