China’s Hydropower ‘Battlefield’ in Tibet

Rare protests highlight extractivist plans risks of catastrophic impacts downstream and destruction of precious religious heritage

Report Recommendations


Executive summary

Rare protests against the construction of a hydroelectric dam have been met with severe reprisals and military lockdown.

The planned Kamtok  dam in the sacred mountains of Gèndong threatens the displacement of villages and ancient Buddhist monasteries in the upper reaches of the Drichu river (known internationally as Yangtze) in Tibet.

The protests draw urgent attention to China’s dam-building now reaching upriver to the sources of Asia’s great rivers in Tibet without consent from the local Tibetan population, nor inclusion of their traditional ecological knowledge.

China’s extractivist plans are carving up the landscape of the world’s highest and largest plateau, risking catastrophic impacts on tens of millions living downstream in China, India and elsewhere in Asia. State-owned conglomerates are accelerating the construction of mega dams and associated infrastructure in Tibet despite the inherent dangers of a seismically unstable region where river systems are increasingly unpredictable due to climate change.

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China's policy of constructing mega dams on Tibet’s rivers and extracting its resources risks social and environmental catastrophe in Tibet and throughout Asia.

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The construction of the Kamtok dam is a central government plan being carried out by Chinese state-owned company Huadian – one of the world’s biggest coal-fired carbon emitters which signed a strategic partnership agreement with Germany’s Siemens last month and has assets and businesses established in countries involved with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Tibet is described by Chinese engineers as “the main battlefield of China’s hydropower construction”, while one chief engineer described the process of constructing a dam in the upper reaches of the Drichu river as building “high-rise blocks on tofu”.

Protests against the Kamtok dam on the Drichu river in Tibet highlight the imminent loss of thousands of people’s homes and ancient cultural heritage of national and international significance. Even Chinese scholars and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials have underlined the importance of monasteries with “invaluable” 14th century CE Buddhist frescoes of “artistic splendour” that survived the Cultural Revolution but are now threatened with demolition and the displacement of hundreds of monks.

Photograph of TIbetan protesters showing their thumbs to authorities.
Screenshot image of the abbot of Yena Monastery and elder Tibetans pleading the visiting officials to stop the Kamtok dam construction and displacement from their ancestral land. Image received from Tibet to exile sources.

Video footage providing a rare glimpse of the situation in the area documented the peaceful gathering of what appears to be more than a hundred Tibetans outside the county government headquarters in Kardze on 14 February, appealing for dam construction to be stopped. Just over a week later, teams of county officials and police arrived at two monasteries in Wonpotoe Township to prepare for demolition. Footage sent out of Tibet – despite the extreme danger of doing so – showed the abbot of Yena Monastery and elder Tibetans on their knees, crying and appealing to officials to stop the dam project and not remove them from their land. Other videos show monks being encircled and detained by police.

In response, Tibetan protesters were beaten so badly they were injured and hospitalised, and hundreds detained. A monk administrator and a community leader may face criminal charges, and another senior monk of Yena Monastery is still thought to be in detention.

Paramilitary forces have imposed a lockdown after the February protests in the Derge area of Kardze in Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) against the construction of the 1.1 million kilowatts hydroelectric dam, and no image and video footage from the area has emerged since then.

Party officials have now warned Tibetans that the massive hydro project on the upper reaches of the Yangtze – a river that is known downstream as an important cradle of Chinese civilisation – will go ahead regardless.

Screenshot image of a group of workers holding a red banner with yellow font text that says, “Drichu Kamtok hydropower station survey and design project department. Happy New Year to all staff and families of Chengdu Institute”. Posted on Douyin 23/12/23

The construction of the Kamtok dam risks a cascade of adverse consequences both on the plateau and in China, serving as a reminder that China’s policies in Tibet – where water is regarded as a ‘strategic asset’ by the Communist Party state – affect global climate systems already challenged by food and water insecurity involving glacial melting and erratic monsoon cycles. A leading Tibetan professor based in Beijing has revealed data showing that the rivers of Tibet are becoming more and more unpredictable.

As a storehouse of freshwater and the source of the earth’s eight largest river systems, the Tibetan plateau – a global climate change epicentre – is a critical resource for the world’s 10 most densely populated nations surrounding it. But China has accelerated implementation of detailed plans to intensify the buildup of dams on all of Tibet’s wild mountain rivers, involving powerful state-owned Chinese consortiums, steadily moving dam building upriver into steeper terrain, previously among the least disturbed habitats on earth.

During Xi Jinping’s visit to Sichuan last July, he urged provincial officials “to write a new chapter in advancing Chinese modernization”, underlined China’s priorities in using the Tibetan plateau as major extraction zones for water, electricity and lithium.

The completion of the world’s highest altitude high-voltage power grid in 2018, linked to the construction of a fully electrified high speed rail line from Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province to Lhasa, demonstrates the CCP’s demand for hydropower-based energy resources and plans to intensify infrastructure construction in Tibet.



Now, these long-term plans focus on connecting hydro in the upper reaches of Asia’s wild rivers with extraction of solar energy, windpower, hydropower, lithium, copper, gold, silver and molybdenum. China already leads globally in PV (photovoltaic) solar, wind turbines, hydro dam construction and the power grids that connect them to distant industrial users. It also fulfils a nation-building agenda, establishing Chinese uses for Tibetan landscapes and rivers, just as China seeks to break and reshape Tibetan inner landscapes, eradicating a separate sense of identity and history and compelling compliance with Chinese cultural nationalism.

Although the hydrodams in the steep valleys of the eastern Tibetan mountains are described as clean and green energy, their construction involves carbon emissions generated from processing and transport of fossil fuel-intensive raw materials. Building the high walls of hydrodams requires importing vast amounts of cement made by fossil fuel burning, blasting rock from nearby steep valley walls, trucking and compacting those rock as the fill comprising most of the weight of a wall intended to hold back the world’s great rivers.

Tibetan protests against the Kamtok dam follow the announcement last year of a major hydro dam near Markham in Kham Sichuan on the Za Chu/Mekong/Lancang Jiang in Tibet built by China’s Huaneng, one of the big five state-owned power corporations providing electrification for China. This shift upriver into Tibet now directly impacts farmers and fisherfolk down river in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Chinese official plans detail how Huaneng has hired internationally renowned consulting firms including the German multinationals E.ON and RWE, Italian ENEL and Spain’s Iberdrola.

Screenshot image of People’s Armed Police arriving in Wonpotoe Township to impose military lockdown. Posted 28/02/24 on Tibet Times Youtube channel Image received from Tibet by exile Tibetans.



  • Construction of the Kamtok dam should be halted as it involves unacceptable risk not only in Tibet but downstream in China and directly undermines Xi Jinping’s concept of ‘ecological civilisation’ and Chinese environmental legislation protecting the Drichu/Yangtze river.
  • Tibetan frontline resistance to the Kamtok hydrodam construction to protect the sources of the Eurasian continent’s longest and largest river of Drichu/Yangtze is in the interests of the Chinese as well as Tibetan people. They should not be penalised for peaceful appeals to protect the upper reaches of the Yangtze and their cultural and religious heritage and landscape.
  • The 2020 Yangtze Protection Law should be revised to provide upriver residents of Drichu with equal protection to those downriver, and integrate Tibetans’ ecological knowledge and reverence for local sacred mountains in land-use planning, political decision-making, and environmental, social and cultural impact assessment.
  • International institutions including UNESCO and Buddhist communities worldwide should issue public statements of concern and act urgently to prevent the demolition of monasteries with “invaluable” 14th century CE Buddhist frescoes of “artistic splendour” as highlighted not only by Tibetan monks but also scholars and Party officials.
  • Despite alarming evidence to the contrary, China claims to have already fulfilled all the Sustainable Development Goals agreed to in 2015. UN Sustainable Development Goal #2: “By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment. By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices
    that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.” In Tibet, China’s export driven food production policy, combined with increasing loss of productive land for dams and solar farms, should be independently monitored. UN food security experts should be allowed full unfettered access to Tibet and their reports made public.
  • Clearance of Tibetans from their lands, whether in the name of hydro dams, solar arrays, water tower protection,
    biodiversity protection all add up to loss of land rights, loss of independence and livelihoods, which have steadily encroached on Tibetans and their customary skilled livelihoods for at least 25 years. China’s policies are not only threatening one of the world’s last systems of sustainable pastoralism, but Chinese, Tibetan and Western scholars have pointed out that settling nomads runs counter to the latest scientific evidence on lessening the impact of grasslands degradation, which points to the need for livestock mobility in ensuring the health of the rangelands and mitigating negative warming impacts. The urgent situation of displacement for dangerous dam projects calls for a full assessment by independent experts of the impacts of China’s frontier development policies on Tibetan lands.
  • Allow UN special experts on human rights full, unfettered access to Tibet to conduct human rights assessments, including, but not limited to, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.
  • Climate change over the Tibetan Plateau intensifies risk, extreme weather, loss of productivity, danger of malnutrition and loss of food security. Coupling climate research with nutrition and land use research should engage the UN Sustainable Development Goals system with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

To international governments

  • Urge the Chinese government to immediately halt the Kamtok dam and directly challenge China’s extractivist plans that are carving up the Tibetan landscape, risking landslides, earthquakes and food insecurity, and impacting tens of millions living downstream in China, India and elsewhere in Asia.
  • Urge China to ensure that no further construction of dams and extraction projects take place on the Tibetan plateau without the implementation of robust measures to secure the free, prior and informed consent of the surrounding community.
  • Engage in dialogue with the exile Tibetan authorities, the Central Tibetan Administration, and the exile and diaspora communities of Derge County on China’s discourse of right to development and poverty alleviation.
  • Impose restrictions on domestic companies from entering into cooperation agreements with Huadian, Huaneng and other state-owned enterprises engaged in activities that will displace Tibetans from their homelands, noting that both Huadian and Huaneng were in 2009 told to stop construction of other dams in the middle reaches of the Yangtze by China’s environmental ministry, an order that was later superseded.
  • Raise concerns with Chinese government counterparts about the building of dams across the Tibetan plateau driving overcapacity and having negative impacts on regional water supplies, food security and ecology.
  • Seek to undertake a fact-finding visit in Derge County to establish the situation on the ground.
  • Press China to permit visits by United Nations human rights Special Procedures to Tibet to assess the impact of China’s policies on Tibetans.

To the United States government and US Treasury Secretary Yellen

  • Name hydro dam construction on the upper Yangtze as a state-sponsored increase in overcapacity and make explicit reference to this in any further sanctions in response to Chinese government subsidies for electric cars.

To the German government

  • Urge Siemens to halt further cooperation with China Huadian Group so long as the Kamtok dam project remains active.

To UN human rights bodies

  • Request meaningful and unfettered access to Tibet for Special Procedures Mandate holders to assess the human rights situation on the ground, including to Derge County, detention facilities and affected monasteries in the area.
  • Urgently engage with the current situation in Tibet and the implications of massive dam construction in the upper reaches of the Yangtze.


  • Issue an urgent call for the monasteries and wider cultural heritage of Derge County to be respected and protected.
  • Call for a halt to the Kamtok dam.

To Siemens

  • Terminate its cooperation with Huadian on human rights and environmental grounds.

To pension funds

  • Review whether they have investments in Huadian and Huaneng and if so, dump those shares on ethical grounds.

Read the Full Report

China's policy of constructing mega dams on Tibet’s rivers and extracting its resources risks social and environmental catastrophe in Tibet and throughout Asia.

View the Report
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