Beijing is damming Yarlung Zangbo

China never consults lower riparian states before undertaking dam construction upstream.

Published: 02nd June 2010 12:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 08:52 PM   |  A+A-

The Yarlung Zangbo (the Brahmaputra in Tibet) is again in the news. Jonathan Watts, The Guardian's Asia environment correspondent affirms: 'Chinese engineers propose world's biggest hydroelectric project in Tibet'. Watts quotes Zhang Boting, the deputy general secretary of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering who says that a dam on the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo "would benefit the world, despite the likely concerns of downstream nations, India and Bangladesh, which access water and power from the river".

Zhang admitted, "research has been carried out on the project, but no plan has been drawn up". A Chinese government website shows the 38,000 MW hydropower plant as under consideration. Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan scholar of environmental policy at the University of British Columbia, published a detailed map showing several upcoming projects on the Brahmaputra. His website mentions tunnels in the Great Bend which 'would be approximately 15/25 km long, of similar length to those currently being constructed for the Jinping II project on the Nyagchu. These proposed tunnels would likely be attached to large pipes on the downstream side to convey the water through a number of generators before reaching the lower leg of the bend'.

He speaks of an alternative proposal, known as Daduqia which 'avoids large dams altogether and takes full advantage of the 2,400m drop in altitude, but it is near the border with India and would be highly exposed if there were another conflict'. It would be just a few kilometres north of the McMahon Line. Beijing denies any wrongdoing.

One remembers that recently during question hour in the Rajya Sabha, external affairs minister S M Krishna informed the members that Beijing had admitted to the existence of one dam. The Chinese had however started to build a series of five (or six) dams in the Shannan Prefecture (Lhoka) of Tibet at Zangmu, Gyatsa, Zhongda, Jiexu and Langzhen. The Zangmu dam is the first of the series. At an altitude of 3,260 metres, the 26turbinesdam is expected to generate 540 MW of electricity; its height will be 116 m and length 390 m, it will have a width of 19 m at the top and 76 m at the bottom. The government of India has for long been aware of the project, but was reluctant to forcefully question Beijing.

What would be the rationale behind such a big project? The story of the damming (and eventually diverting) the Brahmaputra can be summarised in one question: 'Who will feed China?' Beijing needs water to feed its people; needs water to produce food and electricity to run its economy. Twenty years ago, Chinese experts were led to look around for water. The answer was not far: Tibet is the water tower of Asia. About 90 per cent of the Tibetan rivers runoff flows downstream to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Thus the idea to use Tibet's waters for Northern China was born.

One of the possibilities was to divert waters from the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo, north of the McMahon Line by building a megastructure. There are different versions of the project. The Shuotian Canal is the most elaborated. It is the brainchild of an engineer, Guo Kai whose life mission is to save China with Tibet's waters. Guo worked closely not only with experts from the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and the Academy of Sciences, but he also made several onthespot investigations and surveys, before coming up with the details of his pharaonic scheme.

In November 2006, the Chinese minister for water resources, Wang Shucheng categorically stated that the proposal was 'unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific'. The retired officials supporting the plan 'are not the experts advising the government', he said. It was not a point blank denial as he admitted that the project existed.

Apart from the fact that India and Bangladesh may be starved of their due share of the Brahmaputra waters, there are several other aspects to the issue. The gorge of the Brahmaputra is a highly seismic zone. Most geologists agree that the area is prone to earthquakes. In China, there is a strong lobby advocating large dams (in India as well). An excellent paper 'Mountains of Concrete: Dams Building in the Himalayas' published by an NGO International Rivers - People, Water, Life explains: 'One of the biggest changes to occur in big dams in the past 20 years is the rise of Chinese dam builders and financiers. China's dam industry has gone global, building hundreds of dams throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, but also Central Asia, South America, and the Himalayas'. This lobby is very influential and advocates the diversion project. Major Chinese banks have an interest in the megaprojects. Since the completion of the Three Gorges dam, these lobbies have not been able to undertake 'big' projects.

A very serious difficulty is that China never consults lower riparian states before undertaking dam construction upstream, though it is considered as a transborder water issue. As IDSA scholar P Stobdan puts it: "China has refused to join the Mekong River Commission, and has also not ratified the UN Convention on NonNavigable Use of International Watercourses (1997)". This is an issue on which New Delhi could insist whenever Indian officials meet their Chinese counterparts.

India and China have no watersharing agreements. A meeting of experts from India and China took place between April 26 and 29 in Delhi to discuss the issue of sharing information on the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej. Hopefully the outcome will be made public. Indian and Chinese water experts have apparently inked an 'implementation plan' to share hydrological data on the Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers. At the end the fact remains that China needs water and where else to get the 'blue gold' from than Tibet?

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