My question then was: “What is the rationale for the project?”
I had explained: “Two of the most acute problems China faces today are food and water. These two issues are closely linked and, if not solved, are bound to have grave social and political consequences for the country” and added: “The new emperors are not sure where the solution lies or even if there is a solution.”
Seven years later, these problems are more acute than ever. Since then, another issue has cropped up: fast-track development of the Tibetan plateau (also known as The Third Pole by environmentalists). The new activities, mainly large-scale tourism, are energy-hungry. More power is required to maintain the increasing flow of mainland visitors (over millions tourists visited the Tibetan capital in 2009).
The problem faced by China today is far more serious than 7 years ago.
The basic quandary however remains the same, with water becoming a rare commodity in China and agriculture needing more water to sustain its growth.
This led Chinese experts to look around for water. The answer was not far: four of the world’s ten major rivers, the Brahmaputra (or Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet), the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Huang Ho (or Yellow River) have their headwaters on the Tibetan plateau. The other major rivers which originate in Tibet are the Salween, the Irrawaddy, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus. About 90% of their 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.
Map courtesy www.meltdownintibet.com
One of the possibilities was to divert waters from the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo, north of the McMahon Line by building a mega structure. There are different versions of the project, but 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. He has calculated that if waters from the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangtse, the Yalong and the Dadu (last two are Yangtse’s tributaries) were diverted and directed to the Ngawa Prefecture of Qinghai (Amdo) Province, the problem for the recurrent water shortage in north and northwest China could be solved (today, the Yellow River is dry more than 250 days in a year).
Guo not only worked closely with experts from the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and the Academy of Sciences (CAS), but also made several on-the-spot investigations and surveys, before coming up with the details of his pharaonic scheme.
According to him, the ‘Great Western Route’ diversion could solve the water shortage in north China, bring drinkable water to Tanjing and even counter the desertification facing the northern and northwestern provinces. It is why it is considered so vital to the Middle Kingdom’s strategic security.
The name Shuotian comes from the contraction of ‘Shuomatan’ the origin of the canal (near the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra) and the city of Tanjing at the fag end.
From the start the Chinese military have shown a lot of interest in Guo's Great Western Route scheme. In November 2005, the Great Western Route project got a boost with the publication of a book entitled Save China Through Water From Tibet, written by a Li Ling; the writer used Guo’s theme and arguments. It appears that more than 10,000 copies were ordered by various central government ministries and commissions, including the Ministry of Water Resources. Some observers will say that it is a figment of the imagination of a few old retired generals (with the backing of journalists looking for scoops), but it may or may not be the case.
In November 2006, as President Hu Jintao was leaving India after a State visit, the Chinese Minister for Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, categorically stated that the proposal was "unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific." He added that it had no government backing: "There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects.” He however admitted: "There may be some retired officials that support the plan, but they're not the experts advising the government.” It was not a point blank denial as he admitted that the project existed. As we know, governments change, so do their advisors.
The proposed diversion/damming has come back in the news with the construction of a series of dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo upstream to the Great Bend. According to available information, the Chinese plan to build a series of five dams in the Shannan Prefecture (Lhoka) of Tibet at Zangmu, Gyatsa, Zhongda, Jiexu and Langzhen.
The Zangmu dam will be the first to be built. At an altitude of 3,260 meters, it 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 wide at the top and 76 m at the bottom. The 26 turbines-dam would cost 1.138 billion yen.
The contract has been awarded to a consortium of five companies under the leadership of Gezhouba, one of China's biggest dam-building companies (also involved in the massive $1.5 billion river diversion and hydro-electricity project on Neelum-Jhelum in POK).
For more than a year, satellite imagery as well photos of the project were available on the Net, even though the construction was denied by the Chinese government. The Government of India knew of the project but was unwilling to forcefully tackle Beijing and ask for factual explanations.
However recently during the question hour in Rajya Sabha, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna informed the Members that during his visit to China, Beijing had finally admitted to the existence of the dam: “It is a fact that when we met in Beijing, the question of the power station did come up. The Chinese foreign minister assured me that there would be no water storage at the dam and it would not in any way impact on downstream areas.”
New Delhi sighed and Krishna and his team came back to India reassured.
Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao was so happy; there would be no diversion: “This would not be a project that would divert water… It is not a storage dam for irrigation purposes”, she said.
The latest developments and the Indian Government’s declaration raise several points:
1- At this stage it is difficult to link the string of five dams to the larger project of diverting the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra to Northern China. The five dams, including the Zangmu dam located upstream of the proposed diversion project — Shuomatan or Great Bend — is said to be a run-of-river project only.
2- The rationale to divert the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo is more compelling as ever. Many believe that it is only a question of time and one day China will have to go for it in order to survive. It is as serious as this.
3- For many months, the fact that China was building a dam in Zangmu was known and photos were circulating on the Net. Why did Delhi take up the matter with Beijing so late? It remains a mystery. Probably to not hurt the Chinese ‘sensitivities’.
4- The Yarlung Tsangpo's gorge is a highly seismic zone. Most geologists agree that the area is prone to earthquakes. The South China Morning Post quoted Yang Yong, a Chinese geologist saying: “Huge mountains suddenly surged from a piece of flat land, forming two almost vertical walls to the horizon,” adding the canyon “is fresh evidence of violent geological movement. I cannot imagine a more dangerous spot to build dams.”
August 1950 earthquake in Tibet (8.6 on Richter scale)
5- India and China have no water-sharing 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 were to ink an ‘implementation plan’ to share hydrological data on the Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers. Though the mechanism was mentioned in the Sino-Indian Joint Statements issued after the visits of Premier Wen Jiabao (2005) and President Hu Jinatao (2006) to India, the Chinese authorities had refused to share data because there was no ‘implementation plan’ to support decisions taken at the highest level.
6- Regarding the data of the Himalayan rivers, there is a major problem. The Indian babus are even more jealous of ’their’ data than their Chinese counterparts. Those who have tried to get scientific information on the flow of the Brahmaputra and other rivers have had a nightmarish experience. ‘National security’ is the babus’ mantra (this includes the Army babus).
One wonders sometimes is these babus are really interested in ‘national security’. Many believe that they are unconsciously playing into the hands of forces adverse to India. Because where are the ‘national interests’ in this case? How does it help to hide hard facts about the happenings on the Yarlung Tsangpo?
7- China has never consulted lower riparian states before undertaking dam constructions upstream, though it is considered as a trans-border water issue. As IDSA scholar, P. Stobdan puts it: “No downstream country has any legal arrangements or provisions of international law to deal with China’s river manipulation. China has refused to join the Mekong River Commission, and has also not ratified the UN convention on Non-Navigable Use of International Watercourses (1997)”. This is an issue on which Delhi could insist when Indian officials meet their Chinese counterparts. Data should be shared and transparent information on the projects undertaken on the Tibetan plateau should be given to the lower riparian States (though Bangladesh is so obsessed with India ‘stealing’ its waters that it does not realize that the Brahmaputra is flowing from China).
Pressure should also put on China to respect international regulations.
8- 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. …Chinese dam builders have taken their business to nearby countries such as Burma, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Second, China’s domestic dam industry is now arguably the most prolific in the world, with technical skills on par with those of industrialized nations. While the playing field is becoming crowded within China, there is huge external demand for the technology, capacity, and financial backing that Chinese dam building companies can bring, particularly in countries like Pakistan and Nepal, where there are few domestic resources and leaders are eager to exploit rich hydropower resources or boost irrigation capacity.”
This lobby is very influential and advocates the diversion project (as the Chinese Minister for Water Resources stated, many PLA generals are also involved in the dam business). One should also not forget that several major Chinese banks have an interest in the mega-projects. Since the completion of the Three Gorges dam, this lobby has not been able to undertake ‘big’ projects.
9- One of the main problems is that some Indian intellectuals (this word is not appropriate, because according to me, they lack intellect), believe that the Chinese ‘are our friends’ (if not brothers) and India cannot afford a conflict with the Middle Kingdom. Their conclusion is that India should keep quiet. They trust that the Chinese leadership will never ‘dare’ to harm their brothers in India and that they will stand by their words.
When Beijing says that the Zangmu damming on the Brahmaputra will have no consequences for India, Indian 'experts' therefore readily agree. There was recently a talk at a reputed Indian think-tank in Delhi with the main Indian 'expert' arguing that even if the Brahmaputra is diverted, it will only be a mere 30% of its waters which will be lost to India and Bangladesh, with no consequence for these countries. This is frightening and unscientific. Is it not the duty of ‘experts’, scientists, strategists to study and analyze all possibilities, even if some are more remote?
10- One can understand what is going to happen to India and Bangladesh (whether it is a diversion or simply a string of dams) when one looks at the fate of the Mekong. The 4,350 km river has its source on the Tibetan Plateau. It flows downstream to the Yunnan province of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Chinese experts assert that Tibet contributes only 20 % to the Mekong's waters, and the remaining 80 % is fed from water sources in downstream countries. During recent months, a severe draught has been experienced in Yunnan province of China and the Indochinese peninsula.
The problem seems compounded by the fact that China has built several dams on the upper reaches of Mekong without consulting its neighbours. This year, the drought has been so severe that the cargo traffic on the river has stopped, affecting the lives of 65 million people in the peninsula.
Though some environment scientists claim that the lack of rainfall alone is responsible for the low level of the river, a group of affected countries — Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam— met in Thailand to discuss this hot issue.
When Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Thai government spokesman asked Beijing for 'more information, more cooperation and more coordination', China immediately denied any wrong doing.
Environmental NGOs in the peninsula however blame China for 'drying' the Mekong and provoking the crisis. China, a dialogue partner of the Commission took the 'attack' seriously and sent a delegation led by Vice-Foreign Minister Song Tao to the two-day conference in Thailand. Liu Ning, the Chinese Vice Minister of Water Resources argued that the dams and irrigation projects upstream have actually helped stave off some of the effects of drought. Facts speak otherwise.
The earlier mentioned report of International Rivers says: “Large dams alter the natural hydrology of rivers in unpredictable ways, and hold back soil-renewing silt, while the ‘hungry water’ below them scours river banks and stream beds, destroying fish habitat and wiping away fields and villages. The cascade of dams under construction in China’s Yunnan Province and the half-dozen proposed dams in northern Laos are particularly threatening because of their large storage capacity and impact on the river’s natural hydrology and seasonal inflows, the key to its natural bounty. Along with proposed dams in Cambodia, they also threaten to advance the expected date of sea-level rise in the Mekong Delta.”
It is a fact that large dams have an influence on the ecology of the bioregion, whether it is admitted by the dam builders or not.
11- Interestingly, the Pakistanis are laughing at South Block wishy-washiness. In October 2009, a discussion took place on the dams on http://forum.pakistanidefence.com.
Here is an extract:
Commenting on what External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vishnu Prakash said in response to a media report stating that India will be checking “to ascertain whether there are recent developments that suggest any change in the position conveyed to us by the government of China”, a commentator said: “Checking, still checking… You can't help but laugh!”
12- It is not that the Chinese are unable to bend and listen. In May 2009 Premier Wen Jiabao, himself an engineer by training, suspended the construction of a planned cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River (Salween in Burma). Already in 2004 Wen had blocked an earlier version of the cascade and asked for a serious review of the environmental impact to be carried out. Wen’s decision has been seen as the response to international and local pressure over the environmental effects of such a structure in an eco-sensitive region. And let us not forget that Tibet’s environment is even more sensitive.
13- Last but not the least, there is a strong lobby in India which wants to build dams in Arunachal Pradesh. Ask any Arunachali minister, he will tell you: “We are the richest Indian State, we will soon ‘sell’ 50,000 MW of electricity to India”. The Assam Tribune recently reported: “Speaking to the media in North Lakhimpur after participating in a public function on 10th April, [Arunachal Home Minister] Tako Dabi said international circles that did not want India to become energy efficient by tapping its natural resources had been behind such popular movements that were voicing opposition to the construction of mega dams like the one in Gerukamukh and Dibang valley.” This shows another aspect of the issue, more difficult to handle by a weak Center.
One can only conclude that India is facing a complex and extremely serious problem; only by firm diplomacy and proper information of the public, does India have a chance to force Beijing to change its plans, avoiding thus a regrettable fait accompli.