Yesterday the Indian press commented on the official announcement by Beijing that the construction of the Zangmu dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) has started (it was an open secret).
In this context, I am reproducing here an extract of a book written by Jonathan Watts, the correspondent of The Guardian in China, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - Or Destroy It (2009, Faber & Faber).
The extract relates to the ambitious plan to divert the Brahmaputra to Northern China.
This plan is a brainchild of Guo Kai, a retired Chinese General who worked closely with Li Ling, the author of Tibetan Waters will save China. They proposed to built a Shuotian Canal.
About Li Ling's Book
The purpose of Shuotian Canal (朔天運河) [The name Shuotian comes from the contraction of the origin of the canal near Shuomatan and the city of Tianjing at the end]. is to transport 206 billion m3 of water from Tibet to the north or western north China area where there is drought or a lack of water. At same time, the flood in Yellow river can be eradicated, inland water transport in north China can happen, and the flood in Bangladesh and India will be prevented.
Chapter Four argues how Shuotian Canal can benefit Changjiang [Yangtze] River.
Problem of Changjiang [Yangtze] (長江) river:
- 1. In 1300 years between Tang(唐) to Ching or Manchu (清) dynasty, total there were more than 223 floods. The flood mainly comes from the downpour within the area of Ya-an and Mt. Emei in Sichuan, where it may rain from 219 to 264 days a year.
- 2. The flood went out of Three Gorges (三峽) and made Jingjiang [Yangtze] (荆江) River a critical area for flood disaster. So, Chinese govt. started the flood diversion of floodwater in Jingjiang [Yangtze] Area.
- 3. Even though many measures have been taken, the capacity of Jingjiang [Yangtze] river, below 80 thousand m3 per second, is still not enough to prevent from a large flood disaster.
Shuotian Canal can solve the root problem of the source of the flood. Guo Kai said the flood in the upper course of Changjiang [Yangtze] happens 15 days a year with the total quantity of 50 billion m3 and if Shuotian Canal is built with 16 dams in the upper course of Changjiang [Yangtze], it can have a reservoir with the capacity of 280 billion m3 and the water can be diverted to the north in the speed of 30 to 40 thousand m3 per second. Thus, Changjiang [Yangtze] river can defend any large scale flood, and then Three Gorges can be safe, whose economic values can hardly be stated.
- 1. If there is no rain in Changjiang [Yangtze] river for 20 days, then the phenomenon of drought starts; if no rain for 40 days, then the drought disaster happens; no rain for more than 40 days, then the crops will be decreased and even no agriculture can continue.
- 2. Three Gorges can still supply the water during the drought for Changjiang [Yangtze]; however, its capacity cannot support for 3 years drought.
Shuotian Canal can transport the water from Nujiang [Salween] River, Lancang-Mekong River, and Brahmaputra to Changjiang [Yangtze], which make sure Three Gorges can function properly to supply electricity and its transport can be maintained.
Extracts of When A Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts
The challenges facing the western leg have proved more difficult still. Under the government's blueprint, 17bn cubic metres of water were supposed to be pumped from the Jinsha, the headwater of the Yangtze, at an altitude of 4,100m on the Tibetan Plateau, down to the Yellow river. Crossing these highlands will require pumping stations and tunnels. It will be hugely expensive and politically difficult.
Downstream provinces, including the major industrial centres of Nanjing, Wuhan and Shanghai, fear they will end up dry because the Yangtze is already showing the strains of overuse, overdamming, climate change and pollution. In 2006, several dozen scientists in Sichuan published a collection of memorandums that called into question the feasibility and desirability of the western leg. It began to look like a mega-project too far, even for China. The plans submitted by the Ministry of Water Resources were postponed indefinitely. Influential supporters of the scheme started to backtrack. The scheme was not dead but its future was increasingly uncertain.
The debate suggested the Maoist approach to development 'think big, move fast and worry about the consequences later' - was belatedly being called into question). Even the most audacious Chinese engineering visionaries were discovering limits to what man could or should attempt in the campaign to conquer was 'think small', or so it seemed. For the environment, that was good news. But for at least one member of the Old Guard, it was lamentable.
Guo Kai was a survivor of the Yugongyishan, mountain moving generation of Maoists. While the rest of humanity looked on in awe at the grand hydro-engineering schemes of modern China, the retired general told me he was frustrated by the nation's lack of ambition.
I met Guo in a teashop. He looked very much the pensioner, dressed in thick layers of vests, shirts and cardigans as he explained his world-transforming plan to me. Along with his chief collaborator Li Ling, another retired officer from the second artillery division, we talked over glasses of green tea that were too hot to hold, much like their proposal has been since it was first mooted in 1976.
The two military men wanted to redraw the hydrology of Asia. Pointing on a vividly coloured map of Asia's river systems to the four thickest blue veins coursing through Tibet, Guo said only one, the Yangtze, ran east to China. The others flowed south to form the Brahmaputra in India.
'The rivers cross the border. It is a waste. The water is needed here. Look how dry China is.' And with that his finger moved north to Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, where the map was indeed marked with huge brown and yellow splodges of desert.
Fixing the problem, he said, was a simple matter of logic. India and Bangladesh get so much rainfall they often suffer from floods. If China, with a seventh of the precipitation, diverted a third of Tibet's rivers for its own use, he argued, all three nations could benefit.
Not surprisingly, politicians in Delhi and Dhaka are unwilling to donate even a drop from the Brahmaputra, which they consider vital for irrigation and drinking supplies. Indian newspapers have expressed outrage at Guo's idea. If Beijing were to ever formally adopt such a plan, there would be a high chance of a water war between Asia's two most populous nations.
There is no sign of this happening any time soon. Despite the support of several old generals, Guo and Li have been politely shunted aside by the politburo. Fiercer critics dismiss them as eccentric has-beens.
Guo's hydrological training was not just old-school, it was no-school. He taught himself about river systems while locked in a cellar by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. A hydrological study of western China was one of the only books in his makeshift cell. Criticised by the young ideologues and filled with self-doubt, he devoted his detention first to the book and then to drawing up a plan to solve China's water problems. It was to become a lifetime obsession.
But his reputation was not helped by an association with a still-bolder and more bizarre plan to use nuclear weapons to blast a 2km-wide air tunnel through the Himalayas that would allow warm moist currents from the subcontinent to circulate north. The general calculated that 200 warheads, each with the power of the Hiroshima bomb, would be needed to clear the necessary 3 bn cubic metres of rock.
The proposal to shift the planet's most immovable object raised eyebrows even in mountain-moving China. Guo was ridiculed. One of his associates Mu Qinzhong ended up in prison. Guo distanced himself from that crazy scheme, but he has not completely given up on his revolutionary solution to China's water shortage. Fortunately, more cautious heads have prevailed.
Guo's failure was revealing and, from an environmental perspective, encouraging. Although the old Maoist beliefs live on in grand nature-conquering schemes, they are now contending with rival ways of thinking that take more account of environmental limits.
A new generation of scientists, journalists and conservationists are questioning the fundamental tenets of nation building with the tacit support of senior leaders. They are a source of hope that the Scientific Outlook on Development might one day prove a stepping stone onto a sustainable path between Daoism and Maoism.
A new generation of scholars and politicians are far better educated than their predecessors, many of whom secured posts through political contacts during the Cultural Revolution (when most universities were closed). Rather than battle nature, this new wave seeks to understand man's place within it. Instead of expansionist mega-projects they focus on grass-roots conservation work. Instead of using science to support political dogma, they see it as a means to pursue truth and efficiency. Instead of secretive, top-down planning, they champion bottom-up accountability and transparency. And, most importantly, they have a different view of nature's limits because the y are confronted on a daily basis with the foul consequences of pollution, depleted resources and hard-to-maintain mega-projects. Even some of the old-timers agree it was time for a rethink.
But they are not in the driving seat. Mao's view of nature has not yet gone the way of Mao's view of politics. Momentum is a powerful force in a country the size of China. Once started, engineering schemes are difficult to stop. Once locked into a certain technology, more spending is often required to deal with the unforeseen consequences. Dams are a case in point.
Hydroelectric plants appear to be green, because they emit no carbon. But the reality in Sichuan and Yunnan is often the opposite. After many dams are built, dirty factories and coal mines soon follow. Because hydroelectricity generated in remote mountain areas cannot be economically supplied to the national grid, local governments encourage chemical and smelting plants to move near to dams. Those energy-intensive industries require a constant supply of electricity, which dams are unable to provide in the dry season. The only way to avoid seasonal fluctuations is to open coal-fired power plants to provide supplementary energy. For that to be viable, mines have to be dug close by. The result of this cycle is that clean energy turns dirty very quickly. The consequences are alarmingly apparent in southeast Sichuan, where verdant hillsides are speckled with black coal mines. Some of the world's dirtiest industries are moving into this spectacularly beautiful area. Panzihua and Zhaotong have become hubs of production for yellow phosphorus and other heavy-polluting, energy-intensive processes that have been phased out elsewhere in the world. Hydro-plants along the Jinsha (the Yangtze headwater) lead the way. Ironically, many of those same dams qualified for carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism even as they helped to foul an area not far from Shangri-La.
Similarly, one dam often spawns others. A major reason for the cascade of hydroelectric dams on the Jinsha is to ease the build-up of silt at the Three Gorges. It is a similar story on the Yellow river. As the dams expand, so does the influence of the power companies behind them. From 2000 to 2002, China experienced a rush for hydropower as five newly created utilities, Huaneng, Huadian, Zhongdiantou, Guodian and Datang, divided up the major unexploited rivers of Sichuan and Yunnan. These firms are extremely powerful. Their heads rank at vice-ministerial level in the political hierarchy but they often also exert informal influence through family ties. Though nominally under the jurisdiction of the most powerful body in government, the National Development and Reform Commission, the utilities can often evade the full societal and environmental costs of their operations.
But they have occasionally been defeated. One of the greatest reversals for the hydropower lobby occurred at Dujiangyan. Along with Zipingpu, a second dam had been planned nearby at Yangliu Lake which would have flooded the ancient waterworks. The local authorities and power companies knew this was controversial and started construction work in secret, but even with China's strict censorship controls, it was not easy to hide a dam. After the plan was exposed, a coalition of heritage officials, seismologists, environment groups, academics and journalists mounted a successful media campaign to block the project. In 2006 the Sichuan governor backed down. This landmark victory was hailed as a sign that authoritarian China was becoming more politically pluralistic, conservation-orientated and responsive to public opinion. But it was not so much a defence of nature from man, or a triumph of Daoism over Maoism; rather it was a patriotic campaign to maintain a cornerstone of the nation's heritage. A similarly nationalistic motivation would be hard to drum up for other conservation projects.
Like the growing academic and journalistic criticism of megaprojects, the campaign to save Dujiangyan was encouraging, but not yet a sign of a dominant new trend.
With the former Sinohydro employee Hu at the nation's helm, the influence of dam builders has increased. 'Scientific Development' has sidelined mountain-moving dreamers like Guo Kai, but it has given more influence to corporations that can pay for academic reports to justify commercially driven projects and use political ties to suppress critical coverage in the domestic media.
Hydroelectric energy is increasingly important for China's energy security and profitable for the utilities. Plans to develop the Nu and the Jinsha have been held up, but the pressures to build dams on every river are growing along with the risks to people and the environment.