Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hydropower Projects on the Brahmaputra

The Yarlung Tsangpo
The Yarlung Tsangpo or Brahmaputra as it is known in India, has an immense bearing on the lives of hundreds of millions in the sub-continent.
Originating from a glacier near Mt Kailash, it is one of the longest rivers on the Tibetan plateau. It is considered to be the highest river on earth with an average altitude of 4,000 meters. It runs 2,057 kilometers in Tibet before flowing into India, where it becomes the Brahmaputra. One of its interesting characteristics is the sharp U turn (known as the Great Bend) it takes at the proximity of Mt. Namcha Barwa (7,782 meters) near the Indian border.
Like the Nile in Egypt, the Yarlung Tsangpo has fed the Tibetan civilization which flourished along its valleys, particularly in Central Tibet.
The Yarlung Tsangpo enters in India in Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. When it penetrates Assam, it is joined by two other rivers (the Dihang and Lohit).
In Assam, the Brahmaputra has always been considered as the very soul of the State by poets and ordinary folk alike. The valley has fertile farmland, with large areas covered with sal forests, a valuable tree that yields resin. Entering Bangladesh, the river unites with the Ganga and is known as the Padma, before becoming the Meghna-Brahmaputra after merging with the river Meghna. Finally it divides into hundreds of channels to form a vast delta which flows into the Bay of Bengal.

The hydro projects
One needs to understand the rationale of the Chinese government to grasp the importance of mega hydro projects on Tibetan rivers for the Chinese leadership in Beijing.
•    China needs energy. Where does one find the highest hydropower potential in the world? Answer: on the Tibetan plateau.
•    China needs water; China can’t import water, but where are the sources of the main Asian rivers? Answer: in Tibet.
A few years ago, the media reported that China was planning one of the most important components of the ‘western route’ diversion scheme at the Great Bend. This pharaonic project is to be the most mind-blowing part “of the national strategy to divert water from rivers in the south and west to drought-stricken northern areas.”
The projects of damming the Brahmaputra and diverting its waters towards the mainland are often mixed up. Though the Indian Foreign Minister affirmed in Parliament that the Zangmu dam, the first dam of a string of 6 dams being built on the Yarlong Tsangpo “is no cause of concern to India as it is a ‘run of the river’ dam”, the ‘diversion’ scheme is a serious issue, as is the purported 38 GWs power station (nearly twice the size of the Three Gorges Dam) planned at the Great Bend, close to the Indian border. But the diversion scheme and the mega dam are clearly two separate projects.

The mega hydropower plant
Let us first have a look at the mega hydropower plant.
On July 17, 2003 The People's Daily published a small item “China to Conduct Feasibility Study on Hydropower Project in Tibet” It ran thus: “China plans to conduct a feasibility study in October on the construction of a major hydropower project on the Yarlung Zangbo River, in the Tibet Autonomous Region… an expert team [was sent] to the area for preliminary work between late June and early July. The Chinese section of the river boasts a water energy reserve of about 100 gigawatts, or one sixth of the country's total, ranking second behind the Yangtze River. The location for the possible hydropower plant is the U-shaped turn of the river in the southeastern part of Tibet. The river drops by 2,755 meters in the 500 kilometer-long ‘U’ section.”
Though very few people noted it, the cat was out of the bag. Later Chinese maps showing a 38 gigawatts plant appeared on the Internet.

The Diversion Scheme: the Li Ling-Gao Kai Plan
The ‘diversion’ scheme is another story.
Some ten years ago, a Chinese engineer Li Ling and a retired PLA General Gao Kai, seriously worked on the diversion scheme. Li Ling published a book called Tibet's Waters will Save China in which he detailed the diversion scheme, also known as Shuomatan Canal (from Suma Tan in Central Tibet to Tanjing in China).
At that time, 'experts' denounced the plans of Li Ling and Gao Kai; Qin Hui, a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University declared: “We have to take the international response into consideration. It is undoubted that the lower reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo River are within India's Assam Province, where it is a lifeline for local agriculture and backbone of the economy, just as it is further downstream in Bangladesh.”
The diversion of the Brahmaputra was again in the news in November 2006 when President Hu Jintao visited India. China had decided to assuage the legitimate worries of the Indian government.
Water Resources Minister Wang Shucheng, a hydraulic engineer himself, affirmed that the proposal was "unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific. There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects."
However in April 2011, the website quoted Wang Guangqian, a scholar of the Chinese Academy of Sciences saying: “Chinese experts have raised a new proposal to divert water from the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River to the country’s northwestern province of Xinjiang. The water diversion route in the proposal, named the ‘Grand Western Canal’, is slightly different from the ‘Western Canal’ mentioned in China’s well-known South-North Water Diversion Project.”
Wang explained the Chinese rationale: “Faced with severe challenges brought by reduced water resources and a severe drought that has affected a large portion of the country, China has started to consider diverting water from the Brahmaputra River.”
Prof Wang Guangqian seems to say that China has no choice but to do it. An article by Zhang Ke, a reporter at China Business News gave more information.
Wang Guangqian’ proposal, known as the Major Western Route, has been inspired by the work of Guo Kai: “Everybody gets really excited when they hear about it”.
Today, China has less and less water and is looking at how to get it. Scientists can look to two possible directions, from the sea (Bobai Sea ) or the mountains (Tibetan plateau).
According to Li Ling, the Institute of Advanced Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is using supercomputers and data modelling to simulate the Major Western Route and evaluate its feasibility. Li admitted that “an initial simulation of the proposal has already been produced in Shenzhen, but limitations in the data used to create it means it cannot be made public.”
This lack of data is probably one of the weaknesses of the project, though Li is convinced that it is doable.

A most seismic area
It is necessary to go back to an event in 1950. In the evening of August 15, a terrible earthquake shook Eastern Tibet. "This was no ordinary earthquake; it felt like the end of the world," wrote Robert Ford, the British Radio operator working in Eastern Tibet. “Mountains and valleys exchanged places in an instant, hundreds of villages were swallowed up, the Brahmaputra River was completely rerouted and for hours afterwards, sky over the south-eastern Tibet glowed with an infernal red light, diffused with the pungent scent of sulphur. “ It is a fact that the course of the Brahmaputra changed during those few hours. In the post-Fukushima scenario, this is a crucial factor.

Other factors
Other factors have to be taken into consideration.
One, hydropower lobbies have a financial interest in ‘concretizing’ the project(s) as soon as possible. Dams, whether in India, Africa or Tibet, mean big business and the large Chinese corporations will continue to lobby hard to get the projects through.
The second vital factor is the cost-benefit perspective. The Chinese leadership is very down-to-earth, rational. A friend who worked on the issue told me: “If the price of transferring water is cheaper than conservation or getting water from the sea, China will go ahead.”
There is no doubt that in the end it will be a political decision, but the fact remains that China today badly needs water:
  1. To stop the desertification in Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia
  2. To have the Yellow river flowing again
  3. To feed its people
If such grandiose and seemingly unrealizable projects are even thought of, it is because the situation is quite desperate and nobody is able to foresee any ‘realizable’ solution.
But before taking a hurried decision, Beijing should look again into the disastrous performance of the Three Gorges Dam.
Another issue is that the two first sections of the 'diversion' scheme (the Eastern and Central parts in the Mainland) are running into serious technical and human difficulties. The project faces several problems: the construction has been seriously delayed (a very unusual phenomenon in China). The costs have overshot the estimates and last, but not the least, waters are reaching their destination polluted.
The problems may be different for the Great Western Diversion (or even for the 'Small' Western Diversion), but the delay and difficulties of the Eastern and Central parts is certainly an issue to be considered by the political 'deciders'.
When it makes its calculations, Beijing will also have to take into account the cost of a serious conflict with India. The price of water may then become exorbitant.

The Solution: A Water Treaty with India
The only solution seems to lie in bringing the matter to the negotiating table. If a river-water Treaty could be signed between India and Pakistan in the early sixties, why can not a similar agreement be made between China, India and Bangladesh, in order to assure a decent life for all in the region?
The Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses adopted by the UN in 1997 (though not yet an international law, because not ratified by enough nations), could serve as a model for bilateral or multilateral treaties/conventions with China.
But is Beijing interested?

No comments: