My article Damning of rivers: alarm signals from China was published in the August issue of Power Politics.
Recent reports of damning of rivers by China has caused much alarm in its neighborhood, including India. What are the implications – both economic and strategic for India? China watcher Claude Arpi seeks to find out.
The Waters of Tibet
China is in transition; true, the state of affairs in the Middle Kingdom is rather unstable as we had seen with Bo Xilai affair. The former mayor of Chongqing who was supposed to have the widespread support of the top leadership to get a seat in the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo, has been arrested while Zhou Yongkang China's Security Tsar and currently No 9 in the Party is said to have been divested of all his responsibility in China’s security apparatus.
This means that within the People’s Republic today, there are extremely divergent views about the direction China should take.
The same differences appear when it comes to ‘development vs. environment’ and more particularly, the damming of the rivers of China which has created a lot of tension and nervousness with China’s neighbours, whether it is in South-East Asia, in India or even in Central Asia.
To give an example, the Indian press recently reported that the Brahmaputra river had dried up in Arunachal Pradesh. The information sent waves of fear across the North-East.
The local press hysterically affirmed that the Siang, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet and Brahmaputra in Assam, had almost disappeared in Pasighat in East Siang district. Tako Dabi, a political advisor to Chief Minister Nabam Tuki declared: “China could have diverted the water of the river or there could be some artificial blockade due to which this has happened”.
The information was thankfully denied by the Government of India. Obviously, the media had not done its homework: a diversion could not be done in one day, or even one year, and this, without the knowledge of the Indian satellites; but the fact remains that water has become an extremely sensitive issue which could inflame a region.
China, the Great Economic Power
There are however reasons for the present fear. China is the second economic power of the planet after the United States; to maintain a close to double-digit tempo of growth, the Communist regime in Beijing has become an ogre devouring energy world-wide. Most of the raw materials (such as oil, gas, wood, minerals, etc.) necessary to feed the economic engine can be bought from outside China, except for one: water.
Water is therefore critical to the survival of the Chinese model for two reasons: first, the energy generated by hydropower plants is badly needed for the economy. China's theoretical hydro-power resources have been estimated at 384 gigawatts. Most of this potential comes from the Tibetan plateau (the purported dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra itself has a potential of 38 gigawatts).
The second reason: the leaders in Beijing need to feed more than 1.3 billion people, for which water is needed.
A Water War?
In 1995, Ismail Serageldin, then the World Bank’s Vice-President wrote: “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water.”
It is not difficult to prophesize that if a water war was to happen in the future, it would be between China and one of its neighbours.
Why? Because most of Asia’s waters originate on the Tibetan plateau, the main watershed in Asia. Tibet’s waters flow down to eleven countries and are said to bring fresh water to over 85% of Asia’s population, approximately 50% of the world’s population.
Four of the world’s ten major rivers, the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Huang Ho (or Yellow River) have their headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau. Other major rivers such as the Salween, the Irrawaddi, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus, also have their source in Tibet.
China’s two major headaches, food and water, are closely interlinked and, if not solved, are bound to have grave social and political consequences for the country as well as its neighbours downstream.
The purported mega-damming project
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.
One of its interesting characteristics is the sharp U turn, known as the Great Bend near Mt. Namcha Barwa (7,782 meters). The river enters India soon after in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, a territory today claimed by China, making any project on upper reaches of the Tsangpo vital for India’s security.
Chinese scientists have been found that the Yarlung Tsangpo gorge forms the longest and deepest canyon in the world. The Tsangpo Gorge is eight times as deep and three times as large as the Colorado’s Grand Canyon.
In the mid 1980’s, it was announced that China would build a mega-dam in the Great Bend. This pharaonic project is mind-blowing.
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River with a 18,200 megawatts capacity would be dwarfed by a hydroelectric plant on the Yarlung Tsangpo with a planned capacity of 38,000 megawatts.
For the Chinese engineers (and leaders), it is enough to know that the Tsangpo river tumbles down over 3,000 meters in less than 200 km. This gives the gorge one of the greatest hydropower potentials available in the world. It makes the emperors of China dream.
In recent years, the Chinese have been more discreet on the project, though one of the road blocks was removed on the day Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in India in December 2010: the last tunnel linking Metok County (a few kilometers north of the McMahon Line) to the rest of Tibet was opened, eventually paving the way for a mega-project.
The mega-dam has so far been denied by Beijing, but damming on a smaller scale is going on.
To solve its water problems, Beijing has devised one of the most gigantic projects in the world: to divert waters from the South to the North through three ‘diversions’, the Eastern, the Central and the Western.
While the Eastern and Central section of the project are under way, the western section is still at the planning stage, but it is where India comes into the picture.
The ‘official’ western route would draw water from the Tibetan plateau via the upper reaches of the Yellow River to quench the deserts of North-west China.
Another project is the diversion of the Brahmaputra waters towards China. Some ten years ago, a Chinese engineer Li Ling and his colleague, Gao Kai, a retired PLA General seriously worked on the diversion scheme. Li Ling then published a book called Tibet's Waters will Save China in which the Chinese engineer detailed the diversion scheme, also known as Shuomatan Canal (from Suma Tan in Central Tibet, near Lhasa to Tanjing in China).
Several 'experts' denounced the plans of Li Ling and Gao Kai and in November 2006, when President Hu Jintao visited India, 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, rumors have continued to circulate, fuelled in June 2011, by the declarations of 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.”
The project would begin from a place south of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
Prof Wang Guangqian of the Chinese Academy of Sciences seems to say that China has no choice but to go for it when he speaks of the newly proposed route: “Brahmaputra waters are expected to be rerouted to Xinjiang along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Hexi Corridor – part of the Northern Silk Road located in Gansu Province”.
His plans too were opposed by many scientists in China and denied by the Government in Beijing.
Three important factors
Three important factors have to be understood.
One, hydropower lobbies have a financial interest in ‘concretizing’ the project as soon as possible. Dams, whether in India, Pakistan or Tibet, mean big business and the large Chinese corporations will continue to lobby hard to get the projects through.
The second crucial factor is the cost-benefit perspective. The Chinese leadership is usually very down-to-earth, rational; they will choose the easier, cheaper option.
The third factor: can China afford a conflict with India? The next leadership which will take over in November will have to answer this question.
The Solution: A Water Treaty with India
The only solution seems to lie in bringing the matter to the negotiating table and reach a bilateral water agreement. 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, Bhutan and Bangladesh, in order to assure a decent life for all in the region?
In the meantime, the succession war is raging in Beijing.
The fruition of all these mega-projects will probably depend on who will be the new emperor(s) of China.
If wise, the emperor(s) will take into account a conflict with the neighbours in calculating the cost-benefits of the mega-projects.
Let us hope for the best, while remaining vigilant!