Saturday, February 9, 2013

China's dams on Brahmaputra can be dangerous business

The Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo
After my article on the new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra was published by, I received  the information that the mega dam (of 38 Gws) in the Great Bend of the river may not be fully dropped by Beijing, but just postponed. 
That would an even more serious (and dangerous) issue.
In my article, I mention the collapse of the Malpasset dam in France, I post below another article 'The Forgotten Legacy of the Banqiao Dam Collapse' published yesterday in The Economic Observer.
It argues: "In 1975, after a period of rapid dam development, a perfect storm of factors came together to topple Henan Province’s Banqiao Dam and kill an estimated 171,000 people. Today, on the cusp of another dam-building binge, some worry that factors which led to Banqiao’s collapse are re-emerging."
Indeed, dangerous business!

China's dams on Brahmaputra can be dangerous business
February 07, 2013
India should take up the issue of China building three dams on the Brahmaputra river in the strongest way with Beijing. But the solution is definitively not building more dams in Arunachal Pradesh, cautions Claude Arpi.

It is amazing that the Indian government is 'surprised' by China's announcement that its plan to build dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river is still on track.
Former foreign minister S M Krishna had told Parliament in November 2011 that the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, during his visit to India in December 2010, had told him, 'China's development of upstream areas will never harm downstream interests. The government has ascertained that the dam at Zangmu in the Tibet Autonomous Region is a run-of-the-river hydro-electric project, which does not store water and which will not adversely impact the downstream areas in India.'
The Indian government did not read between the lines; China never said that it would not construct other dams.
A few days ago, China announced that it had decided to go for a massive controversial programme to dam the Salween (or Nu) river in Yunnan province (which then flows to Myanmar and Thailand).
Eight years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist by training, had suspended the programme due to environmental concerns.
China's State Council has now posted a blueprint for its energy sector in 2011-2015 on its Web site, making it clear that the 2004 ban had been lifted.
'Hydropower bases on the Nu River and the upper reaches of the Jinsha (Yangtze) and Lancang (Mekong) will be kicked off in an orderly manner,' it said.
It is difficult to say why this decision has been taken before the change of leadership in Beijing is completed in March and a new team takes over.
According to The South China Morning Post: 'Some environmentalists were stunned by the plan's revival, which is part of an effort by the government to promote hydroelectricity as a cleaner alternative to coal. Opponents said the decision marks a long-awaited victory for the country's mighty state-owned power companies and local governments that have been lobbying top leaders to promote the building of mega dams, regardless of the potential safety risks and social consequences.'
The lifting of the ban means that with the construction of 54 hydropower plants -- termed as key construction projects -- an extra capacity of 120 gigawatts will be added to the grid.
The controversial Xiaonanhai dam on the Yangtze River -- a pet project of Bo Xilai, Chongqing's sacked party chief -- is among the 54 key plants to be soon constructed.
Wang Yongchen, who works for Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental NGO based in Beijing, told the The South China Morning Post, 'Wen (Jiabao) was able to put those projects on hold for eight years, but with his tenure coming to an end, the pro-hydro interest groups are getting an upper hand again.'
However, it is surprising that Beijing did not wait for the newly-appointed administration to take over before deciding on such a controversial issue.
Did the dam lobby manage to use the interregnum to push the files?
It is absolutely possible.
The dams of the Yarlung Tsangpo should be seen in this perspective.
In fact, despite the government of India's 'surprise', the project has never really been shelved, though the larger issue of diverting the river has apparently not reached a consensus.
In November 2011, an International Conference on River Waters Perspectives and Challenges for India was organised by the Foundation of Non-Violent Alternatives in New Delhi. Many Indian and foreign scholars participated, including a few Chinese experts.
Professor Shaofeng Jia, a distinguished scientist from the Centre for Water Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, dismissed the issue of diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahamaputra.
Professor Shaofeng said the Great West Route Diversion Project, as the diversion is known, was, 'Too far, it is 2,000 km away from Nanjing; too high: the lifting of water more 1000 m; too difficult: high elevation, new technical movement; too complex: geological condition; too dangerous with frequent geological disasters, such as landslides, earthquakes and too expensive!'
'The Chinese government had never planned it or supported it,' he added.
Professor Shaofeng also stated that there would be 'no mega dam', such as the 38,000 MW ones often mentioned in the Indian media. But he added, 'Hydropower stations will happen.'
The Zangmu project, under construction since 2012, is considered as a relatively small dam (540 MW) and as one that will 'not disturb the environment much'.
'There will be some disturbances to the ecosystem, but hydropower is greener compared to coal as a source of energy and sustainable. The key point is to look for the balance point between hydro-energy development and ecological protection,' the professor added.
A map of the area, already available on the Internet a few years ago, shows the six proposed dams, including the Zangmu project now under construction. They form what China calls a 'cascade'.
So why be 'surprised' now?
It is probably true that the Chinese authorities managed to pacify their Indian colleagues by saying that these were small dams (which is true by Chinese standards) and New Delhi need not worry.
They must have added that the projects are 'run-of-the-river' ones and therefore there is no danger to India as the reservoir will be very small and India will not encounter any radical change in the flow of the mighty river.
The security threat posed by such dams have been in the limelight after the collapse of the Malpasset dam in France on December 2, 1959.
Shortly after 9 pm, the entire dam wall broke open, with only a few blocks remaining on the right bank. The breach created a massive wave -- 40 metres high -- which moved at a speed of 70 km per hour. It destroyed two small villages, Malpasset and Bozon, the highway construction site nearby and 20 minutes later reached the town of Frjus. The wave was still three metres high. Various small roads and railroad tracks were destroyed on the way and the western half of Frjus town was flooded.
The tragedy claimed the lives of 423 people.
According to a French television documentary, the collapse of the Malpasset dam could have been an act of terrorism by Algeria's National Liberation Front.
Can you imagine what would happen in the Himalayan region -- with its myriad network of dams -- in case of a conflict between India and China?
It is an issue that India's security czars (I don't know how many of them are officiating in Delhi) should consider seriously.
The seismology of the area should also be considered.
Recently, a study by the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore revealed for the first time that in 1255 and 1934, two great earthquakes ruptured the surface of the earth in the Himalayas.
Quakes also occurred in 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950, with magnitudes between 7.8 and 8.9 on the Richter Scale, and caused tremendous damage.
Professor Paul Tapponnier of the French Academy of Sciences, thanks to new high-resolution imagery and state-of-the-art dating techniques, discovered that the 1934 earthquake did rupture the surface of the earth, damaging the ground across an area of more than 150 km, in the Himalayas.
Building dams in these areas is a dangerous business.
Delhi should, in any case, take up the issue in the strongest way with Beijing.
But the solution is definitively not building more dams in Arunachal Pradesh, as some have proposed.
The argument that China can be contained by doing worse -- build larger hydropower plants on India's side of the border -- is childish, to put it mildly, though in the process the pockets of the local politicians will fill up faster than the reservoirs.
Till now, China has refused to collaborate with downstream states.
In May 1997, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, China was one of three countries that voted against it, with Turkey and Burundi. India abstained from the vote.
The rather mild Convention 'aimed at guiding States in negotiating agreements on specific watercourses.'
In the long run, whether by adopting such a convention or by signing a bilateral treaty along the lines of the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, Beijing has no choice but to collaborate with its downstream neighbours on a crucial issue like water, on which the future of Asia depends.
China's current attitude does not tally with the status of a 'responsible power' that the Communist nation is striving for.

Banqiao Dam Collapse (1975)
The Forgotten Legacy of the Banqiao Dam Collapse
The Economic Observer

February 8, 2013
Eric Fish

Summary: In 1975, after a period of rapid dam development, a perfect storm of factors came together to topple Henan Province’s Banqiao Dam and kill an estimated 171,000 people. Today, on the cusp of another dam-building binge, some worry that factors which led to Banqiao’s collapse are re-emerging.

On the night of Aug 8, 1975, a line of people frantically piled sandbags atop Henan Province’s Banqiao Dam while being battered by the worst storm ever recorded in the region. They were in a race with the rapidly rising Ru River to save the dam and the millions of people that lay sleeping downstream. It was a race they were about to lose.
Just after 1:00 am, the sky cleared and stars emerged from behind the storm clouds. There was an eerie calm as someone yelled, “The water level is going down! The flood is retreating!”
There was little chance to enjoy that calm. One survivor recalled that a few seconds later it “sounded like the sky was collapsing and the earth was cracking.” The equivalent of 280,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools burst through the crumbling dam, taking with it entire towns and as many as 171,000 lives.
Today if you ask Chinese outside of Henan what they know about the Banqiao Dam collapse, you’re not likely to hear much. What may have been the deadliest structural failure of all time occurred in an era when the state quickly covered the scale of such catastrophes.
In 2005, 30 years after the collapse, historical records began to open and scholars sought to re-examine the event; yet the majority of Chinese are still unaware of the disaster’s scale and the missteps that led to it. As China now embarks on another binge of rapid dam development, some worry that factors which led to Banqiao’s collapse are re-emerging.
The dam was completed in 1952 as part of a campaign to “Harness the Huai River” and its tributaries after severe flooding in previous years. During the 1950s, over 100 dams and reservoirs were built just in Zhumadian Prefecture of Henan Province along with Banqiao. When the Great Leap Forward began in 1958, the campaign was held up as a national model to “give primacy to water accumulation for irrigation."
A hydrologist named Chen Xing warned that an overbuilding of dams and reservoirs could raise the water table in Henan beyond safe levels and lead to disaster. After the Great Leap Forward, many of the projects were re-examined and renovated, but dams continued to go up quickly. From the 1950s to the 1970s, about 87,000 reservoirs were built across the country.
More than 100 additional dams went up in Zhumadian in the 1960s, joining those that had gone up in the previous decade. They created reservoirs that claimed huge tracts of land previously reserved for flood diversion. The irresistible benefits of the dams ultimately drowned out the voices urging restraint.
Today, China is on the cusp of another dam-building binge.
By 2020, the country intends to increase its total energy capacity by nearly 50 percent at the same time it tries to raise the non-fossil fuel proportion of that energy from 9 to 15 percent. With nuclear development being slowed in the wake of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, dams have been left to do most of the heavy lifting. The 12th five-year plan calls for the hydropower producing equivalent of seven Three Gorges Dams to be built by 2015.
Nowhere is the aggressive dam push raising more eyebrows than in Southwest China, where dozens of major projects are gearing up. On three river systems – the Nu (Salween), the Lancang (Mekong), and the Yangtse watershed – there are altogether 32 major dams completed. But in coming years those are likely to be joined by over 100 more.
In January, the State Council lifted a ban on major dam projects in the region that was enacted on environmental concerns under Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004. The move has been long awaited by dam developers, some of whom have referred to the last decade as “lost time.”
While most worries associated with the planned projects focus on environmental effects and dislocation of local residents, serious safety concerns have also been raised. A report by the environmental group Probe International last year said that of the 130 proposed dams on these and other rivers in the region, “48.2 percent are located in zones of high to very high seismic hazard.”
The report continues, “By constructing more than 130 large dams in a region of known high seismicity, China is embarking on a major experiment with potentially disastrous consequences for its economy and its citizens”
Earthquakes are only one of the concerns in the mountainous region with unstable terrain. In 2010, a geographically similar part of Gansu Province was hit by landslides that killed nearly 1,500 people. A prolonged drought followed by heavy rains were the official causes of the disaster, but experts like Sichuan-based geologist Fan Xiao believed these factors were exacerbated by deforestation, mining and a binge of dam building that had occurred in the preceding years – issues that also plague Southwest China’s river valleys.
At the time of the landslides, Fan Xiao told South China Morning Post, “Local authorities have ignored daunting warnings about the severe consequences of dam-building and viewed dams as their key source of taxation.”
While officials may see dams as a clean and efficient way to boost local economies, they sometimes also see them as opportunities to line their own pockets.
In recent years the term “tofu construction” has come into vogue, referring to structures built with substandard materials and unqualified contractors as a result of corruption. Since 2007, China has had at least 19 major bridge collapses resulting in over 140 total deaths. In one case, a collapsed bridge was found to have been built by a blind contractor.
While China’s high-profile Three Gorges Dam was being built there were nearly 100 reported instances of corruption, bribery and embezzlement associated with the project. Most were related to resettlement funds for displaced residents, but at least 16 cases were directly related to construction.
Old dams raise even greater worries. Thousands that were built prior to Reform & Opening Up are still in use, many of which are badly in need of renovation. The central government has said that more than 40,000 dams are at risk of breach and allotted 62 billion yuan to repair them. But that appears to be coming up short and local governments have been unwilling or unable to make up difference.
“There are so many endangered dams,” Zhou Fangping from the Water Resources Department of Guangdong Province told China Economic Weekly in 2011. “We have so many rivers to manage and so many irrigation and water conservancy projects. If there’s only one project, we can handle it, but there are so many. So the result is either we promise to complete all the projects but we don’t actually meet the targets, or we finish them all but with sub-standard quality.”
The China Economic Weekly piece reported that about 15,900 new small-sized dams would be built by the central government by the end of 2013 and 25,000 by local governments before the end of 2015.
As recently as Feb 2 this year, a small dam in Xinjiang collapsed, flooding 70 homes and killing one man. According to a statement by a Water Resources Ministry official in 2006, in a given year around 68 (mostly small) dikes like this collapse in China.

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