A few days back, Beijing announced that it had decided to go for the massive controversial plans to dam the Salween (Nu) River in Yunnan province.
Eight years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao had suspended the plans out of environmental concerns.
When the Chinese State Council [Cabinet] posted on its website, a 2011-15 energy-sector blueprint, it was 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 is difficult to say why this decision has been taken before the change of leadership is completed in March and a new team takes over.
According to The South China Morning Post (SCMP): "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 an extra capacity of 120 gigawatts with the construction of 54 hydropower plants termed as 'key construction projects'.
The controversial Xiaonanhai Dam on the Yangtze River — a pet project of Bo Xilai, Chongqing's sacked party chief — is also among the 54 key plants to be soon taken up.
Wang Yongchen of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental NGO told the SCMP: "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."
It is however surprising that to decide such controversial issue, Beijing did not wait for the new administration to take over and settle in the seats.
Did the dam lobby manage to use the interregnum to push the files?
It is 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.
In November 2011, an International Conference on River Waters Perspectives and Challenges for India was held at the India International Center in New Delhi.
Prof. Shaofeng Jia, a distinguished scientist from Center for Water Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research) dismissed the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahamaputra.
He said the Great West Route Diversion Project (GWRDP) as the diversion is known, was:
- Too far: 2000 km away [from Nanjing]
- Too high the lifting of water: more than 1000 m
- Too difficult: high elevation, new technical movement
- Too complex: geological condition
- Too dangerous: too frequent geological disaster, such as landsliding, earthquake
- Too expensive!
- The Chinese government had never support and planned it!
The Zangmu project already under construction is considered as a small dam (540 Mws) and 'not disturbing much the environment', though Prof Jia said: "It’s sure there will be some disturbing to ecosystem, but hydropower is greener compared to coal and sustainable. The key point is to look for the balance point between hydro-energy development and ecological protection."
In June, 2011, I mentioned on this blog the 'pending' dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo.
a map of the area, with the six dams, the Zangmu project being the first of the 'string' or 'cascade'.
In October 2009, I had also given some details about the 6 dams.
Why being 'surprised' now?
It is probably true that the Chinese authorities have pacified their Indian colleagues by saying that these are small dams (which is true for Chinese standards), "you need not worry!".
They must have added that the projects are 'run-or-the-river' projects and therefore there is no danger for India as the reservoir will be very small, a couple of kilometers at the most (as in any case the hydropower plants are close to each other) and that India will not encounter any radical change in the flow of the mighty river.
Delhi should anyway take the issue in the strongest way with Beijing, but it is not by building more dams in Arunachal Pradesh that a solution will be found.
The argument that China can be contained by doing worse than China (build larger hydropower plants on India's side of the border) is childish to put it mildly, though it is true that in the process, the pockets of the local politicians will fill up faster than the reservoirs.
Another issue briefly mentioned on this blog last week, is the security issue and the case of the Malpasset dam in France. A French TV documentary claimed that the collapse of the Malpasset dam could have been an act of terrorism by Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN).
I had written: "Can you imagine what could happen in the Himalayas with the myriads of dam, in case of a conflict with 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.
Till now, China has refused to collaborate with downstream States.
When in May 1997, when the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, China was one of 3 countries voting against. The rather mild Convention "aimed at guiding States in negotiating agreements on specific watercourses”.
In the long run, whether it will be by adopting such a Convention or by signing a bilateral treaty like the Indus Waters Treaty (1960) 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. The current ‘imperialist’ attitude does not tally with the status of ‘responsible power’ which China is striving for.