Friday, April 4, 2014

The Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and Climate Change

Surveying the Yarlung Tsangpo
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment has come out.
On the 31st March 2014, the report from the Working Group II, titled ‘Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability’ was released in Yokohoma, Japan.
In the Report, Working Group II assesses “the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change, and options for adapting to it. It also takes into consideration the inter-relationship between vulnerability, adaptation and sustainable development.”
Chris Field, the chairperson of Working Group II affirms: “The report concludes that people, societies, and ecosystems are vulnerable around the world, but with different vulnerability in different places. Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk”.
The report consists of two volumes.
The first volume contains a Summary for Policymakers, Technical Summary, and 20 chapters assessing risks by sector and opportunities for response. It deals with freshwater resources, terrestrial and ocean ecosystems, coasts, food, urban and rural areas, energy and industry, human health and security, and livelihoods and poverty.
A second volume of 10 chapters looks at risks and opportunities by region. These regions include Africa, Europe, Asia, Australasia, North America, Central and South America, Polar Regions, Small Islands, and the Ocean.
The summary for policymakers is not optimistic: “Climate change over the 21st century is projected to reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions, intensifying competition for water among sectors. In presently dry regions, drought frequency will likely increase by the end of the 21st century. In contrast, water resources are projected to increase at high latitudes. Climate change is projected to reduce raw water quality and pose risks to drinking water quality even with conventional treatment, due to interacting factors: increased temperature; increased sediment, nutrient, and pollutant loadings from heavy rainfall; increased concentration of pollutants during droughts; and disruption of treatment facilities during floods. Adaptive water management techniques, including scenario planning, learning-based approaches, and flexible and low-regret solutions, can help create resilience to uncertain hydrological changes and impacts due to climate change.”
The Indian NGO, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has looked into the references on dams and their relation with climate change in the report.
It analyzed: “It is significant to note that dams, hydropower projects, infrastructure measures like channelization, embankments, etc., are also mentioned in nearly all the chapters of the report. Couple of references indicate dams as a possible adaptation measure, but overwhelming references point to the contrary.”
The NGO cites sections of the Report:
1. Dams and infrastructure projects contribute significantly to ‘non-climate impacts’ which, after interacting with changing climate, exacerbate the overall impact on human societies and ecosystems
  • - Sediment trapping by reservoirs, exacerbates impact of sea level rise
  • - Hydropower affects local options
  • - Climate change and dams together affect a greater eco-region
  • - Increased flow fluctuations by dams exacerbate through climate change
2. In case of Flood Protection, dams and embankments may do more harm than good. Ecological measures would fare better.
3. Dams and Hydropower projects affect biodiversity, which is critical in facing climate change challenges.
4. In the tropics, global warming potential of hydropower may exceed that of Thermal Power
5. Dams increase vulnerability of weaker sections to climate change
6. Existing Dams have to be managed sustainably, with ecological considerations
7. Hydropower itself is vulnerable to Climate Change
The NGO concludes: “The specific references given below will play an important role in debunking the simplistic myth that dams and hydropower projects are climate friendly and can be considered as de facto adaptation measures to cope with Climate Change.”
It then lists a number of examples showing that dams have a negative effect.

Regarding Point 3 (biodiversity is critical in facing climate change challenges), some interesting information has recently come from China.
As China and India are preparing to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra/Siang river, Xinhua reported about rare species spotted in a recently conducted biodiversity image survey in the area in Tibet.
The Chinese news agency says: “A total of six hundred rare species living in Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon have been photographed by Biodiversity Image Survey To Tibet (TBIS), an agency aimed at recording animals and plants in Tibet.”
The Chinese survey asserts that the discovery of new species and subspecies is the greatest achievement of the Image Survey Project: “For example, Metok wingless insect is a species discovered for the first time on the north bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo [Brahmaputra], which is a strong argument to prove the spread route of wingless insects.”
The Image Survey began in 2010; it has now taken place for the third consecutive year. “High-definition photos or clips that contain much more information than sheer specimen photos could offer have been collected”, claims Xinhua.
It is even said that the survey photos can rival any artistic photos in quality, while providing information on the geographical distribution, morphological characteristics and living conditions in the sensitive area of the trans-boundary river.
Though Xinhua affirms that there is still a lot to be observed and recorded in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon of the Yarlung Tsangpo, the new set of photographs captures hundreds of ‘birds, beasts [sic], amphibious reptiles, insects and plants’.
Xinhua concludes that it only represents ‘a drop in the bucket’ of the biodiversity of the region.
Luo Hao, who heads the TBIS explains: “Biodiversity image survey is of huge referential value to the scientific study of endangered species in Tibet".
He says that the photographs show not only the people in a vivid way the natural environment of the Yarlung Tsangpo, but also the species living in the gorges.
Luo’s hope is that the photographic survey can arouse people's love for nature and passion for environmental protection.
What about the deciders in Beijing who are planning huge dams on the river (and those in Delhi who are dreaming a mega schemes on the Siang and other rivers of Arunachal)?
Have they seen the results of the Image Survey?
Will they read the IPCC Report?
This unique spot on the planet may soon be destroyed if Beijing decides to go ahead with a cascade of 6 (or 9) dams on the river.
Ditto for the myriad of run-of-river dams in Arunachal.
The worse would, of course, be the construction of a mega structure (larger than the Three Gorges Dam) which would cut across the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo to produce electricity the mainland.
Before it is too late, visit the nearby area of Nyngtri (in Chinese, Nyingchi or Linzhi), before the Yarlung Tsangpo enters the gorges.
According to a Chinese site: "It lies in the southeast part of Tibet Autonomous Region. Located near the lower reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo River, it is blessed with a semi-humid climate and fascinating scenery. With a large number of river valleys and alpine gorges, Nyingchi is also called the 'Switzerland of Tibet'. When travelling there, you will be amazed by the lofty snow-capped mountain peaks, well-preserved original forests, cypresses that can grow up to thirty meters, and numerous colorful grasses. Travelers can also take part in various activities, such as mountain hiking, rock climbing and white water rafting, and experience the unique local customs of the Menba [Menpa] and Luoba [Lopa] people."
For how long will it remain so?

This place is located between the cascade of proposed
dams and the gorges of the Yarlung Tangpo

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