Monday, January 12, 2015

Diverting the Indus to Xinjiang

On Christmas Day, The New York Times reported: “Within a few days, water that has traveled more than 800 miles for two weeks in one of the world’s most ambitious, and controversial, engineering projects is expected to begin flowing through Beijing faucets.”
The objective of the scheme is to bring water from upper reaches of the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze, through the central route of the South-to-North Water Diversion project, the second of three routes planned to transfer water from China’s wet south to the dry north. Once fully functional, the Central Diversion is expected to provide a third of the capital’s water needs.
The project is estimated at 80 billion U.S. dollars, says Xinhua, adding: “The completion of the water scheme marked major progress in the nation's enormous south-to-north water diversion project, the largest of its kind in the world.”
The official news agency boasts: “It is another engineering achievement by the Chinese,” quoting the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the world's longest man-made river, opened in the 13th century for transporting grain.
The pro and the cons of the present project will continue to be debated in the months and years to come; in the meanwhile, some researchers in China have thought of another smaller ‘pilot’ project: to divert the Indus river towards Xinjiang. A detailed report on the scheme is posted by a blogger on the website ScienceNet.cn.
Beijing will argue that this new project is merely the product of the fertile brain of some freelance scientists, and that it has ‘nothing to do with the government’.
You may ask, what is this ScienceNet.cn? According to Wikipedia: “ScienceNet.cn is a science virtual community and science blog,” launched by Science Times Media Group (STMG) and supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China “with the mission of establishing a global Chinese science community.”
Since January 2007, more than 5,000 scientists and graduate students have posted their papers on ScienceNet. The editorial board of ScienceNet says that it has been ranking first among Chinese science websites.
The blogger quotes Chinese researchers who argue that the other planned 'diversions' require extremely complicated construction plans, large investments, long building periods and face a lot of engineering problems due to the complexity of the issues involved (I would add, and 'displacing millions of people'). It makes these projects difficult to undertake, while a small-scale, with low investment and a quickly realizable scheme, could be an ideal pilot project.
The ‘researchers’ propose to add a South Western segment to the Western Diversion Route (not yet started), which is the third part of the South-to-North Water Diversion project. It would involve the diversion of the waters from the Indus river in Western Tibet (before it enters Ladakh) towards the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang. According to the authors, the scheme would meet the requirements of a ‘pilot’ scheme.
In a summary, the ‘scientists’ explain that the water diversion project referred to in their paper could be called “the South Western section of Western Route Project”; water could be taken from the Tibetan Plateau in the West and brought by gravity to the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang. The text describes the preliminary survey of the South Western part of the Western Route Project. The size of the diversion program and a brief description of China’s northwest after the transfer of the Indus’ water, are given. The main conclusion is that the diversion will help maintaining long-term stability in Xinjiang. The paper explains why and suggests deepening the research before an early implementation of the South Western section.
According to the ‘researchers’, the diversion of the Indus could bring ten benefits to China:
  • It could increase the total amount of water resources in the Tarim Basin, which is located in the hinterland of Taklimakan Desert and suffers from important sand dune mobility. In this highly arid region, which receives low precipitations, water is extremely valuable
  • The diversion could increase the local hydropower capacity. Water would flow from the high Qinghai-Tibet plateau, at an elevation of over 3,000 [in fact 4,000] meters and at the receiving end, water would be at only 1,500 meters above sea level.
  • Once this section is completed, the water could create an oasis in the desert. The Western section would transform an entire region into an oasis; it would further bring a great return on the investment.
  • Once the project is fully implemented, the total amount of water resources locally available could greatly increase; it could provide a substantial increase in the amount of hydroelectric power; the desert could become an oasis, it could improve the ecological environment, which in turn could promote local economic development of the region and the living standards of the local people.
  • According to some scientific hypotheses, the water brought by the diversion could also increase precipitations in the region.
  • The research says that the new oasis could in turn ‘curb global warming’ [sic]. If the global warming argument is indeed correct, say the ‘scientists’, the South Western section could increase the rainfall in China; this countermeasure could help curb global warming for the entire humanity; this is why the diversion project must be able to get the global support and backing of most countries [what about India?]. China can then get a substantial increase in the local precipitation; the desert in northwest [Xinjiang] would disappear; the desert would become an oasis which would be able to grow food and have power plants; humans would be able to reduce the need for fossil fuels; after additional diversion oasis would absorb large amounts of greenhouse gases each year, thus it would achieve the goal of curbing global warming.
What an argument! But that is not all:
  • It could contribute to China’s food and energy security. After the diversion, the desert turned-oasis could increase the country's arable land for China to contribute to the world food security.
  • The western development could make a significant contribution by reducing regional disparities. China's population distribution is unbalanced; the development gap between China and western regions and other regions is too large; it has been extremely detrimental to the country's development.
And now the cherry on the cake:
  • The diversion could strengthen China's actual control of Aksai Chin, and help to resolve the territorial dispute. Sino-Indian border has not been formally delimited in the Aksai Chin and Pangong Lake areas; there are some territorial disputes [with India]. The water diversion project, through Aksai Chin, could help the actual control of this region; the implementation of the project could also help to resolve the territorial dispute [with India].
  • Finally, the project could promote national unity and maintain long-term stability of Xinjiang. This, according to the authors, is the main benefit of the South Western section: the long-term stability of Xinjiang.
This ‘easy’ pilot project does not, of course, take into account what the neighbours (including China’s all-weather friend, Pakistan) would have to say.
That may not make the pilot project so simple after all!
The question is, while Beijing is very quick to remove internet content which contests its rule, why is such a crazy and highly objectionable project allowed to be posted on a semi-governmental website?
Similarly, the website of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission of China’s Ministry of Water Resources has a 50-page report on the diversion of the Brahmaputra, and though Beijing denies any bad intention, the project remains on the ‘official’ website.
How can we trust China?

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