|G216 cutting across the Taklamakan Desert|
The caption explained: “The construction of Yuli-Qiemo highway, the third north-south route running through Taklamakan Desert, has entered the final rush. Workers of China Communications Construction Company Ltd are working on the largest dune in this project, with an estimated volume of 1.2 million cubic meters of sand to deal with.”
The Yuli-Qiemo highway is a section of the National Highway 216 (known as G216) linking northern Xinjiang to Kyirong county in Tibet (the border town with Nepal). A few years ago, I had mentioned the possibility of having a second road link between the two restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang (the first one is the G219 or Aksai Chin road, running through the Indian territory).
Xinhua’s caption continued: “They established camps next to the dune for the convenience of work, and receive daily necessities on a regular basis. The completion of the highway is expected to improve the transport conditions in southern Xinjiang and promote local development.”
For obvious reasons, Beijing does not want to announce as yet that they are building this new highly strategic link, which will serve the under-developed parts of Gerze county of Western Tibet (Ngari Korsum) ...and reached Nepal. It is probably an important part of the Belt & Road Initiative between Central and South Asia, dreamt by Xi Jinping.
But this is not the trickiest part of the project.How will the Chinese engineers managed to cross the Kunlun range and reach Rutok county?
Once on the plateau, the terrain (probably via Gerze county) will be easier.Today many still believe that it is impossible to cross the Kunlun.
But Beijing has probably done its home work and studied the 19th century Western explorers such as Sven Hedin or Aurel Stein who moved around the area and found slightly-easier passages to cut across the formidable natural barrier.
It is interesting to see if this new road link will be included in the next Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).
Some twenty pictures show workers on the lunar ‘dune’ landscape around the future highway crossing the Taklamakan Desert.
Here is a tentative route to be followed by the G216.
Incidentally, on May 14, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) announced that it will pump a lot of funds into transportation projects during the current year.
According to Xinhua: "The [Xinjiang] authorities will invest 9.5 billion yuan (about 1.34 billion U.S. dollars) in 60 major road projects, with plans to build or upgrade roads with a combined length of 2,281 km, according to the local transportation bureau. Of the investment, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps will allocate 5.7 billion yuan to its areas of jurisdiction in the southern part of Xinjiang."
It was said that the XPCC has already resumed work on a number of major transportation projects.
It is ominous for the Ladakh border, where the Chinese have started creating serious problems on the Indian side of the LAC, for example in Galwan area and north of the Panggong tso.
Another Section of G216
On May 20, Xinhua published a series of photos showing the construction site of Tianshan Shengli tunnel, a six-year project on the Urumqi-Yuli highway. The news agency says: "it passes through a cold and high altitude zone, with harsh climate and geological condition." This is apparently part of the same G216 Highway project.
According to Construction Review Online: “Running east from the current rail-head at Hotan south of Kashgar to Qiemo and then northeast to Ruoqiang, the 825 km line will have 65 stations, serving a string of small towns between the Tarim Basin and the Altun Shan mountain range. It will connect at Ruoqiang with the 1214 km Golmud–Korla line now nearing completion.”
The portal provides further details: “Designed for operation at up to 120 km/h, the single track line was authorised by the National Development and Reform Commission in May 2018. Construction was formally started on December 20 that year, and completion is expected by mid-2022. Capacity is being provided for up to eight daily passenger trains each way and around 15 million tonnes of freight per year. Total cost of the project is put at US 3.1 bn, of which the national government is contributing 54.2%, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 23.3% and China Railway 22.5%. This budget includes 790m yuan for rolling stock.”
The Project Manager Zhang Gang of China Railway 14th Bureau Group said that a management and construction team with ‘rich experience in desert railway construction’ to work in the ‘intricate natural environment’ has been working on the project: “the construction teams will be ‘working around the clock’ to lay an average of at least 2km per day. The target is to complete 520km of track and 19 stations by the end of this year.”
China is in a hurry; India should realize this.
The Changthang or ‘Northern plain’ (in Tibetan), occupies a large part of the Tibetan plateau.
In April 2000, with the approval of the State Council, the Changthang National Nature Reserve, located in northern Tibet, south of the Kunlun Mountains, became a national reserve.
It spreads on a total area of 391,200km, which makes it the second largest nature reserve in the world, after the Northeast Greenland National Park.
With the recently-established adjoining reserves, there is now a total of 496,000 km2 of connected Nature Reserves.
The Changthang National Nature Reserve lies at an average elevation of 4,500 meters. Administratively, it comes under the Prefectures of Nagchu and Ngari. Some parts of the Reserve are located in the County of Rutok, bordering Ladakh and the Aksai Chin.
Only a few Tibetan nomads permanently live there, but it is a paradise for wild animals such as wild yak (Bos grunniens), Tibetan wild ass or kiang (Equus kiang), Himalayan blue sheep or Bharal (Pseudois nayaur), Argali (Ovis ammon), Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa) and Tibetan antelope or chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii). The list of predators is also long; it includes snow leopards (Panthera uncia or Uncia uncia), Tibetan wolves (Canis lupus chanco), Turkestan lynx (Lynx lynx isabellinus) and Tibetan blue bears (Ursus arctos pruinosus).
|Road will cut through the eastern part of the Reserve|
Recently, a “Public Announcement for the Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] of the New Reconstruction Project of National Highway No. 216 (Tibet Area)” was made from Ngari Prefecture in Western Tibet.
According to published abstracts of the EIA: "The State Environmental Protection Bureau of the National Highway 216 (Tibet area) area has basically completed the project environmental impact, for pollution prevention and control.”
(National Highway 216 (G216) runs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the southern direction from Altay City to Baluntai in Hejing County, where it joins China National Highway 218. It is 857 kilometres in length).
The EIA says: “Control measures analysis and evaluation have been completed in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Interim Measures for Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment”.
Some ‘relevant’ contents of the EIA have even been made public, probably a first in China.
Here some extracts of the Chinese documents (please excuse inexactitudes; it is a translation through Google language).
I. Overview of construction projects
The Overview provides an idea of the route followed by the new highway starting from Xinjiang (near Dunhuang? Crescent Lake?) and joining the G 219 (the Aksai Chin road) in the Rutok County.
The Highway will be connecting Xinjiang and Tibet via Minfeng, it should ultimately connect with the Highway G 216 in Xinjiang.
The project is 558 km long.
The deeply-worrying aspect of the project is that it crosses the highly eco-sensitive Changthang National Nature Reserve.
It will run for 110 km in the main reserve, about 270 km in the buffer zone and some 100 km in the ‘experimental area’.
The starting point of this project is the Jieze Lake near the G 219 highway (north of Rutok).
According to the EIA, the road will be built “in accordance with the two-lane highway construction.”
The total investment for the project is RMB 6.453 billion (more than 1 billion US dollars). The construction should start by the end of the current year and the road will be put into operation early 2021. The construction period has been estimated at 48 months.
The main environmental impact assessment says:
1- During the construction period
- Noise: The main noise sources during the construction period will be the mechanical bulldozers, the loaders, the excavators and other construction equipment and transportation vehicles. Construction units will carry out the construction work in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations of the State (China) and the Tibet Autonomous Region.
- It will be characterized by “a reasonable layout of the construction site; reasonable arrangements for operating time of the work; scientific management and civilized construction [sic]”.
- Exhaust gas: Strict implementation of the relevant provisions of the State and the Tibet Autonomous Region will be followed.
- Dust: Measures will be taken to minimize the dust: the earth mixer/cement mixer will be closed; the area will be sprinkled; the site will be regularly cleaned; the asphalt mixing station will used ‘good sealing’ materials; high efficiency dust mixing equipment will be used to create the less possible impact on the atmospheric environment.
- Wastewater: Construction camps will prevent the seepage of the domestic sewage. After use, the wastewater will go through a sedimentation treatment plant; dust suppression will be taken care of.
- Solid wastes: All excavated soils produced by the project shall be reused or transported in closed vehicles. Offloading shall be prohibited to prevent spillage. Earthworks dumps shall be selected according to relevant requirements and measures shall be taken to prevent soil erosion.
- Ecological: The construction should be strictly in accordance with the provisions of the approved design. The construction should remain within the scope of plans and it shall not be allowed to expand. At the same time [at the end of the project?] a project evaluation shall seriously be implemented and an assessment made of biological and ecological diversity according with the environment protection laws. At the end of the construction period, timely measures will be taken to reclaim the land (of the construction site).
- Environmental noise: Near the sensitive points, speed will be limited and other measures to reduce traffic noise will be taken. Appropriate measures will be taken for the traffic noise in the sensitive areas. The future planning of both sides of the open space should be based on the results of noise assessment.
- Ambient air: The air pollution will come mainly from automobile exhausts; the vehicle control, particularly of the automobile exhaust, will be strengthened.
- Water environment: During the operation period, the domestic sewage generated from the maintenance area will be treated by anti-seepage aqua plants. Bridge across the river will set up runoff collection systems at both ends of the bridge using sedimentation tanks.
The proposed project is in line with the National Highway Network Plan (2013-2030). The route selection takes full account of the economic, environmental and technical feasibility principles.
It is line with the strict implementation of the ‘three simultaneous’ system, respectively, for the ecological environment, water environment, atmospheric environment.
It takes effective protection measures, will effectively control the adverse environmental impact of roads, along the area to promote economic and social development [of the area]
The project is considered to be viable from the perspective of environmental protection under the premise of obtaining the forest assessment and the biodiversity evaluation report and obtaining the approval of the related project of forestry department.
4 - Seek public views on the main issues
In order to listen to the views and suggestions of the community on the environmental protection work of the national highway 216 (Tibet border) and the 'rebuilt' section of the highway, the project will be publicized to solicit the public's valuable opinions and suggestions.
The main issues include: whether you are aware of the construction of this project; after the completion of the project, your views on the surrounding environment and the impact on your working life; your views and suggestions on environmental protection work.
5 - The public views
During the ‘publicity period’ for the environmental impact assessment of the project, the public can contact the Construction Unit and the EIA unit.
The public may contact the project construction unit or the EIA unit by way of letter, telephone, e-mail, etc. to obtain supplementary information or to express opinions and opinions on the project construction and EIA work.
The environmental impact assessment unit will record the opinions and suggestions of the public in the environmental impact report of the project and forward the public's valuable opinions and suggestions to the construction unit and the relevant departments of the Government.
Key Project Management Center of Transportation Bureau of Ngari District, Tibet Autonomous Region
Beijing Yan State Environmental Technology Development Co., Ltd located in Beijing
Implications for India
This of course does not deal with the strategic implications of the new road which should shorten the time to travel from Urumqi to Rutok (near the Indian border).