Thursday, June 23, 2011

Looking at the wrong place with the wrong lens

Sometimes news found in the main Indian press can be flabbergasting. Take the case of the purported ‘diversion’ of the Yarlung Tsangpo.
A serious national newspaper spoke of the “Yarlang Tsangpo, it is what the Brahmaputra River is called in Mandarin”. The Yarlung (and not Yarlang) Tsangpo is the Tibetan name for the river originating near Mt Kailash, it has nothing to do with Mandarin. A mere detail!
The article further says that the Ministry of Water Resources has asked the Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) for a report on the Chinese building activities near the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo, as it enters into Indian territory: “Sources do not rule out the possibility that the ‘new’ images could be of existing structures, since the resolution of India's satellite images has increased substantially in recent months. The resolution has gone up from 181m to 10cm. This means structures, which have been there, are now visible in much greater detail.”
Great news, but the NRSC scientists are wasting their time looking for structures near the Grand Bend of the Brahmaputra: the diversion is planned a few hundred kilometers upstream, near the city of Tsetang.
Had the Ministry done its homework before sending a request to NRSC?
External Affairs Minister SM Krishna is also not a good pupil: he mixes the ‘diversion scheme’ with the dams being built on the Brahmaputra, when, answering a question on the diversion, he affirms that Zangmu Dam “is no cause of concern to India as it is a ‘run off the river’ dam”.
In fact, Beijing is planning a string of 6 dams in this area in Lengda, Zhongda, Langzhen, Jiexu, Jiacha and Zangmu.
No need to mention here the utopian dream of a 38 Gws power station (nearly twice the size of the Three Gorges Dam) in the Great Bend, near the Indian border; there are too many geological and technical issues involved to be taken seriously in the decades to come.
The smaller dams (about 500Mws each) are not directly linked with the diversion scheme which is proposed to be built a few hundred kilometers upstream. It would make no technical sense to have such a project at a relatively lower altitude near the Great Bend, when the waters can be pushed up towards the north from a much higher altitude, near Tsetang in Central Tibet.
Headlines Today mentioned a top secret report prepared by the Cabinet Secretariat in Delhi on June 13 which would state: “Beijing is not responding to India's concerns on the Brahmaputra dam. There is an urgent need to take up this issue with China as these dams will 'severely impact' the flow of water into India."
According to the same source, SM Krishna would have assured Assam CM Tarun Gogoi that “ISRO satellite maps showed no construction”.
No construction where?
On November 15, 2010, The People’s Daily had announced: “The Brahmaputra River, which has long been praised as a ‘heavenly river’, was dammed for the first time on November 12 …the Zangmu Hydropower Station, the first large hydropower station in Tibet, will soon begin its main construction.” In fact, the construction had been started several months earlier.

But let us go back to the source of the ‘diversion’ story.
A couple of weeks ago, Prof. Wang Guangqian, a senior scientist at Chinese Academy of Sciences Engineering was quoted as saying: “Chinese experts have raised a new proposal to divert water from the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River to the country’s northwestern province of Xinjiang”.
Prof Wang’s project is a variant of a scheme prepared some 10 years ago by two Chinese engineers: Gao Kai, a retired PLA General, considered by many as the father of the mega scheme and his colleague Li Ling who wrote a book Tibet's water will Save China. The project was then called the Shuomatan Canal (from Suma Tan in Central Tibet to Tanjing in China).
Interestingly, Wang Guangqian seems to have the backing of Li Ruihuan, a former member of the Standing Committee of the CCP's Politburo and former Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Many in the PLA as well as the mega dam companies are said to be supporting the project.
Wang Guangqian spoke about the proposed route: “Brahmaputra waters are expected to be rerouted to Xinjiang along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Hexi Corridor – part of the Northern Silk Road located in Gansu Province”.
Wang admitted: “We thought this would be a plan 50 years later,” adding that presently Chinese experts and governmental officials are still studying the possible impacts (technical and political) of the proposal.
The Chinese engineers are clearly conducting a ‘feasibility study’, no construction has started.
But the project, planned to be undertaken in 50 years time, might now start much earlier: “Faced with severe challenges brought by reduced water resources and a severe drought that has affected a large portion of the country, China has started to consider diverting water from the Brahmaputra River.”
One can reasonably think that it would begin in 10 years at the earliest, keeping in mind that it is a political decision which could only be taken at the highest level of the Chinese State by President Hu Jintao’s successors.

The issue
An article by Zhang Ke on the website provided more information. Wang Guangqian admitted that his proposal, also called the Major Western Route, has been inspired by the work of Guo Kai.
The hard fact: fast developing China has less and less water and Beijing has to locate possible sources of water to survive. Scientists are looking in the only two possible directions: the sea (the Bobai Sea) or the mountains (the Tibetan plateau).
Wang quoted a survey by the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Figures from the Chinese Academy of Sciences showing that “rivers on the Qinghai-Tibet and Yunnan-Guizhou plateaus, including the Yarlung Tsangpo, Salween and Mekong, carry between 637 billion cubic metres and 810 billion cubic metres of water out of China each year”.
What disturbs some Chinese engineers is that most of these rivers flow down to India and South-East Asia, becoming the Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong; in other words, the waters are ‘wasted’ for China.
The diversion project envisaged by Wang (and Gao Kai) could move some 200 billion cubic metres of water a year up to Northwestern China – the equivalent of four Yellow Rivers.
According to Li Ling, the Institute of Advanced Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is using supercomputers and data modeling to simulate the project and evaluate its feasibility. Wang Guangqian himself works with the South-North Water Transfer office to prepare a ‘scientific’ report.
In 2006, the Chinese government pretended that 'a few mad men' were thinking of this pharaonic project, but if these few 'mad men' (supported by a former Politburo's Standing Committee member) are able to use the super computers of the Chinese Academy of Sciences for their calculations, they may not be as mad as painted by the Government.
Three important factors have to be understood.

One, China’s hydropower lobbies have a financial interest in ‘concretizing’ the project as soon as possible. Last week, an article in The Financial Times affirmed: “China’s Three Gorges Project Corporation has proposed a $15bn hydropower scheme to Pakistan to dam the Indus river valley at several points, in a project aimed at controlling floods and tackling electricity shortages.” Dams, whether in Pakistan or Tibet, mean big business and the large Chinese corporations will continue to lobby hard to get these projects through.

The second crucial factor is the cost-benefit perspective. The Chinese leadership is down-to-earth, rational. A friend who worked on the issue told me: “If the price of transferring water is cheaper than conservation or getting water from the sea, China will go ahead.” Why divert the Brahmaputra and risk a conflict with India, if there is a possibility to avoid it?

Three, China badly needs water and can’t import it.
The diversion of the Brahmaputra is in competition with another diversion: to take water from the Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea on the coast of Northeastern China and push it up to Xinxiang.

The rationale remains, China needs to:
  1. To stop the desertification in Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia
  2. To help a dry and polluted Yellow River flow again
  3. To feed its people, for which large amounts of water are required for agriculture
If such grandiose and seemingly unrealizable projects are even thought of, it is because the situation is quite desperate and nobody is able to foresee any ‘realizable’ solution.
So far, 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.

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