Sunday, June 12, 2011

Will China divert the Brahmaputra?

For the first time last month, the State Council (the Chinese Cabinet) acknowledged the serious problems faced by the mega Three Gorges Dam.
A statement on government's website affirmed: “At the same time that the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and geological disaster prevention.”
The statement came at the end of a meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao: “Problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction but could not be solved immediately, and some arose because of increased demands brought on by economic and social development”, it explained.
An article of Reuters quoted Dai Qing, an environmental activist who said the damage caused by the dam in some cases is irreversible: "The most serious threat is that of geological disasters. Now that the dam is in place, no amount of money can fix the problem. It fundamentally cannot be resolved.”
Dai said that Premier Wen and President Hu, respectively trained as geological and hydraulic engineers did not turn up at the opening function of the dam because they knew ‘the risks of the project’.
In the post Fukushima era, it is logical to expect that governments would honestly study the geology around these mega projects.
These ‘irreversible’ issues should also trigger fresh researches into the most seismic region on the planet: the Tibetan plateau.
Will officials planning the construction of myriads of dams on the Tibetan rivers take into account the seismic conditions before starting the constructions? This cannot be solved once dams are built.
In this context, it is very unfortunate that for the first time in 5 years, a Chinese official spoke of the possibility on diverting the Yarlung-Tsangpo/Brahmaputra towards northern China.
The website quoted Wang Guangqian, a scholar of the Chinese Academy of Sciences 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. The water diversion route in the proposal, named the ‘Grand Western Canal’, is slightly different from the ‘Western Canal’ mentioned in China’s well-known South-North Water Diversion Project.”
Wang explained the Chinese rationale: “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, the watercourse that originates upstream from southwestern Tibet and finally enters India.”
The last time that we officially heard about the diversion of the Brahmaputra was in November 2006 when President Hu Jintao was soon to visit India. China had decided to assuage the legitimate worries of the Indian government.
Water Resources Minister Wang Shucheng, a hydraulic engineer, affirmed then that the proposal was "unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific. There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects."
He however admitted that there a plan in the drawers, but “the project involves major financial and technical difficulties”. Further, “the cost of diverting water from the Yarlung Tsangpo would be much more expensive than any of the current water projects.”
At that time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao also confirmed: “The Chinese government has no plans to build a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River (the China part of the Brahmaputra) to divert water to the Yellow River.”
The Chinese media criticized Li Ling's book Tibet's water will Save China in which the Chinese engineer details the diversion scheme, also known as Shuomatan Canal (from Suma Tan in Tibet to Tanjing in China).
As President Hu arrived in Delhi, other Chinese 'experts' were engaged to denounce the plans of Li Ling and Gao Kai (a retired PLA General and proponent of the project).
Qin Hui, a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University declared: “We have to take the international response into consideration. It is undoubted that the lower reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo River are within India's Assam Province, where it is a lifeline for local agriculture and backbone of the economy, just as it is further downstream in Bangladesh.”
Qin added: “It is so obvious that the proposed damming project will have a cascading effect leading to a natural disaster in the lower foreign reaches of the Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong rivers.”
Liu Changming, a hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has advised the government on these proposals, confirmed that a team of water experts from the Chinese Academy of Engineers, an advisory group of prominent scientists “had concluded that the proposal to tap the Brahmaputra River would be far too expensive, technologically unfeasible and ...too controversial”. He nevertheless admitted: “There may be some retired officials that support the plan, but they're not the experts advising the government.”
Now, Prof Wang Guangqian of the Chinese Academy of Sciences seems to say that China has no choice but to do it.
Wang Guangqian speaks of a newly 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 feasibility and possible impacts of distinct proposals.
There is a big difference between 2006 and today: with the opening of the tunnel to Metok (Motuo) in December 2010, the Chinese engineers now have the possibility to start the mega power plant which could provide the necessary energy to the diversion scheme, planned a couple of hundred kilometers upstream the Brahmaputra.
Two important factors have to be understood.
One, hydropower lobbies have a financial interest in ‘concretizing’ the project as soon as possible. Last week, an article in The Financial Times said that “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 the projects through.
The second crucial factor is the cost-benefit perspective. The Chinese leadership is very 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.”
When it makes its calculations, Beijing will however have to take into account the cost of a serious conflict with India. The price of water may then become exorbitant.
And Beijing should look again into the disastrous performance of the Gorges Dam before taking a hurried decision.

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