Monday, February 17, 2014

The 'feasibility' of diverting the Brahmaputra

Map prepared according to an article published on a Chinese official website
Let me come back on the 'feasibility' of diverting the Yarlung Tsango/Brahmaputra towards northern China.
Some years ago, I wrote the 'history' of the project which had become public in 1986 for the first time.
I am posting below what I wrote at that time.
At the end of the 1980s, till the 1990s, experts agreed that the project to 'push water up' and cross the mountain ranges was impossible, unless Beijing decided to use some sorts of small nuclear devices (or PNE, Peaceful Nuclear Explosions).
Twenty years down the line, the situation has changed. China has made tremendous progress in digging tunnels. It is perhaps one of the reasons why the project has recently resurfaced.
Last week, Bloomberg reported that "China Considers Longest Underwater Tunnel Under Bohai Sea".
The financial publication explained: "China may invest US $ 36 billion to build the world’s longest tunnel beneath the Bohai Sea to connect the northeastern city of Dalian to Yantai in Shandong province".
It quotes the China Daily: "proposals for the 123-kilometer tunnel, which is targeted for completion in 2026, may be submitted to the central government in April". The Chinese newspaper cites Wang Mengshu, an engineer working on the project: "A feasibility study taking two to three years could begin as early as 2015."
The proposed tunnel would become the longest in the world (twice the length of Japan’s Seikan Tunnel, which is 53.9 kms long). Bloomberg asserted: "The world’s second-largest economy has poured billions in past years to build infrastructure to spur growth, which may be more critical with gross domestic product forecast by economists to expand this year at the slowest pace since 1990."
The project is also important for the ports of Qinhuangdao, Tianjin and Caofeidian all located on the coast of the Bohai Sea.
Bohai Sea (map SCMP)
Can you imagine that the tunnel (if constructed) would cut the travel time between Dalian and Yantai to 40 minutes (from about eight hours by ferry currently and 1,400 km by road).
In the Bohai tunnel, trains may be able to run at 220 kilometers an hour and passenger vehicles would cross the sea on rail carriages.
During the last meeting of the National People’s Congress in March 2013, Chen Zhenggao, the provincial governor of Liaoning province requested the central government to take up the project as soon as possible to boost the regional economy.
My point is that if China has the technology to dig such a tunnel under the Bohai Sea, it might be able to perform a similar feat around the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo, in which case the new avatar of the Great Western Water Diversion may not be an utopia as thought earlier.
One issue has however not been mentioned, it is the fate of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve (SNNR), also known as the Three Rivers Nature Reserve.
Located on the Tibetan Plateau (in today's Qinghai province), the 'Reserve' monitors the headwaters of the Yellow River, the Yangtze, and the Mekong. The SNNR has been established to protect the sources and headwaters of these rivers. The reserve is divided in 18 subareas, each containing three zones.
Map Wikipedia
Wikipedia says: "Along with wetland and waters protection, other ecological values, such as grassland, forest, and wildlife enhancement, have also been presented as goals. To advance the goals of the SNNR uncontrolled or poorly managed mining, logging, hunting, and grazing have been curtailed. Foreign and other mining firms have replaced the uncontrolled miners, trees have been planted, and measures have been taken to protect endangered species. To protect the grasslands, pastoralists are not permitted to graze their animals in designated ‘core zones’, and grazing is supervised elsewhere in the SNNR. In addition, residents have been resettled from core zones and other grassland areas of the SNNR, and rangeland has been fenced and is in the process of being privatized throughout the Sanjiangyuan Area."
There are, of course, many controversial aspects in this project, but its objective would be the first causality if the mega diversion was allowed to happen.

Here is my 'History of the project' written 10 years ago
The gigantic project was first mentioned at a conference in Alaska in July 1986. Projects under the Global Infrastructure Fund (GIF) were discussed and the ‘Himalayan Hydropower project’ was short-listed. At that time, it was envisaged to have a series of 11 dams around the ‘Brahmaputra loop’ (Great Bend). It included a tunnel through the mountains bringing water to a powerhouse projected to have a capacity of 48,000 Megawatts. The overall capacity of the ‘loop’ was speculated to be 70,000 Megawatts.
Later, the GIF stopped mentioning the project, engineers in Beijing had not shelved it. On the contrary, its new avatar appeared a few years later, as a single mega power station with an installed capacity of around 40,000 Megawatts.
The project was reported in The Scientific American in June 1996. This article giving credence to the Chinese plans. The journal wrote: “Recently some Chinese engineers proposed diverting water into this arid area [Gobi Desert] from the mighty Brahmaputra River, which skirts China’s southern border before dipping into India and Bangladesh. Such a feat would be ‘impossible’ with conventional methods, engineers stated at a meeting held last December at the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics in Beijing. But they added that “we can certainly accomplish this project” with nuclear explosives.”
The Journal continued: “This statement is just one of the many lately in which Chinese technologists and officials have touted the potential of nuclear blasts for carrying out non-military goals.”
It is said that one of the reasons for China’s refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was because their desire to keep the possibility of experimenting with what is called PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion). The Chinese argument was “why should promising and potentially useful technology be abandoned.”
The first (and almost only time) that the matter was reported in the Indian Press was in June 1997 when Outlook magazine wrote a piece entitled: “A river runs through it -- China proposes to divert the Brahmaputra at source to green the arid Gobi desert.” The magazine wrote: “The initial report -- that the Chinese were planning to raise their food output in the decades ahead -- was hardly stop-press material. But as details leaked out, policymakers in India and Bangladesh felt a shiver of apprehension: the Chinese proposed to divert the Brahmaputra river at source, in Tibet, even set off a peaceful nuclear explosion, to serve their purpose.”
At that time, the only thing that a former director, Asian Development Bank said was that under international law, no one could stop China and that “The Chinese government has equal rights to the use of the river."
However, Outlook revealed that “the concern in Assam and Bangladesh is understandable. The Luit - as the river [Brahmaputra] is locally called - figures prominently in the folklore and culture of Assam and the Northeast; has been the theme of countless Bhupen Hazarika songs. The river is crucial to the economy of the entire region, where the concept of irrigation through groundwater sources has not really taken off.”
In the coming months, more publicity was given to the dam as well as the diversion proposals. In September 1997, Agence France Press in Beijing reported: "Three experts propose construction of giant dam in Tibet". It stated: "After a long experience of exploration on the site, we believe that the project could begin to be included in the agenda of the concerned department”. Electricity produced was claimed to be: “available for export to Bangladesh, Burma and India, [a feature of the GIF plans] and the diverted water could irrigate the northwestern deserts of the country".
The project was also mentioned in news briefs in the China Daily Business Weekly (21 September 1997) and the International Water Power & Dam Construction Monthly (November 1997).
In January 1998, , the German TV channel ZDF presented a feature on the Yarlung Tsangpo project, in a program entitled "Die Welt" [The World]. The Chief Planner, Professor Chen Chuanyu was interviewed. He described the plan to drill a 15 km (9.3 miles) tunnel through the Himalayas to divert the water before the U turn and direct it to the other end of the bend. This would shorten the distance of the approximately 3,000 meters altitude drop from 200 km to just 15 km. He explained that the hydropower potential of 40,000 Megawatt could be used to pump water to Northwest China over 800 km away.
An interesting aspect that we have briefly mentioned is that this area known to the Tibetans as Pemakö was considered to be a sacred area, rarely visited by outsiders. The difficulty of access to this unexplored region must have created one of the greatest obstacles for the engineers in Beijing. At the end of the 90’s, the Chinese government decided to permit foreigners to explore the Grand Canyon. The well-known National Geographic expedition, with ultra sophisticated materials and highly professional rafters made the first discoveries. Though it resulted in the death of an American kayaker, Doug Gordou in October 1998, it permitted a far greater knowledge in several previously unexplored parts of the gorges. Books and video footage of this expedition (as well as subsequent ones) certainly helped the Chinese planners to get a more accurate picture of the difficulty of the terrain (as well as the potentialities).
The opening of the area to adventure tourism was certainly the step of the preparatory work to find an approach way for dam site.
It should be remembered here that the U turn of the Tsangpo is very close to the Indian border of Arunachal Pradesh (no more 10-15 km as the crow flies) and that China claims the Indian state as its own
In the recent years, the Chinese have been more discreet on the project, although a few reports have continued to come in. The correspondent of The Telegraph in Beijing wrote in October 2000: “Chinese leaders are drawing up plans to use nuclear explosions, in breach of the international test-ban treaty, to blast a tunnel through the Himalayas for the world's biggest hydroelectric plant.”
The Telegraph justly warned: “China will have to overcome fierce opposition from neighbouring countries who fear that the scheme could endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of their people. Critics say that those living downstream would be at the mercy of Chinese dam officials who would be able to flood them or withhold their water supply.”
According to the London paper, the cost of drilling the tunnel through Mt Namcha Barwa appears likely to surpass £10 billion. The article gives further details: “At the bottom of the tunnel, the water will flow into a new reservoir and then be diverted along more than 500 miles of the Tibetan plateau to the vast, arid areas of Xinjiang region and Gansu province. Beijing wants to use large quantities of the plentiful waters of the south-west to top up the Yellow River basin and assuage mounting discontent over water shortages in 600 cities in northern China.”
However, it seems that the proposal has drawn flak from several Chinese scientists. Yang Yong, a geologist who had explored the river, stated that the dam could become an embarrassing white elephant amid growing signs that the volume of water flowing in the Yarlung Zangpo could shrink over the years.
But in 2000, before becoming Premier Wen Jiabao had declared: "In the 21st century, the construction of large dams will play a key role in exploiting China's water resources, controlling floods and droughts, and pushing the national economy and the country's modernization forward."
In China, the only pertinent question is perhaps: does a Chinese emperor have any choice other than to take up pharaonic works if he wants to remain emperor?

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