Thursday, December 18, 2014

China’s dam dreams, India’s water worries

My article China’s dam dreams, India’s water worries appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer today. 

Here is the link...

As a lower riparian country, Delhi has often taken up the issue of launching the first unit of the run-of-river hydropower plant with Beijing, which has repeatedly assured India that no such project is on the cards

It took some 16 days of talk in Lima, Peru, for the international delegates to approve a framework for setting national pledges to be submitted to the conference in Paris next year. Environmental groups say that the deal was a bad compromise, as divisions between rich and poor countries over how to fulfil carbon-emission pledges persist. This is very ominous for the planet in 2015.
As the new year approaches, let us take a look at some other issues related to climate change and water in the subcontinent and beyond, particularly on the Tibetan plateau.
A few days ago, Xinhua spoke of the ‘domino effect on water supply’, after a comprehensive study into China’s glacial ice shows an average a 244 sq km of glaciers disappearing every year; the news agency added: “China’s glaciers have retreated by 18 per cent over the past half century”. The Chinese glaciologists “warn of ‘chain effects’ that could have an impact on water supplies in the country’s western regions” …and India, one should add.
The figures come from the survey of China’s glaciers conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which found that, “China had 48,571 glaciers in its western provinces, including Xinjiang, the Tibetan region as well as Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces (also part of the Tibetan plateau).” This is not encouraging news. Despite a shortage of water in the long-term, China nevertheless continues to dam rivers originating from the third pole (as Tibet is known in environmental parlance).
In November, the Indian Press reverberated with anxiety on the launching of the first unit of the run-of-river hydropower plant at Zangmu on the Yarlung Tsangpo, (which becomes the Siang and later the Brahmaputra). Xinhua announced: “Tibet’s largest hydropower station became partly operational, harnessing the rich water resources of the Yarlung Zangbo (Tsangpo) River to develop the electricity-strapped region.”
The power plant (costing $1.5 billion) is located at 3,300 meters above sea level; once completed, it will have a height of 116 metres for a length of 390 meter; it is 19 meter wide at the top and 76 meter wide at the bottom.
Other generating units are due for completion in 2015. Xinhua asserted that the entire project, which “straddles the middle reaches of the roaring Yarlung Tsangpo River, will have a total installed capacity of 510 megawatts upon completion”.
Liu Xiaoming, an official of the State Grid’s Tibet Electric Power Co affirmed: “The hydropower station will solve Tibet’s power shortage, especially in the winter.” But what about the environment? And what about India downstream?
Lobsang Gyaltsen, the head of the Tibetan Government in Lhasa affirmed: “The region has strived to protect the environment throughout construction. The hydro-plant is a good example of clean energy development.”
Mr Gyaltsen is probably not aware that run-of-river plants are not today considered ‘clean’ anymore, as the life of the river between the ‘intake’ of the diversion and the power station downstream gets badly affected. The Indian Government has even admitted that the run-of-river plants exacerbated the outcome of the disastrous floods in Uttarakhand last year.
Zangmu, the only hydro-power plant on the Yarlung Tsangpo, once completed, would probably be acceptable to India, but China plans to have a cascade of five other dams along the river at Jia Cha, Lengda, Zhongda, Jie Xu and Lang Chen.
In April 2013, the Indian Inter-Ministerial Expert Group on Brahmaputra stated: “Jia Cha could be the next hydroelectric project on the mainstream of Brahmaputra river. It may be followed by hydroelectric projects at Lengda, Zhongda, Langzhen, where dam related peripheral infrastructural activity (including four new bridges) has gathered speed.”
More frightening is the possibility of a mega-dam on the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo, the IMEG warned: “China is carrying out series of cascading run-of-river projects in the middle reaches of Brahmaputra, the same may be replicated in the Great Bend Area as a viable alternative to a single mega project.”
For China, it probably makes sense, technically and economically. The opening of the tunnel to Metok, near the Indian border, in November 2013 is another part of the gigantic puzzle; it may have been the turning point for the proposed mega project.  As a lower riparian country, India is rightly worried. Delhi has often taken up the issue with Beijing which has repeatedly assured India that no such project is on the cards.
In the meantime, India should carefully and scientifically monitor, not only the flow of the Siang, but also the quality of the waters. Article 12 of the ‘Implementation Plan’ signed in June between Indian and China for providing ‘Hydrological Information of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river in flood season by China to India’ says that “after mutual consultation through diplomatic channel, the parties may dispatch hydrological experts to each other’s country to conduct study tour”.
Why can’t Delhi ask Beijing’s permission to send a team of hydrological experts to visit the dam and get some clarity on what is going on? Another worrying event is the launching of a new electricity grid linking the Tibet Autonomous Region to Sichuan Province. The ceremony was presided over by Yu Zhengsheng, the member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
Xinhua reported that the $1.08 billion project, linking Chamdo in the Tibet Autonomous Region to Garze in Sichuan Province, aims at “putting an end to the electricity shortages of the 5,00,000 residents of the Chamdo region and ease power strain in Tibet as a whole”.
Why does Tibet require so much electricity, if Tibet produces its own? Could this investment be used to build the mega-dam? Another alarming news! Some Chinese researchers have thought of a smaller ‘pilot’ project: To divert the Indus river towards Xinjiang. The project is posted on, a science blog launched by Science Times Media Group and supported amongst others by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The blogger quotes some Chinese researchers who argue that the big planned ‘diversions’ require large investments, long construction periods and face a lot of engineering problems. They suggest a ‘small-scale’ scheme, with low investment, which could be quickly realisable.
They would add a western segment to the western diversion route, by diverting waters from the Indus river, north of Ladakh to the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang. This would meet, according to them, the requirements of a ‘pilot’ scheme.
The blog mentions some preliminary survey, the size of the diversion and describes today-parched Xinjiang after the water transfer. Their main conclusion is that the diversion will help maintaining long-term stability in Xinjiang; it also suggests some more surveys. This ‘easy’ pilot project does not, of course, take into account what the neighbours (including China’s all-weather friend, Pakistan) will have to say.
All this does not bode well for 2015.

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