Damming The Brahmaputra
Something which always surprises me in India, are the pronouncements of the ‘experts’. Take the case of the Brahmaputra and the dams that the Chinese are building on the Tibetan section of the mighty river. Nearly 10 years ago, when I started writing on the subject; some ‘experts’ called me a ‘cheap journalist, running after scoops’. Unfortunately for my detractors (and for India), what was then dismissed as a ‘scoop’, has now taken a very concrete shape.
But some Indian ‘experts’ (I will not name them) still deny that anything is happening. Recently, an eminent professor told an audience at the Kolkata Indian Institute of Management: “It is more important to gather statistics on the effects of climate change than to get preoccupied with China building dams in the region.”
Their argument is usually the following: “Let the Chinese dam (or divert) the Brahmaputra, how much water can they take anyway? 20 per cent or 30 per cent? The rest will continue to flow to India and Bangladesh. Why bother?”
Unfortunately, ‘experts’ are not the only blind ones, even Union Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde recently declared: “I have not been communicated by any quarter that China was constructing dams on Brahmaputra. So there is no point to react to it.” No comment.
In contrast the Chinese press is not shying away from admitting hard facts. A recent article in The Southern Weekend, described by The New York Times as ‘China’s most influential liberal newspaper’, details the ongoing project(s). Two journalists of the Weekly write: “The construction of a massive dam on the Yarlung Zangbo (the Brahmaputra in India) marks a turning point for Tibet, a development boom is coming.”
On November 15, The People’s Daily had officially announced: “The Brahmaputra River, which has long been praised as a ‘heavenly river’, was dammed for the first time on November 12, indicating that the Zangmu Hydropower Station, the first large hydropower station in Tibet, will soon begin its main construction.”
In fact, the work on the project began more than two years ago. As The Southern Weekend explains: “The backer of the Zangmu project, the Tibet Generating Company, has already built a residential area on the open spaces alongside the river at Zangmu and a flourishing town is taking shape, with a supermarket, better-stocked than those in the county’s main town. The boss, from Zhejiang, moved here from the Xiaowan dam in Yunnan, south-west China, two months ago and is positive about the future.” He told reporters: “There’ll be loads of workers next year, business will be great.”
The journalists rightly say that the Yarlung Zangbo is the last of China’s great rivers to remain undammed, and add that ‘it will soon be history’.
While the Indian ostriches bury their head, the Guangzhou newspaper states: “Around 7.9 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) is being invested in the project, located in a V-shaped valley 3,200 metres above sea level. At 510 megawatts, the plant is much smaller than China’s 18,000-megawatt Three Gorges Dam, but still equivalent to the entire existing hydropower-generating capacity of Tibet. The construction workers have now reached the centre of the river. The water is being diverted into sluiceways and rows of grouting machines and stone crushers are working at full pace, while trucks come and go.”
The newspaper quotes Yang Yong, a geologist who believes that the activity on the dam represents the start of a new age: “Hydropower development on the Yarlung [Tsangpo] has begun, marking the start of a hydropower era for Tibet’s rivers.”
It is quite frightening for the people downstream. But let us look at Beijing’s rationale. To maintain a tempo close to a double-digit growth, the Communist regime in Beijing has become an ogre devouring energy world-wide. Most of the raw materials (such as oil, gas, wood, minerals, etc.) necessary to feed the economic engine can be ‘bought’ from outside China, except for one, water.
Water is therefore crucial to the survival of the Chinese model for two main reasons: first, the energy generated by hydropower plants is badly needed for the economy. China’s theoretical hydro-power resources have been estimated at 384 gigawatts.
Second, why water is so important to China? It is because the leaders need to feed more than 1.3 billion people. In the 1980’s, the American agronomist Lester Brown wrote a book, Who Will Feed China in which he studied the cases of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Already 25 years ago, the conversion of agricultural land for other uses (factories, residential areas, airports, roads, flyovers, etc) had provoked the loss of 52 per cent of Japan’s grain harvested areas, 46 per cent of Korea’s and 42 per cent of Taiwan’s. In the meanwhile, more and more waters were being used for industrial purposes. Brown deducted that the same process would occur in China and ultimately China would be unable to feed its own people. A real nightmare for Beijing!
The most acute problems facing China today are food and water. The future of the Middle Kingdom depends on the success or failure of the present Emperors to tackle these issues which are closely interlinked and, if not solved, are bound to have grave social, political and strategic consequences for the Chinese nation and indirectly for its neighbours.
With this in mind, Beijing engaged in the construction of mega-dams in the 1980’s. During the past 25 years, China has built some of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world.
And let us not forget that most of Asia’s waters have their sources on the Tibetan plateau, the principal watershed in Asia. Tibet’s waters flow down to eleven countries and are said to bring fresh water to over 85 per cent of Asia’s population, approximately 50 per cent of the world’s population.
To come back to The Southern Weekend, it gives details on the present stage of the damming plans: “A series of hydropower stations is proposed for the Yarlung Zangbo. If they are all built, Zangmu will be the fourth in a row of five on the Sangri to Gyaca stretch of the river, between the Gyaca and Jiexu plants. There has been no official confirmation that the construction will go ahead.” Yan Zhiyong, the general manager of China Hydropower Engineering Consulting however told the media: “By about 2020 most of China’s hydropower projects outside of Tibet will have been completed.” Several well-known Chinese hydropower firms are participating in the blue-gold rush to Tibet.
“Could the world’s biggest hydropower station be built in Tibet?” was the title of an article in the Guangming Daily in 1998. It was written by Chen Chuanyou of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The researcher proposed building a reservoir on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo to raise the water level and then drill a 16-kilometre tunnel to carry the water. It estimates that a drop of 2,300 metres would allow for three mega hydropower stations.
Indian ‘experts’ will continue to deny the possibility of such a project or conclude that it will have no impact downstream. “The apprehension is political perception, that’s all. …The Chinese share is minimal–sensitive only in the lean, winter months when the discharges in the regional river basins dry up”, Chen says.
Already in 1972 the Chinese Academy of Sciences ordered a survey of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Guan Zhihua, who headed the team worked for four years on the field project (with the help of some 400 people across 50 different disciplines) to prepare the first comprehensive and systematic study of the plateau. He calculated the hydropower potential of the Yarlung Zangbo: “The river flows for 2,057 kilometres within China’s borders, and its hydropower potential is second only to the Yangtze. It has more power-generating potential per unit of length than any other river in China.”
Later studies found that the Yarlung Tsangpo had hydropower potential of 114 gigawatts. Further the potential was highly concentrated, with the possibility of a 38-gigawatt hydropower station near the Great Bend in Metok county, which is nearly double the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam (22 gigawatts).
Coincidentally, the day Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in India, the last tunnel for the road linking Metok County to the rest of Tibet was inaugurated; the way for eventual mega-projects was open.
The Southern Weekend elaborates on the current projects by quoting, Zhi Xiaoqian, the head of the Chengdu Surveying Institute who said: “Plans had been drawn up for all of Tibet’s major rivers, including the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo. But a lack of clear policy direction has meant approval for those plans has been slow and the projects have not commenced.” Zhi is supposed to have also stated: “Now the time and conditions are ripe. China’s energy supply is becoming ever more pressured, and there’s an urgent need to develop the rich hydropower resources of Tibet. …Currently less than 0.6 per cent of Tibet’s hydropower resources have been developed. In comparison with the rest of China, this is virgin territory.”
In November, Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests gave a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha: “China has so far denied any proposal for diversion of Brahmaputra water in China. As per the information available with Government of India, no instances of water diversion activity on river Brahmaputra have been noticed so far.”
The diversion is perhaps ‘so far’ denied, but the damming is going on full swing. A report from Reuters confirmed: “China has approved several new hydropower projects recently, in a sign that the government is speeding up development of clean energy after an approvals slowdown in recent years because of concerns including environmental impact. …The country’s total hydropower capacity reached 200 GW in August and top energy official Zhang Guobao said capacity had to reach 380 GW by 2020 if the country was to meet its clean energy and emissions targets. He said China needed to start building 120 GW of hydropower projects in the six years through 2015.”
Whether hydropower is clean is a separate issue, the fact remains that mega projects are on track in Tibet and India is not informed about it.
By Claude Arpi