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Why China likes mega hydro projects

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August 16, 2010
By Claude Arpi
By Claude Arpi



Recently a ‘political’ novel, Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (2013: the Fat Years of China), written by Taiwanese art critic Chan Koon-chung was released in Hong Kong. The book had a tremendous impact on the former British colony, Taiwan and of course amongst netizens and bloggers in the People’s Republic. Since China has become the world’s second economic power, everyone understands the meaning of ‘fat years’; indeed, China is doing well (at least economically), though according to many China watchers, the ‘Chinese model’ is doing too well; it has created many self-contradictions.

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: the first is that the energy generated by hydropower plants is badly needed for the economy. China's theoretical hydro-power resources have been estimated at 384 gigawatts. Most of this potential comes from the Tibetan plateau (the purported dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra itself has a potential of 38 gigawatts).

The second reason why water is so important to China 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. The conversion of agricultural land for other uses (factories, residential areas, airports, roads, flyovers, etc…) had provoked the loss of 52 percent of Japan’s grain harvested areas, 46 percent of Korea’s and 42 percent of Taiwan’s, while more and more waters were being used for industrial purposes. Brown deducted that the same process will occur in China and ultimately China will 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 (under Premier Li Peng, himself an hydrological engineer). During the past 25 years, China has built some of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world. The Three Gorges Dam started in 1994 has a capacity of 22,000 megawatts. Some 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,600 villages were submerged under the world’s largest reservoir. More than 1.3 million people were displaced. Its cost was 37 billion dollars.

Despite these mega projects, water has become a rare commodity in the Middle Kingdom. One of the solutions to save China is to divert the waters from the hydraulically rich South to the thirsty North which has half the population but only 15 percent of the freshwater.

Waters will be diverted via three channels in the eastern, central and western regions, using dams, tunnels and canals to draw 45 billion cubic meters of water upstream. It will cost 62 billion dollars to complete and 350,000 people will have to be relocated.
The western route would draw water from the Tibetan plateau via the upper reaches of the Yellow River to quench the deserts of the North-west.

While the Eastern and Central section of the project are well under way, the western section is still at the planning stage, but it is where South Asia comes into the picture.

Most of Asia’s waters flow from 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 percent of Asia’s population, approximately 50 percent of the world’s population.
Four of the world’s ten major rivers, the Brahmaputra (or Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet), the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Huang Ho (or Yellow River) have their headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau. The other major rivers which originate in Tibet are the Salween, the Irrawaddi, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus.

For us in South Asia, the main concern is the Brahmaputra, the Indus and the Sutlej whose waters give life to more than one billion people living downstream.

The perennial run of the rivers originating from these glaciers results in a stable flow of water to regions which are dominated by monsoon rainfall. However the construction of the mega-structures has consequences. If on one hand, China has become an expert in dam building, with the Chinese hydropower industry constructing hundreds of dams throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, South America and the Himalayas (Chinese companies have built or are building at least 13 dam projects in Nepal and 9 in Pakistan), on the other hand the double-digit development growth has serious negative effects on China’s natural resources (for example 70 percent of China’s freshwater is polluted).
An indirect consequence: the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and caused the death of at least 70,000 people and left more than 5 million people homeless.

Fan Xiao, a chief engineer at the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau affirmed that the weight of nearby Zipingpu reservoir was one of the triggering factors: “I'm not saying the earthquake would not have happened without the dam, but the presence of the massive Zipingpu dam may have changed the size or time of the quake, thus creating a more violent quake”, he said.

In August 2010, some 1200 dead bodies have been found in Drugchu county of Amdo province in Tibet, (Zhuoqu County of Gansu province for the Chinese).

One Tibetan website explains: "Past news reports and statistics of Drugchu county reveal heavy damming of the valley, mining and deforestation." Tibetan blogger and poetess Woeser quotes several government reports: "There are 47 hydroelectric power plant construction projects in the region and so far 15 hydroelectric power plants have been constructed, 14 more are under construction,” adding that local Tibetans believe the extensive construction projects have upset the fragile ecosystem of the region."
One can imagine what will happen if China decides to build the 38,000 megawatt dam (twice the Three Gorges Dams) on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. Not only will large chunks of waters feeding Assam and Bangladesh be diverted to China, but the construction of and later the reservoir itself will create havoc in these eco-sensitive areas, north of the Indian border. It is frightening just to think about it.

The final decision for diverting the Brahmaputra may not have been taken as yet, but plans are ready. In November 2006, Wang Shucheng, the Chinese Minister for Water Resources admitted: "There may be some retired officials that support the plan, but they're not the experts advising the government,” and he added: "There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects.”

A few days ago, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply: "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."

No doubt, China is going through ‘fat years’, but as far as the damming of the Brahmaputra is concerned, let us hope that the 'so far' will continue indefinitely. 


(Published here with permission from the author.)


Hintergrund Tibet

Die Proteste im Vorfeld der Olympischen Spiele haben die Aufmerksamkeit der Weltöffentlichkeit erneut auf die Konflikte um dieses Tibet gelenkt. Mit dem Ziel der Förderung einer öffentlich-politischen Meinungsbildung bietet die Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung jetzt ein überarbeitetes, aktualisiertes Tibet Dossier, das die Komplexität des Themas aus unterschiedlichen Blickwinkeln beleuchtet.