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China’s Dams in Tibet-Qinghai Plateau: Unwarranted Indian Anxiety

Of late the Indian electronic and print media has raised a great hue and cry about China building three more dams, namely Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu in the middle stream of the Brahmaputra River inside Tibet in addition to the earlier reported Zangmu. Our TV anchors and the so called China specialists have given vent to their imaginations, fears and anxieties, which I think are like the man of Qi state in ancient China who was haunted by the fear that the sky might fall and cause destruction to his hearth and home. I think there is a need to do some homework and see how things are poised for India.

At the outset, India has been a victim of psychological warfare of China, and it continues to be happy playing the same role time and again, demonstrating no confidence in its people, government, systems and even army; from this perspective China has indeed used water as a psychological weapon and scored a point over India. Secondly, we must be sensitive towards China’s water security (at moment it appears difficult as we are insensitive about our own water security) as well as the massive economic growth that is taking place in China; hordes of new cities that are coming up not only in hinterland but also in the far flung areas of southwest and western China; presently almost half of the Chinese population is residing in the cities. Thirdly, even though Huanghe (the Yellow River) has been regarded as the cradle of the Chinese civilization, it is however, the Yangtze where around 80% of the water resources are found in its basin. Almost a similar percentage is used for agricultural purposes in China, as some 500 million tons of food grains are produced to feed 1.4 billion people by the agrarian sector, thus making the water resources the life line of China. However, the water resources are scarce in the north and there are frequent droughts year after year, added to the vows is the alarming desertification that has gobbled up almost 28% of China’s landmass. Fourthly, if people talks of Tibetan water as global commons, then why don’t both India and China sign the 1997 U.N. convention on transnational rivers? Fifthly, the water volumes of our tributaries alone in the Northeast tantamount to the size of 10 Yellow rivers, and we seriously need to tap those sources and provide electricity, the basic human amenity to our citizens living in the dark cities of northeast and rest of India. Finally the real cause of worry for India should be in case China diverts the flow of Brahmaputra River altogether, and I am sure China is wise enough to know what a havoc the diversion would cause to the people as well as ecology in China and the region. The diversion for sure is not going to happen for sure.

Now, let’s examine China’s water security and the damming of river policy: In order to meet this scarcity in the north, China has advocated massive water diversion called as the South-North Water Transfer Project (南水北调工程). The idea has been supposedly put forth by Mao Zedong in 1952 while on an investigation tour of the Yellow River. After years of deliberations and delays, the project commenced in 2002. The main idea is to divert abundant water of Yangtze to Yellow and Hai River, a tributary of Yangtze. In order to realize the project, China has defined three lines of diversion, namely the eastern, central and the Great western line.

The Eastern Line would use the course of Grand Canal (also known as Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal), a 6th -7th century vintage canal, one of the largest artificial river in the world; the canal has been upgraded in recent times. Water from the Yangtze will be drawn into the canal at Jiangdu where a huge pumping station has already been built during the 1980s; after pumping the water into canal, another canal under Yellow River will take it to the reservoirs near Tianjin. The work commenced in 2002 and was supposed to be completed by 2012. The projected water diversion is estimated at 14.8 billion cubic meters with an investment of 130.0 billion yuan (around 20billion USD). The problems are environmental related, as the water on this line is heavily polluted and require serious processing. Moreover, since the water needs to be pumped at Jiangdu, power consumption would be huge.

The Central Line envisages diverting 13 billion cubic meter water from Han River to Beijing and Tianjin from Danjiangkou reservoir after elevating its height. This would require 1276 kilometer long canal to Beijing connecting 365 big and small rivers with an estimated investment of 170 billion yuan (around 30 billion USD). The estimated project period is 15 years. Work on the Central Line commenced in 2004. At present the water is primarily coming from reservoirs in Hebei rather than the Han River, as the river has been continuously receding, it is advocated by the experts that it is useless to divert water from Han River. As an alternate plan, another canal from the Three Gorges to Danjiangkou reservoir in Hebei has been initiated, however, since the canal routes through densely populated areas of Hubei, Henan, and Hebei the problems related to migration, water resource management, and operational costs are huge, the progress has been very slow. It has also been stated that the real capacity of the diverted water till it reach Beijing would be only 800 million cubic meters.

The Great Western Line as it is known was conceived in the 1950s but did not make any head start. Of late Guo Kai郭开, a 73 year old a water engineer and chief proponent of the massive Western Line advocates that with one engineering project, China would be able to solve all of its water problems. In fact Guo advocated and drummed support for the “Great Western Line Water Transfer Project” in the 1990s. In 2006 Li Ling drumming up support for the plan wrote a book entitled Tibet Water will Save China 《西藏之水救中国》. The plan envisages diverting the water from Yangtze to Yellow River by way of digging hundreds of kilometers of tunnels and reservoirs across Qinghai Tibetan plateau. The plan calls for constructing a canal intersecting six rivers “五江一河” namely Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra), Nu, Lancang, Jinsha, Yalong, and Dadu (雅鲁藏布江、怒江、澜沧江、金沙江、雅砻江、大渡河). The distance between Yarlung Zangbo and Yellow River would be bridged by a 240 kilometer long tunnel. Guo Kai and his supporters believe that there would be only 25000 people who would need to be rehabilitated; the water diverted would be around 200 billion cubic meter (equaling 4 Yellow rivers) and the investment would be as little as 225 billion yuan. The opponents, however, posits that only 17 billion cubic meter water could be diverted with an investment of 390 billion yuan, and the project completion would require 40 years too huge an investment for little diversion. Moreover, they argue that environmental hazards would be of unimaginable magnitude.

The Present scenario Damming Brahmaputra is not new for China, for it has built many dams on its tributaries that numbers around 198. Of these tributaries 130 has a drainage area greater than 100 sq. km and 64 with drainage area more than 1000 sq. km, and 5 more than a drainage area of more than 10,000 sq. km, namely the Lhasa River, Palongzangbu, Nyang Qu, Duoxiongzangbu and Nianchu. Water resources of Brahmaputra are very rich; theoretical potential of hydropower resources amount to 113.5 million kW. The preliminary investigations in China indicate that it is possible to develop hydro potentials of about 47.4 million kW, of which about 46.4 million kW would be on the main river.

China has proposed to build 13 cascade power stations with a total installed capacity of 46.336 million kW accounting for annual power output of 276.411billion kW.h. As far as the development of cascade power stations is concerned, China has proposed two plans. Plan A is to build Gangke (270,000 kW), Gu Lu (170,00 kW) Qingding (150,000 kW), Bosha (130,000 kW), Pengcuolin (300,000 kW), Jiangdang (50,000 kW), Suolang Gatu (500,000 kW) Qushui (96,0000 kW) Jiacha (1.65million kW), Langxian (1.2million kW), Rixue (420,000 kW), Motuo (38million kW), Jie Riguo in the downstream (3.5 million kW) etc. power stations above Motuo. Plan B is instead of Motuo, build a large dam at Daduka, straighten the river bends, excavate a number of large-diameter tunnels; single-hole single-tunnel would be around 41 km in length. The power station head reaches 2,400 m, and the installed capacity around 43.8 million kW. However, the technical difficulty is too great. Since Yarlung Zangbo is located in the Tibetan plateau, therefore, due to high altitude, thin air, poor project conditions, transportation difficulties, complex engineering and geological conditions, engineering marvels are required. As such very little survey and design work has been done. At present most of the river basin is almost undeveloped except a few small size power plants and irrigation projects in some of its tributaries.

Prior to 1980 31 small reservoirs were constructed on the Zangbo river that irrigated around 0.7000 sq. hm; built 97 diversion projects that irrigated around 40,200 sq. hm, besides 3755 embankments, irrigation and other works were completed, irrigating around 0.3000 sq. hm of farmland. The total irrigated area by these undertakings reached 50,100 sq. hm, with the water conservation level of 33%. At present, in order to overcome the electricity problem in areas such as Lhasa , Xigaze, Nyingchi etc. cities and regions, a few small power stations have been constructed on Lhasa and Niyangqu etc. tributaries. The main stream of the Yarlung Zangbo remains undeveloped. On the tributaries where power station of more than 1000kW have been built are Nagin, Tanghe, Woka, Xijiao, “606”, and “8.1” etc. power plants, the rest are below 1000kW capacity. The installed capacity of the Nagin on Lhasa River is 7500kW, which is the largest hydro plant on the Yarlung Zangbo basin. The guarantee levels of these plants in the dry season are very little. During dry season the output of the plants that are more than 1000kW is only 1/3-1/2 of the installed capacity. Those which are below 1000kW are basically seasonal. The installed capacity of hydropower stations that have been built along the entire basin is about 50000 kW, which is only 0.1% of the entire developable capacity of Yarlung Zangbo.

The Indian Scene and debates Yarlung Zangbo flows out of China and enters India’s Assam via Sadia. This section of the river is known as Diheng River. In Sadiya it confluences with Dibaing and Lohit and is called as Brahmaputra. Brahmaputra according to China is about 1000km, of which 725 kms is in India and 274 inside Bangladesh. The annual mean annual runoff of its tributaries such as Lohit, Subansiri, Kameng, Manas etc. is 618 billion m3. It could be discerned therefore that the Indian fear is unwarranted.

Since the introduction of the project, not only the western line, but also the rest two, it has created widespread controversy in China. Those who have supported the projects are people like Guo Kai, Li Ling, many other government officials and the some army officers. Guo Kai seems to have the support of 13 or so high ranking army officials. Some scientists, especially professor He Zuoxiu 何祚庥 a physicist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences is the leading supporter of Great Western Line. Rather than framing his argument on scientific data, Prof He takes refuge in the well known ‘scarce water resources of the north’ paradigm, the desertification, east-west disequilibrium etc. Opponents, however, seems to have the upper hand at moment, and have been supported by the netizens, especially the micro blog community in China. There have been an anonymous article entitled “The Great Western Line Project: Already Gone Mad”《大西线调水工程——已经疯了》that have opposed the project tooth and nail. It has also castigated various viewpoints raised in Li Ling’s book. It posits that The Great Western Line Project is simply a project on paper; and argues that whenever China has tamed the rivers it not only did not have brought any benefits but caused serious problems such as flooding. They argue that to make a 636 – 1205 meter wide canal on the roof of the world and Hengduan Mountain ranges, is easier said than done.

Indian side on the other hand has been a victim of the psychological warfare of China, and China has definitely scored another point in this front. They have frantically argued that the damming would dry up the Brahmaputra. Some have even argued that China is employing water as a weapon. Allaying the anxieties of many riparian states, Jiao Yong, vice minister at China’s ministry of water resources, told a press conference in Beijing on 12 October 2011 that although there is a demand among Chinese to make greater use of the Brahmaputra but “considering the technical difficulties, the actual need of diversion and the possible impact on the environment and state-to-state relations, the Chinese government has no plan to conduct any diversification project in this river.” India, China and other downstream countries, however, need to initiate steps to institutionalize a mechanism by way of which all the information is shared as regards any natural or human activity on the river so as unwarranted fears are not allowed to jeopardize the bilateral relations.

Prof B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. The views expressed are his own. He could be reached at

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