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China's disturbing dam plan

July 15, 2010

Japan Times
July 14, 2010

LONDON -- What is China up to beyond the highest
Himalayas? Reports from a variety of sources,
including official Chinese Web sites, say that
Beijing is embarking on a series of dams and
attempts to harness the waters of the Brahmaputra
River. One of these alone would be a massive
38-gigawatt project, half as big again as the Three Gorges dam.

If ever there were time for an international
conference to meet and discuss the manifold
implications -- economic, environmental,
political, geopolitical, social and even
religious — of the attempts to tame the last and
greatest wild rivers of the Himalayas, this would be it.

Alas, there is no global body with the moral
authority to convene such a conference and China
in its present prickly mood will be reluctant to
listen, especially because the river has its
origins on the Tibetan plateau and Beijing would
be quick to see any discussions as undermining its rights to Tibet.

But the Tibetan plateau and the great rivers that
rise from it are also part of the ecological
heritage of all human beings. The area has been
called the Third Pole because of the rich wild
resources of the icy plateau. More particularly,
more than 2 billion people in south and southeast
Asia depend on the vast rivers that flow from Tibet.

Equally sensitively, the rivers play an
inspirational and religious role in the lives of
the Tibetan people, who rarely get consulted
about Beijing's big plans for their homeland.

The Brahmaputra is of particular interest. Its
source is close to the sacred Mount Kailash, and
it flows from west to east across southern Tibet
before turning north and then making a U-turn at
the Great Bend to flow south to India and
Bangladesh. The Great Bend is known as "the last
secret place on earth" with a rich ecosystem and
biological diversity -- as well as having the
greatest potential for hydropower of any place on
Earth. At the Great Bend the river goes through a
gorge between two 7,000- meter mountains and then
drops almost 2,500 meters as it makes the bend.

The difficulties are compounded because China has
been economical with information about what it is
doing in Tibet. International Rivers, a leading
nongovernmental organization with a mission to
protect rivers and the communities who depend on
them, published a report "Mountains of Concrete:
dam building in the Himalayas" in December 2008,
expressing concern about the adverse consequences
for global warming and the planet of big dam building that is already going on.

If projects already planned go ahead,
International Rivers claimed, it would
"fundamentally transform the landscape, economy
and ecology of the region and will have far
reaching impacts all the way down to the river
delta." It warned of disruptions to downstream
flows that could harm agriculture, of flooding of
homes and fields, of degradation of the landscape
and damage to local cultures from massive
immigration of migrant workers. Since the entire
region is seismically active, there is the
additional danger of catastrophic failures because of earthquakes.

But the biggest danger could be the exacerbation
and acceleration of global warming, with the
melting of glaciers and depletion of the
Himalayan water store. "Himalaya" actually means
"abode of snow." A UNESCO report a year earlier
warned of the dangers of the snow-covered
mountains being turned into "bare rocky
mountains" and "dynamic glaciers into lifeless rubble."

But International Rivers recorded laconically
that its report "does not look at the dams in
China. Insufficient resources, difficulty in
access to information and the issue of language
are some of the reasons" — which was something of a disappointing copout.

China's geo-engineers, unrestrained by popular
opinion of the West that is wary of the damage
that massive engineering works do, like to push
the envelope and show off their technological
expertise. Information is available on Chinese
activity and ambitions concerning the
Brahmaputra, and they are more than scary. Zhang
Boting, the deputy secretary general of the China
Society for Hydropower Engineering, told
Britain's Guardian newspaper in May that a
massive dam on the great bend of the Yarlung-
Tsangpo would benefit the world. The official
claimed that research had been done, but no plans drawn up for a project.

This seems to be an understatement. Tashi
Tsering, who is a Tibetan scholar at the
University of British Columbia, lists almost 30
dams on the Yarlung-Tsangpo- Brahmaputra that are
planned, under construction or being actively
discussed, including a 38-gigawatt project at
Motuo and another bigger one at Daduqia (see The latter is still
a proposal and is probably too close to the
Indian border to be attractive, but the Motuo
project is likely to go ahead, thinks Tsering.

He dismisses the ideas of conspiracy theorists or
Chinese militarists, who see China taming the
Great Bend to divert waters from the Brahmaputra,
which might restrict the southern flow of waters
and eventually impoverish India or Bangladesh. It
is hard to go against the laws of nature, he
notes, and power generation rather than water
diversion is the economic opportunity at the
Great Bend. The Great Bend is remote from any
major city — even Lhasa is more than 500 km away
— but, says Tsering, the State Grid Corporation
of China has a map showing Motuo connected to
ultra high voltage lines in China.

Nevertheless, China's thirst for water and Mao
Zedong's observation back in 1952 that the north
needed to borrow water, must lead to worries that
China's engineers may devise new ways of
geo-engineering in the Himalayas to prove themselves.

Now, before the big irreversible works start, is
the time for an international discussion, at
least for Beijing to tell neighboring states what
its plans are and talk about how they may impact
on the Himalayas, the region and the world. The
problem is that getting India to get together
with China's allies Pakistan and Myanmar along
with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal will not be
easy, especially if Beijing objects. The most
worrying tendency of China's economic rise is its
insecure arrogance that the has-been West should not tell it what to do.

It may be time for the World Bank -- which had
success years ago in helping India and Pakistan
sort out their problems with shared rivers — to
show its environmental credentials and persuade
Beijing to share its plans with the world. Can
Japan help out by pointing to its own barren
experiences in applying concrete to Nature?
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