Chinese Engineers Eye Tibetan Rivers

Recent droughts along the Yangtze have highlighted the long-term uncertainties surrounding projects like the South-North Water Diversion, as the supposedly plentiful waters of the South failed even without the additional burden of sustaining the North. China Dialogue reports early proposals to look elsewhere, diverting massive quantities of water to Xinjiang from the Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra river in Tibet.

Figures from the Chinese Academy of Sciences show that rivers on the Qinghai-Tibet and Yunnan-Guizhou plateaus, including the Yarlung Zangbo, Nu and Lancang, carry between 637 billion cubic metres and 810 billion cubic metres of water out of China each year. Because little of the water in these rivers is used within China’s borders, most of it flows on to India and south-east Asia – where they become the Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong, respectively ….

“It would only take five to eight years to build, and cost 225 billion yuan [US$34.7 billion] in 1997 terms,” Guo said, adding that the Yarlung Zangbo, Nu River and Lancang River are capable of providing some 380 billion cubic metres of water annually – more than enough to cover the 206 billion cubic metres required each year by the project.

Zhao Nanqi, former CPPCC vice-chair, is a keen advocate of Guo’s idea. “Guo Kai’s proposal for the Major Western Route has given us inspiration and hope,” he said.

But the plan has failed to secure the backing of the Ministry of Water Resources and other key authorities. Former water-resources minister Wang Shucheng has described the proposal as “misguided and unscientific”. Domestic and international environmental groups are also concerned – if it goes ahead, the project could have complex and far-reaching ecological impacts.

Wang’s plan is one of several similar proposals to tap Tibetan water resources. One suggestion reported late last year involved pumping seawater thousands of kilometres inland to Xinjiang from the Bohai Sea. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, met with deep scepticism, with the cost, scale and difficulty of the project described as “beyond imagination” (via Danwei). Other schemes target the Yarlung Zangbo for hydroelectric development, reports The Hindu:

“The power shortage means we have to build more hydroelectric dams,” Zhang Boting, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Society of Hydropower Engineers, told The Hindu in an interview.

Mr. Zhang said China’s hydropower development had, so far, focused on the Yangtze river — across which the Three Gorges Dam was built — and the Yellow river, in part due to concern voiced by countries downstream of China’s western rivers.

But with rising power shortages, coupled with increasing international pressure on China to reduce its carbon emissions, the country could no longer afford to leave the Tsangpo’s potential untapped, he said ….

Power shortages have been particularly evident this year as a result of the drought across the Yangtze river delta. The State Grid, China’s national electricity distribution company, has estimated this summer’s electricity deficit at 40 Gigawatts, the highest since 2004.

China’s hydropower companies say one single dam on the Brahmaputra — at its “Great Bend”, where it begins its journey towards India — could bridge that gap. Sinohydro, a state-owned hydropower company, has detailed on its website a proposal for a 38-gigawatt plant at Motuo.

Meanwhile, London Mayor Boris Johnson (whom readers may remember from his dishevelled appearance at the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony) has mooted a North-South Water Diversion Project for the UK, without mention of the plan’s Chinese counterparts. “The rain it raineth on the just and the unjust, says the Bible,” he argues, “but frankly it raineth a lot more in Scotland and Wales than it doth in England.”

Update: China’s Foreign Ministry has denied any plans to divert water from the Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra.