Hydro Projects in Tibet: Why China's Neighbors are Worried

Dragon's Water Troubles
Dragon's Water Troubles

Water Scarcity

Increasing industrialization in the name of development that encourages urbanization, high consumption and greater pollution; neglect of the poor of the rural areas; population pressure; and harsh and unpredictable climate change events are putting tremendous pressures on natural resources, including water. If Iraq war was about oil, future is unfolding for tensions and conflicts over water. This particularly applies to the most populous Asian continent where world’s population giants –China and India– appear desperate to keep the high growth story.

If the conventional water sources in China are fast becoming polluted and it wants to tap water and hydropower from the Tibetan plateau for the benefits of its politically and industrially important Northern region, downstream India and Bangladesh have to worry because they get a sizeable chunk of water from the rivers originating in Tibet. Understandably, the Chinese hydro plans in Tibet have become a source of worry for the downstream nations. Tibetan plateau appears to be slowly emerging as a future battle ground for waters of Himalayan Rivers.

River Brahmaputra originates near Mt Kailash
River Brahmaputra originates near Mt Kailash
Yumbulagang Monastery
Yumbulagang Monastery | Source

Looming Threat to the Water Rich Tibet

Tibetan plateau is, in indeed, water-rich and is Asia's principal watershed. It is the source of about dozen major rivers, including the Yarlung Tsangpo (or Brahmaputra), Sutlej and Indus. Countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam depend on the waters of the rivers flowing from the “rooftop of the world”. Thus, about half of world’s population is supported by the Tibetan glaciers. But the heat of global warming is threatening the well being of glaciers sustaining the rivers there.

A study titled 'The Himalayan Challenge' by the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG), Mumbai,Indiapaints a bleak picture of the future. It predicts that "in the next 20 years, the four countries in the Himalayan sub-region (India, Nepal, China, Bangladesh) will face the depletion of almost 275 billion cubic meters of annual renewable water.” For comparison, this is more than the total amount of water available in Nepal at present. Given the global warming induced melting of Himalayan glaciers future of rivers is not at all bright.

As things stand today, there is no global platform to resolve cross-border water conflicts. The UN convention on non-navigational uses of international water courses, 1997 (which provides a mechanism to deal with trans-border waters) has been signed only by 17 nations (the four mentioned above are out of it). Water disputes are generally handled regionally or bilaterally.Indiahas water agreements with Nepal and Bangladesh, but not with China. In fact, water does not figure in Indo-China talks.

The SFG report suggests creating something like a new regional forum; say a Himalayan rivers commission, to better manage the looming water problem. But much like other things, it is a difficult proposition given the historic mistrust between the two Asian superpowers – India and China.

The report anticipates serious problems in future due to water deficit that will adversely affect the agricultural production, power generation, food availability and livelihood. It would be a situation full of potential geo-political conflicts. The problem would further deteriorate if and when China decides to divert Brahmaputra waters to its water deficit Northern regions. Although not an easy task but is certainly doable if the leadership opts for it.

The Melting Glaciers of Tibet

Deteriorating Water Situation in China

Rapid urbanization in recent decades has put severe pressure of cities’ resources and the water resources are getting increasingly polluted with every passing year, making clean water even scarcer. Add to that the unpredictable effects of global warming and climate change.

Due to China's huge population, the country's water resources are only one quarter of the global average per capita consumption. Sharp regional disparity further compounds the problem. If the Southern China is relatively abundant in water (getting about 80 inches of yearly rainfall), the north—where 20 million people live in Beijing and 12 million live in Tianjin – receives an average annual rainfall just 8 – 16 inches.North China is country’s political and cultural capital and major manufacturing hub, here the availability of water drops very low.

About 300 million (roughly a quarter ofChina’s total population) people living in rural China don't have access to safe drinking water. Of the more that 600 major cities, 400 face water shortage of which 100 have acute water shortage. On an average, each year 13 percent of total farmland face drought.

The Great Bend of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra.
The Great Bend of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra.

Brahmaputra - A Male River!

Yarlung Tsangpo is the Tibetan name of the mighty river. In India it acquires the masculine name "Brahmaputra" which in Sanskrit means "Son of Brahma." In contrast, all other Indian rivers have feminine names such as Ganga, Jamuna, Kaveri, Godavari, Hemavathi, Sindhu, Tapti etc

China’s Hydro Plans in Tibet

In order to meet its ever increasing energy and water demands, the Chinese are damming the rivers of Tibet and also plan to divert 40 – 50 billion cubic meters of water annually from here to the water scarce northern plains. (Northern China has half of the population and only 15% of the freshwater.) As such these plans should not be the cause of concern for the downstream neighbors. However, what particularly worries India and Bangladesh are the high ambitious projects at Brahmaputra River (called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet and Jamuna in Bangladesh).

Currently Chinese engineers are working on a series of six hydropower projects on the Brahmaputra River. Together, they have a potential of generating 60 GW, around one-third ofIndia’s total installed capacity. Construction is under way on one dam that will be operational by 2014, while the rest are in various stages of development. All these are run-of-the river (ROR) type projects where water is diverted to a lower point to generate electricity and then reunited with the river.

The most ambitious of these projects is the one proposed at Metog, on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra close to the Indian border. From here the river enters India and meanders to reach Bangladesh. The proposed mega hydro project of about 38-49 GW is almost twice the generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam (world’s largest hydropower plant). This proposed single dam will produce more hydropower than the current total installed hydropower (of 33 GW) in India!

But, the real concern for the downstream regions is not the generation of hydro-electricity. It is the fresh proposal for diverting 200 billion cubic meters of water from the Brahmaputra to the Yellow River for easing water shortages in cities of Shaanxi, Beijing and Tianjin in Northern China. This is a different proposal than the official jumbo scheme which has been termed unambiguously as the great South North Water Diversion (SNWD) Project which aims to divert 45 billion cubic meters of water to the dry yet influential northern regions.

However, skeptics say that the cost of diverting Brahmaputra’s water would be higher than the common alternative of desalination of sea water. Therefore, China would not commit to implementation of the diversion project.

Mega Hydro Plans at the Great Bend

The yellow circle is the Great Bend Area. Red Line shows the general direction of water diversion. The Mega Dam site is marked in the top map.
The yellow circle is the Great Bend Area. Red Line shows the general direction of water diversion. The Mega Dam site is marked in the top map.

What Experts and Critics Say

The environmental, ecological and socio-economic consequences of the mega dam and water diversion from the Brahmaputra River would be far reaching, not just for the Tibet region but also for the downstream neighbors – India and Bangladesh. They both would be at the mercy of China for release of water during dry season and for protection from floods during the monsoon season. In fact, the reverse may happen if it suits the Chinese interests – it could retain or divert water during the dry season and discharge in the rainy season. It rains heavily during monsoon in the Assam-Meghalaya area and Bangladesh and there is hardly any rain during rest of the year.

The mega scheme will flood the vast tracts of virgin forests that preserve precious wildlife and uproot the forest dwelling Abor and Monpa tribes that have lived there for ages. It could be disastrous for the 185 million people of India’s North East and Bangladesh. The reservoir will sequester silt and deprive the downstream flood plains of fertile nutrients.

Perhaps the most serious threat comes from seismic activity as this area is earthquake prone. Any breach of the dam could be disastrous for China as well besides playing havoc in India and Bangladesh. The Great Bend area has high seismic activity due to its proximity with the geological fault line where the Indian Plate collides with the Eurasian Plate. This fear is substantiated by the 2008 earthquake (7.9 on the Richter scale) that struck the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern rim. This “Great China Quake” left over 87,000 people dead and made about 5 million people homeless.

Experts feel that the quake was triggered by China’s new 156 meter high Zipingpu hydropower dam which is about 5 km from the earthquake’s epicenter and merely half km from the critically stressed seismic fault line. They believe that the tremendous weight of the dam water put unnatural stress on the geological fault line, triggering earthquake. Another powerful earthquake (7.1 on Richter scale) struck near the source of Yellow River –Yushu Prefecture of the Tibetan Plateau – that damaged a dam and killed 3000 people. Again the disaster was attributed to the seismic activities at the same fault line.

China’s ruling elites have failed to learn any lesson from the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) which has drastically altered the local ecosystem and attenuated flow of the Yangtze River. There are recurrent landslides around the gigantic reservoir that sits on two major fault lines. By reducing the river delivered nutrients on which sea life depends, the TGD has also lowered productivity in the East China Sea. With 24 new dams being coming up on Yangtze, it is already among the most dammed rivers of the world and the most polluted river of China. Now Chinese eye the Brahmaputra which has remained largely untapped so far.

Bangladesh’s agrarian economy and inland water transportation are highly dependent on the sustainable flow of the Brahmaputra. Therefore, it has serious concerns about the Chinese projects on the Tsangpo.

A Bangladeshi Girl
A Bangladeshi Girl
River Brahmaputra becomes Jamuna in Bangladesh
River Brahmaputra becomes Jamuna in Bangladesh
Sunderbans Scenic Delta
Sunderbans Scenic Delta

Sunderbans National Park

(UNESCO Heritage Site)

What Worries Bangladesh

The Brahmaputra is the most important river of Bangladesh. Country’s own renewable water resources are estimated at only 105 cubic km per year (ground water is only about 21 cubic km). Therefore, Bangladesh depends heavily on the supply of water from rivers originating in India or Tibet, which bring in 1,106 cubic km of water every year. Of this, Brahmaputra alone brings in about 600 cubic km per year (54 percent); the rest comes from the Ganges (344 cubic km) and the Meghna (163 cubic km).

Bangladesh’s external water dependency of 91 percent is on of the highest in the world. Therefore, it is highly vulnerable to trans-boundary appropriation of river resources by China or India. In comparison, India has a 33 percent dependency on waters originating from across its frontiers, largely Tibet.

The main problem before Bangladesh is that it has too much water during the monsoon season (after 80 percent of the total rainfall has occurred) and too little water from end of fall to beginning of summer. Any upstream appropriation of the Brahmaputra will sure compound this problem, particularly during the dry season when water is needed the most.

The Chinese arguments in favor of their Brahmaputra water-harnessing plan appear totally hollow and reflect an extraordinary naïveté on issues of hydrology and ecology. They claim benefits to the downstream states: flood control and the option of hydropower purchase from China. Assuming that the energy hungry China would have surplus power, how would it send it to Bangladesh without a common border? Selling electricity via India is not feasible in the absence of a regional energy grid and a trilateral cooperative agreement.

Their flood control argument is also spurious. The Chinese argument that the mega dam would help in flood control appear spacious because flooding usually happened from the monsoon rain falling on the southern Himalayan slope that is carried down by the tributaries – not from snow melt on the Tibetan plateau. The dam would, in fact, hold back fertile nutrients that would badly affect the soil quality downstream. This in turn would deliver a severe blow to the agricultural activities in Bangladesh’s Brahmaputra basin.

In Conclusion

Any decision to dam the Brahmaputra at the Great Bend and divert its water by the decision makers in Beijing will make this tiny corner of Tibet the most dangerous place on Earth and a potential threat to the very survival of Bangladesh, which is already at the risk of global warming induced sea level rise due to its inconvenient lowland geography.

When rivers are fast becoming sewage dump and their sources of origin are depleting, one has to stop and ponder: Is water really a renewable gift of nature?

The Forgotten Tragedy of Tibet

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