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China Plans to Divert Tibet's River: Feasible?

A map for Yarlung Tsangpo, Asia's largets river. Photo: File

Dharamshala: - As Tibet's Yarlung Tsangpo (Hindi: Brahmaputra) - Asia´s biggest river -experiences its worst drought in the last 50 years, there are now reasons to wonder whether the western lifeline of the so called South-North Water Transfer Project will transport enough water for feeding the thirsty Northern China Plain.

The Water transfer project aims to transport enough water for feeding the thirsty Northern China Plain. In this light, Chinese scientists - spearheaded by a certain Wang Guangqian, an academic at CAS - have proposed to go beyond diverting the tributaries of the Yangtze and also diverting Yarlung-Tsangpo, along a course that follows the Tibet-Qinghai railway line to Golmud, through the Gansu corridor and, finally, to Xinjiang in north-west China.

This however is not a new idea, it actually dates back to back to red nationalist Li Ling, author of Tibet´s Water Will Save China. From the Indian point of view however, it is important to note that a fundamental element in these proposals that will likely extend for the foreseeable future. At the core of these proposals is the advantage of diverting waters upstream, because it has an altitude of 3,600 metres above sea level, thereby reducing the need for pumping uphill.
Although water diversion schemes that highly depend on pumping and storage may not be given a green-light by Beijing if they do not make sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

The reasons behind the project
China's water policy is neither driven by geopolitics nor by ideology, but rather by rationalism. The Chinese say that if national interest demands major water diversion projects on the Brahmaputra river, China will indeed undertake such a project if the price of transferred water is and would be cheaper than conservation or getting water from the sea.

Sceptics within the Government
The plan so far has failed to secure the backing of the Ministry of Water Resources, Wang Guangqian insists it is "feasible" and has described the proposal as something "everybody gets really excited when they hear about it". But not everyone is enthusiastic. A friend and colleague of Wang, who wishes to remain anonymous, dismisses the proposal as unfeasible: "the far west routes will not be feasible, mainly because of the high cost of water diversion compared with alternatives".

The Indian side remains quite ill prepared for such a course of action, the knowledge India has of the river basin is rudimentary compared to the Chinese. As B.G. Verghese emphasized in an interview in 2010: "We are locked in ignorance, they have knowledge and we are not aware of the implications and we are not aware of the geography, the hydrology and the topography. The degree of illiteracy on this is frightening." However, two things complicate any major intervention in the river.

The effect of Public Pressure
China's leaders have acknowledged that the Three Gorges Dam is facing geological, human and ecological problems. Even if China plans to build a 38 GW dam at Motuo on the Indian border, the decision to make an official statement admitting the negative impacts of the 18 GW dam gives the public a "structural hole" to put pressure on high-risk industrial projects.

This in turn gives more ammunition to environmentalists and Premier Wen Jiabao who have been arguing against aggressive plans for large-scale hydro-power plants. The economy sees the acknowledgement by the Party that mistakes have been made as an important step toward the public´s right to question future policies.

Another factor that could complicate any major intervention in the river is that China´s engineering policies are facing backfire in neighboring countries as well: its 3,600 MW hydro-power plant at Myitsone along the Irrawaddy River carries conflict-potential on its border with Myanmar if the negative impacts of the project are not fully addressed.

The project abuts territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), one of a plethora of ethnic insurgencies that have battled the central government for decades. Last year several bombs exploded at the dam site and in May the KIO warned that if the dam were not stopped it would lead to civil war.

Another thing that could deter Beijing's relentless push for dominance over Himalayan water sources are sky-high political costs if India, along with Bangladesh, were to proactively engage China within a river-basin-framework which seeks to safeguard the river basin. In that light, External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna's decision to set up a task-force at the Indian mission in Beijing and take appropriate diplomatic steps are encouraging to say the very least.

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