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Dammed Tibet - Extracting Wealth and Power from the World’s Biggest Water Tank
Hank Pellissier   Jul 27, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Did China conquer the Himalayan theocracy to “liberate the peasants”? No. Was it lust for Tibet’s agricultural land?  No, only 0.3% is arable. Minerals? Getting closer. What’s critically valuable on the “roof of the world”?  Three syllables: H20

Tibet has more freshwater - aka “blue gold” - than any place on the planet, except the North and South Poles. Averaging 11,000 feet in altitude, Tibet contains 1,000 lakes and an enormous freezer of snow in the sky-scraping Himalayas. Melted, it’s the wellspring for seven monstrous rivers: the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Indus, the Mekong, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Salween.

Rivers are the critical life-blood of humanity, essential for hydration, irrigation, and industry. Possession of Tibet gives China a stranglehold on the arteries of South Asia, where nearly 2 billion people reside in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma.

Mega-dams are easily built by China - they constructed the world’s largest at Three Rivers Gorge.  They’ve erected a staggering 28,500 large dams, and 80,000 total, the most in the world.  Hydropower is the initial intent of Chinese dams in the Himalayas (90% of rural Tibet will have electricity by 2015), but water diversion is tempting for the thirsty population of 1.3 billon. Although China has 20% of the world’s population, it’s only got 7% of the fresh water supply.

Thirteen provinces of China have suffered drought since 2010 and vast regions are habitually parched, like the sprawling Xinjiang in the northwest. Could pipelines from Tibet lead to faucets in distant reaches of the Middle Kingdom?  Li Ling, author of Tibet’s Water Will Save China, believes it is essential for China’s future.

Michael Buckley - producer of the “Meltdown in Tibet” documentary - notes that, “60% of Chinese leadership… have an engineering background and many have vested interests in damming companies.” What are their intentions? India Today reports that “the dragons” are “gung-ho on [the] $62 billion South-North Water Transfer Project. It aims to divert 44.8 billion cubic meter water per year from southern China to the Yellow River basin in arid northern China.” Several different water-diversion projects are under discussion.

Below is a brief report on five major “international rivers” that have headwaters in Tibet:

Indus River - In 2009, British journalist Alice Albina - author of Empires of the Indus - discovered that China was secretly building a huge dam on an Indus tributary, at Senge-Ali, in Western Tibet. This caused only a tiny flap in the extremely tight relationship between the two nations. Two years later, China’s Three Gorges Project Corporation proposed a $15 billion plan to Pakistan, on Pakistani soil, that would block the Indus River at numerous points. The dams would control the devastating floods that regularly wash through Pakistan, and they’d provide much-needed hydroelectricity, enabling Pakistan to develop its gas, oil, and coal resources. The generosity of the Chinese offer typifies the alliance - China is Pakistan’s biggest arms supplier, third-largest trad­ing partner, it supported Pakistan’s war against India in 1965, and it assists Pakistan’s civilian nuclear program. All this frustrates and alarms India, of course. Will the dams on the Indus give China leverage over Pakistan, if their coziness ever sours? 92% of Pakistan is is dependent on the Indus River system, with 50% of its population employed in agriculture.

Mekong River - The Mekong is the longest river in SE Asia, winding 4,880 kilometers to the South China Sea. China is building eight dams here - the first, at Manwan, was constructed without consulting neighbors downstream. 60 million people depend on the river for food; particularly at risk are fish stocks in Cambodia’s huge Tonle Sap lake, and the rice bowl of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.  China’s fourth Mekong dam, at Xiaowan, is the world’s tallest at 292 meters. The Mekong is also the second-most bio-diverse river on the planet, trailing only the Amazon. 781 species of freshwater fish paddle here, including a giant catfish that can grow to be as long as a car.

Ganges River - Tibet provides major tributaries for the Ganges, the world’s most densely populated riverine area. Revered as “Mother Ganges” in India, it is even more important to Bangladesh, where it enters the Bay of Bengal in the world’s largest delta. Two-thirds of all Bangladeshis farm and fish here on the fertile floodplains. Presently, there are only two dams on the Ganges, both in India. Any construction by China that sabotaged the flow of this holy-but-horribly-polluted river would be greeted with Hindu wrath.

Salween River -  This 2,815 kilometers long river flows through China, Burma and Thailand into the Andaman Sea. Called the Nu (“Angry River”) in Mandarin, this swift, beautiful watercourse traverses a “Grand Canyon of the Orient” that is 4,500 meters deep. A United Nations assessment described its region as ‘maybe the most biologically diverse temperate eco-system in the world’ with 80 endangered species, including snow leopards and snub-nosed monkeys.  When China announced 13 dams would be constructed on the Salween, vigorous campaigning by Chinese activists resulted, amazing because opposition to Beijing often ends in jail sentences. China is also helping its ally Burma build dams in its northern regions; these constructions are vilified because they threaten ethnic tribes like the Shan and Karenni.

Brahmaputra River - Last but most important is the Brahmaputra, named after the Hindu god of creation. China - after vigorous denials for a more than a decade - intends to build 28 dams on the Brahmaputra, to the consternation of India and Bangladesh. Chinese designs include the utilization of “peaceful nuclear explosions” and constructing a station with 2X the hydro-power of Three Gorges Dam. One proposal aims to transport Brahmanputra water from Shuomatan, Tibet, to the city of Tianjin on China’s northeast coast via a “Shuotian Canal.” Boosters believe this would solve China’s demand for more water, electricity, grain and oil, and alleviate pollution. But… would it impact downstream flow to India, which relies on the river for 30% of its freshwater?  China offers assurances, but Indian concern is illustrated in the video below:


China’s Plans to Divert Water on the Tibetan Plateau

China to spend $1.8bn on Tibet water plans 

China Builds Dam on Indus, Doesn’t Tell Pakistan 

China Plans To Dam Pakistan’s Indus River For Power 

100 Questions and Answers About Tibet

The Water Tower Function of the Tibetan Autonomous Region 

China to spend record amount on Tibetan water projects 

China diverting Tibet water northwards 

China, Tibet, and the strategic power of water

China Hydropower Dams In Mekong River Give Shocks To 60 Million 

China rejects Mekong River dam criticism 

Dam controversy: remaking the Mekong

Beijing’s Threat to India’s Water Security 

China wages water war

Chinese dam on Brahmaputra India outraged. But the government reacts meekly

Push for new dams across Brahmaputra as China faces drought

‘China not reducing Brahmaputra dam height’ 

Salween Dams

saving the salween

China’s big hydro wins permission for 21.3GW dam in world heritage site

Chinese back at Salween dam site

Water: More Important to China Than Oil 

China’s water crisis needs more than words 

Tibet’s Rivers Strangled by Dams

bhote kosi, arun & karnali rivers

China Will Have Mastery of Asia’s Water Tap by 2020

Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.

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