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 tibetanplateaublogspot.com). 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?
Kevin Rafferty is a veteran British journalist.