Monthly Environment Related News Analysis

February 14, 2018 By Dechen Palmo*

Opinion: The madcap scheme to divert the Brahmaputra

Fan Xiao 17.01.2018

The 2017 revival: Plans to divert a major river from Tibet to Xinjiang

The latest version of the plan is particularly mind-boggling.

It includes a 750-kilometre tunnel traversing the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, from the river’s Great Bend to Golmud; and a number of tributary tunnels to bring in water from the Parlung Tsangpo; the Nu and the Tongtian Rivers. It claims water will flow naturally towards Golmud, but the altitude at the start of the tunnel is less than 2,000 metres – and Golmud is at 2,700 metres. It is unclear how water will flow uphill.

The mountain valleys of south-western Tibet are prone to earthquakes and rock and mudslides. This is particularly the case at the Great Bend, where history records numerous strong earthquakes and landslides damning the river and causing flooding. The environmental and economic costs of such a huge project here are hard to imagine.

Rivers need a certain amount of water to supply their ecosystems and the needs of sustainable development for local societies – it is generally thought that no more than 30-40% of a river’s natural flow should be exploited. These schemes would see unreasonable quantities of water diverted from the rivers – 83.3% to 91.5% in the Shuotian Canal proposal. The more recent proposal does not give a specific figure, but says “most” or “all” water from the Source Rivers will be taken.

The rivers involved all flow across international borders. In 1972 the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment stated that: “States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”

The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development reaffirmed that principle and stressed that development, particularly joint development, is important. The architects of these plans show nothing but ignorance and arrogance regarding the concept of international rivers.

Both plans repeatedly use water shortages in northern China as a justification, but this is a mistake.

Some parts of the north are semi-humid, and even in some arid and semi-arid areas glacier melt creates fertile zones, such as the Hexi corridor and Xinjiang. Many water shortages are due to environmental damage, often arising from inappropriate human activity or misuse of water resources.

It is also the case that ecosystems form according to the resources available; demand arises according to supply. To increase supply to meet demand is a mistake. We cannot steal from one place to make up a shortage elsewhere, nor can we reallocate natural resources and change the natural environment at will. We will fail to achieve our goals and ultimately pay a huge price.

These schemes claim they will remake China and turn deserts into farmland. But the scientific foundation and the authors’ understanding of nature show they are using imagination in place of facts and fantasy in place of science. We must ask ourselves: Why do so many people seem to regard these schemes as feasible?

EDD analysis:

A detailed proposal to divert the Brahmaputra from Tibet into Xinjiang was posted online by Dr. Liu Yuanyuan. This proposal of water diversion is different from the earlier proposal of 1,000 km tunnel which was published in South China Morning Post last year.

But Fan Xia, chief engineer of the Sichuan geology and mineral bureau, has said that even if environmental and social costs are ignored, the construction and maintenance costs alone mean that this scheme is not feasible.

A planned diversion map of the Brahmaputra River toward Xinjiang

The proposal suggest the construction of 750 km tunnel to take water from the great bend of Yarlung Tsangpo (the Brahmaputra River) to Glomud in Amdo and from Golmud to Lop Nor of Xinjiang. This large tunnel will be subdivided and inclined shafts are inserted in the middle to build a side slope tunnel that vertically reaches long tunnel. This long tunnel has a total of seven entry points with an average gap of 90 kilometers per entry section. This seven tunnel will bring water from the Parlung Tsangpo (tributary of Brahmaputra River), Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween River), Tongtian River (Dri chu), thereby channeling the water flow directly into the main tunnel.

To support this project, a series of big dams and big tunnels need to be built on the Tibetan Plateau, which is geologically unstable. There were a record number of earthquakes and landslide are common in the great bend and diverting the water from great bend, expert says, is not feasible.

Water shortages as the justification for this plans to divert the water from Brahmaputra to Xinjiang, and turning the Xinjiang into California, expert says, is not feasible. As we can see the impact of already completed eastern and central route of the South-North Water Transfer Project has led to mass relocation of hundreds of thousands of people and exacerbate water pollution problem. Therefore, this proposal of diverting Tibet’s river water to Xinjiang could lead to the social, economic and environmental catastrophic. Instead of diverting the water, Chinese government should encourage scientist and engineer to come up with more viable solution such as rainwater harvesting and recycle more waste water than water diversion.



*Dechen Palmo is a research fellow at the Environment and Development Desk, Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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