Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon and Parched Tiger: Tibet’s Rivers Will Determine Asia’s Future

Via The Diplomat, a look at the dawn of a new era of building dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo, where countless lives and ecosystems are being risked in the name of “development” and geopolitics:

Over the last seven decades, the People’s Republic of China has constructed more than 87,000 dams. Collectively they generate 352.26 GW of power, more than the capacities of Brazil, the United States, and Canada combined. On the other hand, these projects have led to the displacement of over 23 million people.

The Tibetan plateau is a rich repository of indispensable freshwater resources that are shared across Asia. After damming most of its rivers, China is now casting its eyes on the major international rivers flowing out from the Tibetan plateau, heralding a new era of damming Tibet’s rivers.

Tibet, known as the “Water Tower of Asia,” serves as the source of 10 major Asian river systems flowing into 10 countries, including many of the most densely populated nations in the world: China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan.

China, through its political control over Tibet, has complete upper riparian control over all major rivers flowing out of the Tibetan plateau. Compared to China, Tibet remains a virgin territory with less than 0.6 percent of its hydropower resources being utilized for developmental purposes. But this is changing rapidly. As China seeks to meet its renewable energy targets, Beijing will have to harness yet more hydropower. Chinese hydropower and energy companies have been lobbying the government to allow more hydropower projects to tap into Tibet’s fast-flowing rivers, with as many as 28 proposals awaiting approval.

Tibet is a geologically unstable region with an average elevation of 4,500 meters above sea level (14,800 feet). Despite the critical state of the Tibetan plateau which remains ecologically sensitive and seismically active, China is still moving on with its ambitious plan to expand the hydropower generation on the headwaters of Asia’s major rivers — the Yangtze, Yellow, Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong, and Salween Rivers.

China’s State Council’s energy plan for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) and 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) confirm the government’s intentions to vigorously push forward the hydropower project on the Tibetan plateau. Hydropower is being promoted as the centerpiece of China’s plan to expand its renewable energy sector. By 2020, China wants to triple its hydropower capacity to 300 GW. Therefore it is increasingly damming transboundary rivers to achieve its hydropower targets.

The Brahmaputra, know as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan, is a major international river shared between Tibet, India, and Bangladesh. It stretches over a total length of 1,800 miles (2,900 km) from west to east, starting on the Tibetan plateau from its source, the Chemayungdung glaciers near the sacred Mount Kailash.

Once a free-flowing river, it is now dammed on every section. Starting from Zangmu hydroelectric power station, there has been a cascade of dams being built on the Brahmaputra.  Geologist Yang Yong had rightly said that the activity represents “the start of a hydropower era for Tibet’s rivers.”

In January 2013, China approved three dam projects on the Brahmaputra River as part of its 12th Five-Year Plan, which triggered concerns in the Indian media about the possible impact on downstream flows. In an attempt to downplay India’s concern over these matters, the Chinese government was quick to assure India that the project will be planned and reasoned scientifically. It maintained that the project was a Run-of-River (ROR) hydroelectricity generation project – meaning a part of the river was being diverted to run past electricity generating turbines, and then the water would flow back to join the river. Such a ROR project would, according to that argument, not reduce the water flow and not have any impact downstream.

These assertions are largely untrue. Instead, ROR projects require storing large volumes of water during the day, only to be released all at once in the evening for generating power during peak energy demand. These daily fluctuations in the river cause an incredible disruption to the river ecology. Moreover, large dams also increase the probabilities of earthquakes, destroy precious environments, and shatter the lives of millions of people who are dependent on the Brahmaputra River.

Rather than benefiting populations with non-polluting power, China’s dam builders are making a Faustian bargain with nature, selling Tibet’s soul in their drive for economic growth. Taken together there is much scientific evidence that dams are not the clean, green, or cheap source of electric power they are often made out to be.

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 3rd, 2019 at 5:18 pm and is filed under Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, Mekong River, Pakistan, Thailand, Tibet, Tibetan Plateau, Vietnam.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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