Damming Tibet and Other South Asian Rivers

Courtesy of The Tibetan Plateau, an updated inventory of hydropower projects (HPP) on the upper reaches of several international rivers in South Asia.  As the report notes:

“… a preliminary map of hydropower projects on the upper reaches of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra (ཡར་ཀླུངས་གཙང་པོ༑) River in Tibet. It is hoped that this map will contribute new information to recent international discussions and clarify some of the misunderstandings about Chinese water control projects on the river.

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The map also shows hydropower projects (HPP) on the upper reaches of several other international rivers in South Asia, namely the Indus (Senge Khabab), Sutlej (Langchen Khabab), Karnali (Mabcha Khaba), Arun (Bumchu) and Subansiri (Loro Chu/ལོ་རོ་ཆུ་, alternative name: Jya Chu/བྱ་ཆུ་) rivers. This is the final map in a series that shows hydropower projects on the Tibetan Plateau.** Previous maps include those on the upper reaches of the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers; the Yellow River; the Nyagchu or Yalong River; as well as the eastern edges of the Tibetan Plateau. As always, corrections as well as additions to any of these maps are most appreciated.

The status of dams on the upper reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra shows that there are 10 dams completed, three under construction, seven under active consideration and eight more proposed. There is one hydropower project completed, each, on the Senge Khabab (Indus), Langchen Khabab (Sutlej) and Mabcha Khabab (Karnali) rivers. Five large dams are proposed on the Bumchu (Arun) River and another large dam proposed on Loro Chu (Subansiri).

While the larger hydropower projects and a few of the smaller projects have been indicated, there are many small hydropower projects in the region, disconnected from any large power grids. Many Tibetans have until recently lived without electricity, and many still do. There is a pattern by which dams and power transmission lines are built on the Tibetan Plateau — smaller and middle sized dams are built first, to provide a basis for the construction of larger ones to follow. The current push to provide Tibetans with electrical power seems primarily motivated by the need for larger HPPs to power resource extraction, infrastructure development, and ultimately for supply to coastal Chinese cities where demands are the highest.

A note on Tibetan and Chinese names on the maps: The maps show Tibetan names of places, rivers, mountains and lakes. However, HPPs are indicated with their Chinese names unless they are not known. The Chinese names are used mainly because these are Chinese projects better known with their own project names and also because it is easier to locate (less confusing) for researchers.

The Tsangpo-Brahmaputra is a major international river shared between Tibet/China, India and Bangladesh. On the Tibetan Plateau, the river flows west to east, across Southern Tibet, from its sources near the sacred Mt. Kailash (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ༑) all the way to the Great Bend, where the river turns north to take a sharp U-turn to flow south into India and then to Bangladesh. Hydrologically, this river is connected to the larger Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin.

Until recently, the Yarlung Tsangpo was considered as an undammed river. China has officially announced plans to build five dams on the middle section of the river, including the Zangmu project currently under construction, which has caused much concern in India. The absence in these debates of the voices of Tibetans who live in the valley and are traditional users of its waters in these debates is deplorable, especially given their historical, religious and economic connections to the river.

The Yarlung Tsangpo River is intimately linked to the history of Tibetan civilization, indigenous religious beliefs and practices, and ultimately to the Tibetan identity. As the River Nile is to Egypt, Yarlung Tsangpo can be considered the cradle of Tibetan civilization. The Yarlung Valley is the home of the earliest Tibetan kings known as the Yarlung Dynasty. From its sources near the sacred Mt. Kailash, the Yarlung Tsangpo valley is dotted with pilgrimage sites and power-places such as meditation caves of past masters and beyul (་”hidden valleys”) for spiritual practices. The river is also shown in paintings of the famous imagery of Tibet as a supine demoness (སྲིན་མོ་གན་རྐྱལ༑).

The Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo, also known as the Tsangpo Gorge, has attracted significant international attention as the “Last Secret Place on Earth” and for having the greatest hydropower potential of any site in the world. Through the 19th century, cartographers were not certain whether the Yarlung Tsangpo emerged from the other side of the Gorge as the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy, or some other river. Just downstream of Lungpe (ལུང་དཔེ་), the Yarlung Tsangpo enters one of the world’s deepest and largest gorges, starting from a 4,900-meter cleft between two of the highest mountains in Eastern Himalaya: 7756 meters high Namchak Barwa and 7294 meters tall Gyala Pelri. As the river drops nearly 2500 meters in altitude through the length of the bend, the gorge is considered ideal for hydropower generation. Speculation about the construction of the world’s most powerful dam and a major water diversion project at this site (discussed below) has been a major cause of concern in downstream countries.

The Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River is also known as one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world in terms of plant species. Although it is hard to imagine how botanists studied and added up the numbers of different plant species in this hard-to-travel corner, this official site boasts the existence of 3,700 plant species and emphasizes “the primordial nature of the plants” in the region. The ecological integrity of the Great Bend area is critical for the conservation of the Himalayas as one the world’s richest but at greatest-risk areas for biodiversity (hotspot).

To the Tibetans, the Great Bend region is known as Pema Koe, the most sacred beyul blessed by Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, the Indian Buddhist yogin credited with firmly establishing Buddhism in Tibet. Generations of visionary Tibetan Buddhist masters have revealed “hidden treasures” (གཏེར་མ་) and made journeys through the different layers of spiritual doors of beyul Pema Koe. Tibetans also consider the region as the home of the Goddess Dorje Phakmo (Vajra Yogini).

Similar to the Tibet map depicted as a demoness lying on her back, this local trekking group describes the sacred geography of the Pema Koe region as mapped onto the body of the goddess Dorje Phakmo herself: “Her head is the Kangri Kangpo [White Snow Mountain], her two breasts [are] Namche Barwa and Gyala Peri [mountains] respectively. The lower part of her body lies in Yangsang or the innermost Pemako which is the upper Siang region of Arunachal Pradesh. In the confluence of Siang (Tsangpo) and Yangsang is the sacred tri[a]ngle Kila Yangzom the vulva of Goddess Dorje Phagmo.” These beliefs and pilgrimage practices have religious and cultural significance for millions of Buddhists around the world.

The Great Bend of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. Photo courtesy of Christoph Hormann of

The map shows two different proposals to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Great Bend: Motuo and Daduqia. The tunnels for Motuo project starts at Lungpe and ends at Metog (མེ་ཏོག༑). Daduqia starts near Pe (ཕད་) and ends at Digdong (སྡིག་གདོང་) near the Indian border. Of these two projects, China is likely to build the 38,000 MW hydropower station near Metog called Motuo in Chinese. This project is feasible from an economic and engineering perspective, although there will be major environmental and seismic issues involved due to the size of the reservoir if the Chinese government decides to build a large dam at the lower end of the tunnels. The status of the project shown as under active consideration is based on informed assessments and evidence. The project is likely to be built after related infrastructure of nearby dams to supply power for its construction and ultra-high voltage power transmission lines are completed. Although the July 2003 Xinhua reports of preliminary studies conducted in the region are not available online anymore, there are several evidences online including discussions of the project on official, academicother professional websites. The following annotated map of the State Grid Corporation of China envisions the Motuo project connected to ultra high voltage lines of China.

Any tunnels associated with hydropower projects would be approximately 15 – 25 km long, of similar length to those currently being constructed for the Jinping II project on the Nyagchu. These proposed tunnels would likely be attached to large pipes on the downstream side to convey the water through a number of generators before reaching the lower leg of the bend. At this point it is likely that there would also be a large dam (Motuo) in the Grand Canyon of the bend. An alternative proposal, shown on the map as “Daduqia”, avoids large dams altogether and takes full advantage of the 2400m drop in altitude, but it is near the border with India and would be highly exposed if there were another conflict. The details of the tunnel routes as presented on the map are inferred but are presented with high confidence based on the assumption that China’s engineers have sought to optimize the return on the project.

The greatest risk to a large dam at the Great Bend comes from seismic activity. The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau were formed by the collision of techtonic plates. As such, earthquakes are not uncommon in Tibet. Metog County, where Motuo reservoir is likely to be built, had a “moderate” earthquake in 2008 before the disastrous Sichuan Earthquake that killed over 90,000 people. The recent earthquake in Yushu and the cracking of Thrangu dam is a nerve-wracking example for people living downstream in India and Bangladesh, given the proximity of the Great Bend to India. Chinese government seismologist Fan Xiao has suggested that man-made activity such as the weight of a large artificial lake near fault-lines can trigger earthquakes.

Several ideas have been proposed to divert water from a giant dam at the Great Bend, through hundreds of kilometers of long canals, to the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, or even the Gobi Desert. Two individuals are key sources of these ideas: Guo Kai, a retired Chinese People’s Liberation Army general, whose ideas were published in a book titled “How Tibet’s Water Can Save China” by Li Ling (published December 2005), and the late Mr. Masaki Nakajima, “founder and special advisor to the Mitsubishi Research Institute of Japan,” who first proposed a $500 billion project to the Global Environmental Fund in 1977 (See, Verghese in “Waters of Hope”, 1990, pp. 188-189). These proposals are not shown on the map because there is no evidence of government interest and also because these ideas do not make practical or economic sense.

While Masaki Nakajima and Guo Kai were the two main sources of speculation, there are actually many different proposals for diverting water from the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. The only project that had “official” interest at one time envisioned diverting water from near Tsethang, in the mid-reaches of the river at about 3500m, and directing it through a tunnel into the Nyang valley, and from there eventually to the Yellow River. It would rely on both gravity and power generated by a HPP on the Great Bend to move the water to the intended location. This project has been officially dismissed. There are other “unofficial” proposals, including connecting different rivers of Tibet as if these were streets that can run in all directions.

Close study of the terrain around the Great Bend area and possible canal routes on Google Earth show that the laws of physics will not allow water diversion from the Great Bend as suggested. For example, a reservoir like Motuo (850 m altitude) which is ideal for taking advantage of the drop in the Great Bend altitude would have lost 2000 meters of height that must be transferred over corrugated mountain ranges–through canals that are hundreds of kilometers long. Some may stubbornly argue that it is possible to divert the water with the combined power supplied by the dams at Motuo and Yiwong-Parlung rivers and with “peaceful nuclear explosions” to bore tunnels in the mountains. Even if these were possible, the immense costs do not make sense given the fact that water can be diverted from other rivers more easily and the key attraction for power generation at the Great Bend is economic development, not pumping water. Another major issue is the climate of the Tibetan Plateau, where it is below freezing point during winters and during early spring when water demand is highest in North China.

The Mid-Reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo
This is where major development is currently taking place. The 510MW Zangmu (རྫམ་ or Zam) is under construction and three other projects, Lengda (གླིང་མདའ་ or Lingda), Zhongda (སྒྲོམ་མདའ་ or Zhomda), and Langzhen have begun site preparation. Construction could begin within a few years. Development of Jiacha (རྒྱ་ཚ་ or Gyatsa) is also expected soon. It appears Jiexu will be developed last. As this is the upstream dam in this cascade of six projects, and the last to be developed, this may have a large reservoir to assure a constant flow for the downstream dams.

Here is an annotated high-resolution image of Zangmu project under progress from GeoEye that is annotated by one of Tibetan Plateau blog’s consultants. Tibetan Plateau blog is responsible for the annotation.

The Yiwong and Parlung Rivers
Site planning is currently under way on these tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Completion of projects on these rivers is likely required for development of the Motuo HPP. The sites indicated are based on a map on Hydrochina’s website. As the characters of the names of most of the projects shown were unintelligibly small and vague on the Hydrochina map they have been assigned the Tibetan names of nearby towns, which are approximate sites of future developments.

This entry was posted on Saturday, June 5th, 2010 at 4:45 am and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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