The Thirsty Dragon: Harnessing “China’s No. 1 Water Tower”

Courtesy of Tibetan Plateau, an updated look at dams being built in eastern Tibet and via, a interesting (albeit dated) analysis of the policy implications of dam projects on Drichu – the Upper Yangtze River, an area which China persists in viewing as China’s natural water storage tower.  As the articles notes:

“…the following updated maps and tables provide one of the most accurate publicly available information on dams on the eastern edges of the Tibetan Plateau.

For the sake of simplicity and accuracy a project’s Status has only four possible values: Built, Under Construction, Planned/Proposed, and Cancelled. The term “Built” includes HPPs that have started generating power but are not complete, as well as those that have been operational but are currently non-functional. “Under Construction” indicates that work is proceeding on the ground and does not necessary entail that the river has been blocked or diverted. “Planned/Proposed” includes those HPPs that are those projects which the design, environmental issues, financing etc. are being developed as well as those that have been discussed but have never made it to the drawing board in any serious way. “Cancelled” includes only those projects for which there is widespread agreement that the government has decided that the proposed projects will not go ahead. This does not mean that a similar project may not be in the works to get around of the cancellation of the original project.

Capacity is given in MegaWatts. This should be understood to be the planned maximum rated power generation capacity of the generators of a HPP when it is completed. While every effort has been made to assure their accuracy, these figures are often given somewhat different values in different sources. Power generation capacity of hydropower generators is developing quickly so they may change.

Height is given in meters and indicates the total height of the dam associated with the HPP.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Clean Development Mechanism (UNFCCC CDM) assisted projects have been included on the tributaries map for three reasons. One is simply that reliable information is available for them. A second reason is that they provide examples of the thousands of small HPPs built throughout China which may (or may not) have negative consequences to the environment or local residents. A third reason they are shown is that they are examples of where Carbon Trading funds are going, which means that the general public overseas are subsidizing these projects since the Carbon Credits bought are tax deductible in developed nations. The CDM reports are available on the internet and at the UNFCCC site. More information regards UNFCCC at Wikipedia.


Click on the image below for details on Gyarong Ngulchu and Tianwan He dams

Hydropower Project on Zungchu / Minjiang River
Dams on the tributaries of Zungchu/Minjiang
Click on image below for details on Zungchu/Minjiang dams

Then, as the paper presents:

“…As a geographical landmass, the Tibetan Plateau is the highest and largest plateau in the world, exposing its inhabitants to a challenging environment of living at an average elevation of roughly 4,000 meters above sea level. This prominent landmass in south central Asia is roughly 2.5 million square kilometers in size; geologically, it is considered to be young and still growing in height. The Plateau is the predominant driver of South Asia’s annual monsoon winds, which deliver summer rains from eastern Pakistan to central China. The Plateau also drives the seasonal latitudinal position, duration, and intensity of jet stream winds, which in turn drive so-called regional climate “teleconnections” that influence seasonal weather trends and extreme events.

The freshwater resources in Tibet constitute some 104,500 cubic metres per person, ranking the region fourth in the world after Iceland, New Zealand and Canada. An important hydrological attribute of Tibet’s snowmelt waters is that they provide perennial base flow to many of Asia’s major transboundary international rivers, the watersheds of which are the home of more than one quarter of the human population. Apart from the perennial base flow, Tibet’s rivers and basins support a unique flora and fauna, which provide the matter and nutrient energy base for terrestrial and aquatic downstream ecosystems.

The sustainable stewardship of Tibet’s climatic, hydrological and ecological systems thus has regional and global implications that China has appropriately declared much of the upper catchments of these river systems to be protected areas.

Harnessing “China’s No. 1 Water Tower”

Exploitation of Tibet’s freshwater resources is an integral part of China’s macro-level resources management strategies to overcome regional imbalances in water supply, energy production and distribution, and related resources for its population and the burgeoning economy. Projects include the “East-West Power Transmission Scheme,” the “South-North Water Diversion Project,” and the “Western Development Campaign, along with others that appear in China’s Five Year Plans. China has embarked on its large-scale “cascades of dams” model of hydro-dam development on the Yangtze (Drichu), the Mekong (Zachu) and the Salween (Gyalmo Ngulchu) on the Tibetan Plateau’s southeast corner. Discussion of China’s plans for harnessing Tibet’s water resources is a topic worth intensive study. For brevity, this paper will focus on current dam projects on the Drichu, (upper Yangtze River) and its tributaries.

The Drichu and its mighty tributaries like the Gyarong Ngulchu (Dadu He in Chinese) are the headwaters of China’s most important river, the Chiang Jiang, also known as the Yangtze River. The watershed of Yangtze River drains 20% of People’s Republic of China’s landmass, supports 322 fish species, a growing human population currently close to half a billion people, and, some of the world’s “bio-hotspots” on the eastern and southeastern parts of the Tibetan Plateau. Economically, the Yangtze River watershed supports “50 percent of [China’s] grain, 40 percent of its cotton and cooking oil, and more than 60 percent of freshwater fish. Because of the convenient and relatively cheap transportation of this ‘golden waterway,’ it [supports] a long, densely packed corridor of industrial production centers, which [account] for 40 percent of [China’s] GDP.”

As important as the development of the Yangtze River is to the future of China, policy makers and analysts ought to bear in mind that the river is also facing premature death in the headwaters. Most studies on the Tibetan Plateau glaciers point out that global warming is causing glaciers to melt faster; these perennial sources of melt water are expected to be exhausted within several decades. The trends of burgeoning economic development and excessive dam construction and water diversion on the Yangtze are causing severe strains on the watershed’s ecological integrity and resilience to disturbance such that one Chinese scholar has predicted that, like the Yellow River (Chinese: Huang He) to the north “after only twenty years, the Yangtze would also have dry periods and would stop completely before reaching the sea near Shanghai.” This is a sobering warning. China thus needs a multi-stakeholder dialogue and debate on the consequences of large-scale construction projects on Yangtze’s headwaters, where, despite official protection, the situation is already, in the words of a Chinese journalist, “crazy and out of control.”

Some Current Projects of Tibetan Concern on Drichu / Upper Yangtze

Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam Project

“In July 2003, UNESCO listed the Three Parallel Rivers National Park as a World Natural Heritage site because of its special importance for geological research, extraordinary natural beauty, and wealth of biological and cultural diversity. United Nations officials were puzzled when Chinese authorities asked that Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the main features of the park, be excluded from the [designated protected area]. Why, the officials asked, was the magnificent gorge not to be included? “To allow for the construction of hydro dams,” Prof. Liang Yongning [a professor at Kunming University of Science and Technology] told them.

Officials at the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) expressed shock about the proposed dams when a South Weekend reporter asked them about the threat to Tiger Leaping Gorge. An official in charge of environmental assessment claimed to know nothing about the plans, saying: “How is it that big dams would be permitted near Tiger Leaping Gorge? The site is one of the most dazzling and precious natural wonders in all of China. SEPA will not approve any plan to build a big dam in that area.””

Located approximately 100 degrees east longitude and 27 degrees north latitude on the southeastern fringes of the Tibetan Plateau, Tiger Leaping Gorge (“Tak-Chong-Gak” in Tibetan, “Hutiaoxia” in Chinese) is a magnificent, deep gorge carved by the Yangtze’s roaring natural flow. The dam project at Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of eight in the Yangtze cascade of dams, has recently grabbed the attention of Chinese civil society leaders’, and media’s attention – a coalition that caused Premier Wen Jiabao to suspend thirteen dams project on Salween River.

According to Fan Xiao, the general engineer of Sichuan Geological Prospecting and Development Bureau, approximately 10,000 people of many “ethnic minorities” will have to be relocated “under the current high dam plan.” A concerned Tibetan whose home may get submerged under the ensuing reservoir told the author that the people of “Kongzeraba” in Weixi Xian and other “intrepid peoples of the area’s most unique cultures” will never willingly move out of their ancestral lands. The first inhabitants of Kongzeraba (Chinese: Pingziling) are believed to be descendants of warriors from central Tibet who settled in the region since the time of Tibet’s King Trisong Deutsen (755-797 AD).

Yeti Lake (Mugecuo / Megoe Tso) Dam Project

A dam project that has drawn significant media attention in China, and beyond, is a US$250 million dam on Yeti Lake (“Megoe Tso” in Tibetan, “Mugecuo” in Chinese). Located at 102 degrees east longitude and 30 degrees north latitude, near Dartsedo (Kangding) county on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the lake is fed by the waters of a tributary of the Yangtze River, Gyarong Ngulchu (Dadu He). This project came to our attention after China Youth Daily published a critical article on the project. Soon after, news reports indicated that local Tibetans submitted in writing their concerns about the project to Premier Wen Jiabao.

Project construction plans include a 50 m high and 260 m wide dam, connected to another downstream pumping storage power plant and Jin’gai hydropower plant through tunnels and channels, to generate electricity. Huaneng group, China’s biggest independent power company run by Li Xiaopeng, the son of the former prime minister Li Peng, will invest $300 million in the project. The project was approved in September 2004 after an investigative team sent by Premier Wen Jiabao (in response to local opposition) pushed the fate of the project in favor of the builders by overlooking local socio-economic and environmental costs.

According to the Environment Desk of Central Tibetan Administration, Megoe Tso is the most sacred lake in the whole of Kham, in eastern Tibet, and has traditionally served as a pilgrimage lake. Tibetans come, when permitted by local authorities, in great numbers to circumambulate the lake and to worship the female deity of the lake.  The bulk of criticism to the project made by Chinese journalists and civil society leaders, however, revolve around the immense local environmental costs of the project. The lake area is a “bio-hotspot,” surrounded by 30 other smaller lakes, hot springs, and primeval forests, all of which sustain more than 1,000 species of rare tropical plants and 2,000 species of animals and birds. Officials in the forestry department are confused as the hydro-development project is to be built within a protected area—Gangkar Mountain National Scenic and Natural Conservation Area.

Construction work on the project may start soon. Efforts to save the lake have generated an informal network of Chinese and international civil society leaders, but it appears to be an uphill battle against the forces of China’s water industrial complex. Yet Chinese journalists say that, after 18 months of controversy, local people and officials have become more informed and critical of the project, supported by many local officials. They recognize that the area, if unspoiled, has potential to attract visitors, ultimately in the long-term economic interest of the region. Travelers, photographers, scientists, and pilgrims from around the world visit the lake every year, and the number of visitors is likely to decline if the dam is built.

Renzonghai Lake

In the same area of Gangkar Mountain National Scenic Area, another pristine lake known as Renzonghai is under assault from dam builders. As it is common in China’s dam building business, the builder (Tianwan River Hydropower Development Co.) has sealed the construction area and started construction without proper permits. Chinese tourists and environmentalists have expressed great concerns over the covert construction of roads and bridges, and the clearing of old growth trees that is destroying the “protected” area’s ecological integrity and resilience.

The construction project was actually halted twice before. On July 8, 2003, the Sichuan provincial Environmental Protection Bureau demanded a halt to the project; work was being carried out without proper permits from either the Bureau or the Department of Construction, but to no avail. The second time took place after China Central Television did a critical story about the project that led to the attention of Sichuan Province’s Party Secretary, Mr. Zhang Xue-zhong, as well as the Governer, Mr. Zhang Zhong-wei. This made it a national issue. The provincial leaders ordered the Sichuan Forestry Office and Construction Office to conduct investigations, which led to a temporary halt in construction, but the project soon started up again.

Environmentalists rightly fear that this might create a hydro-power development trend in the Gongga Mountain National Scenic and Natural Conservation Area. Currently, the area’s freshwater resources support more than 1,000 species of rare tropical plants. The area has 2,000 species of fauna, and is rich in old growth evergreen, broadleaf, and bamboo forest. It also has a sizable population of endangered and endemic animals.

The local people have to bear the brunt of the project. Reports indicate that at least two Tibetan villages – Zimei and Weishida villages in Liuba Xiang – will be flooded and submerged under the new reservoir. Not surprisingly, 39 out of 40 local Tibetans opposed the project in response to a survey conducted last year. Economically, their traditional forms of livelihood — farming, pastoralism and gathering medicinal herbs — would be disrupted by the project’s logging of old growth forests and the flooding of crop and pasture lands. Those that depend on the bourgeoning tourism economy are also unhappy, as the area’s most important tourist attraction is its pristine natural beauty.

Other dam projects in western Sichuan Province

According to Renmin Zhengxie Bao, a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference daily, “Forty-eight dams have been built along the mainstream of Dadu River [Gyarong Ngulchu, a major tributary of the Yangtze] and its branches. It is said that a total of three hundred and fifty six dams are expected to be built on Dadu River [in the future].” Yet another article observed western Sichuan’s hydroelectric construction trend as “crazy and out of control.”

According to Tibetan rights groups, more than 17,000 Tibetans may be forced from their homes within the next three years to make way for a series of dams in the area. These dams will be built in and around the Barkham and Chuchen (Jinchuan in Chinese) counties of Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in the upland west of Sichuan Province. The main purpose of these projects is to meet demands for electricity in distant Chinese cities. The table below lists the affected Tibetan areas along with the unconfirmed number of families and people living in these areas, as per the information sent from Tibet.

Dam affected areas No. of families affected No. of people affected

Dzongbud 579 2,798
Tawei 288 1,451
Tsodun 3,040 7,112
Kyomkyo 743 3,716
Drakbar 485 2,349
Total 5135 17,426

Apart from forced resettlement, local issues of concern expressed in the report include the “disastrous impact” of the project to many sacred, historical Buddhist shrines in the area. These relics are likely to be submerged under the reservoirs along with ancestral homes and farmlands. These concerns were submitted in writing to local authorities but the complaints were ignored. Local Communist Party officials have added to growing Tibetan alarm by pressuring them to help fund the dam construction that threatens their very livelihoods.

All these projects are rallied under the political opportunity provided by the Western Development Campaign. Tibetan rights groups fear that these projects are being pushed to supply roads, energy and infrastructure for prospecting and extracting the lucrative deposits of gold, silver, and other minerals in the region.  One project of immediate concern is the Shuangjiangkou (“confluence of two rivers” in Chinese), a 1,800,000 KW hydroelectric project tapped as an important component of “Xidiandongsong” (West-East Power Transfer Project). Shuangjiangkou will be built near the confluence of Barkham County’s Kyomkyo River (Jiao-Muzu in Chinese) and Chuchen County’s Trokyab River (Chuosi-Jia in Chinese). According to sources, local Tibetans who have been ordered to move away to make way for dams are ambivalent about their fate and are hopeful for compensations.

Chinese Policy Issues for Discussion

Liberation from the political faith in large dams

The dam building case studies above are a sample of what lies ahead for the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems.
People’s Republic of China is the greatest dam building country in the world. Before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, China had only 23 large and medium-scale dams and reservoirs.  Fifty-five years later, China has 22,000 of the world’s 45,000 large dams (those more than 15 meters in height). Excluding small farm-scale irrigation dams and mini and micro hydropower units, China has about 85,000 dams and reservoirs.  And China continues to proudly be the most active large-dam builder in the world, despite the growing scientific evidence that large dams are not economical and sustainable in the long run. Dai Qing calls this trend “a blind faith that engineers and technical fixes can solve all problems,” a “conscious failure by China’s leaders to … respect and follow ancient [Chinese Daoist] wisdom [of self-restraint].”

China’s central leadership is beginning to moderate its enthusiasm for engineering projects as the answer to human problems of development, but the leaders need encouragement to turn around decades of dam building. There is a long history in China of the hydraulic engineering works of emperors as their lasting gift to posterity, but the dam construction of recent years is on a far greater scale than anything in the past.

More than half a century of a large-scale state-owned engineering approach to water management in China has produced a powerful structure of bureaucratic and economic interests, a “water-industrial complex,” that influence government policy. China’s water industrial complex has three principal features: dominance of technocratic Party elites in decision-making; their professional and ideological alliance with the economic and bureaucratic interests of water project financiers and builders (water sector entities); and this alliance’s major influence on government policy to further water-related construction. This entrenched elite resists the policy shift of the highest leaders who now stress sustainability and quality of life and environment rather than development at all costs.

Globally, the hegemony of conventional realist and developmentalist perceptions of water as the property of a territorial unit vs. water as a commodity to be “produced” for economic growth, for example, is now being complemented with new (re)emerging perceptions of water. The changing world water paradigm has many components, including a shift away from sole, or even primary, reliance on finding new sources of supply to address perceived new demands, a growing emphasis on incorporating ecological values into water policy, a re-emphasis on meeting basic human needs for water services, and a conscious breaking of the ties between economic growth and water use.”  It is the common wisdom today, supported by authoritative studies, that addressing water issues requires a multi-disciplinary approach. As the 2002 World Commission on Dams report points out, a “conventional model of development decision-making—isolated from social, environmental, cultural and political implications—is no longer feasible.”

Unscientific water policies and governance processes

Despite China’s high standards in the area of environmental law, the Yangtze dam projects discussed above point to a preponderance of unscientific policies and unlawful practices that is system-wide. Chinese civil society leaders are critical of these dam projects because of four main factors: a) general lack of democratic decision-making, b) lack of transparency, c) corruption and d) disregard for environmental and social costs.  Large dams are still approved without proper studies and the local hearings required by law.

From the water policy perspective, for many years the World Bank and other major international financial institutions have been urging China to raise the price of water for industrial and big agricultural use, to market levels, as an incentive to use water more carefully. Instead of spectacular dams and water diversion projects, China could achieve much by ensuring that the existing water supply is used more efficiently and less wastefully. Demand management is more effective, if less dramatic, and could enable China to live within its means.

This is especially true for Tibet, which is actually one of the most arid regions, receiving far less rain than lowland China. Yet China persists in imagining Tibet as China’s natural water storage tower.

According to a Tibetan working for the Yunnan provincial government, corruption is found in these dam construction projects at all levels. By the time project money reaches project builders, corrupt officials at the state, provincial and county levels would have typically embezzled more than half the project budget. This results in use of cheap, poor-quality raw materials for construction such as cement. Since construction on most dam projects typically begins before completing all studies required by law, issues of structural safety of the dams – will they withstand earthquakes or landslides? – are of concern to millions of innocent people downstream.

Another unscientific practice visible within China’s water development policy is the building of ecologically disruptive projects inside designated protected areas of natural and cultural significance. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a key area of attraction in the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site. Similarly, Yeti Lake and Renzonghai Lake are key sites of the Gongga Mountain National Scenic Area as they act as sustainers of the area’s invaluable biodiversity. Local authorities tasked with enforcing environmental regulations are confused at the government’s apparent double-standard: marking an area off as a protected, fragile ecosystem and then moving forward with projects that undermine the very existence of that ecosystem. Specifically, the ongoing construction work at Renzonghai Lake, despite two separate interventions by higher levels of government to stop construction, represent a direct setback to the efforts by China’s fourth generation of leaders in crushing corruption and steering the country towards sustainable development.

Economic and political implications for Tibetans

Tibetans are an ecological ethnicity—a “people who have developed a respectful use of the natural resources and consequently a commitment to creating and preserving a technology that interacts with local ecosystems in a sustainable manner.” Their intimate knowledge of local ecosystems, respect for animals and the natural realm of the sacred lakes and mountains, have much to teach a nation long fixated on economic growth as its sole objective, now gradually learning to think more broadly of sustainability. From a human ecology perspective, preservation of the Tibetan way of life on the Tibetan Plateau is necessary to promote environmental sustainability of the Yangtze’s (and other major Asian river’s) headwaters.

While water-engineering projects bring benefits to China in the form of construction jobs, electricity, and water for the “thirsty north,” the price that the affected people and the environment must pay is clearly unacceptable. The beneficiaries of the projects discussed above are Chinese cities, while the local Tibetans are made to bear its price. From a political economy framework, this model of development is reminiscent of colonial style resource extraction, where resources are taken away from disfranchised peoples to meet the demands of the rich and powerful.

And from a political ecology framework, it is arguable that current large-scale water projects on Drichu are resulting in the loss of traditional Tibetan access to and control over critical local resources, thereby further marginalizing and impoverishing this group. Such trends of “human poverty” among China’s “ethnic minorities” must be checked and the inclusion of Tibetan people in the planning and decision making process for development projects must be encouraged.

Addressing local Tibetan concerns

Like the millions of involuntary Chinese dam migrants, the Tibetan people have no say in or a voice against the hydropower projects that are displacing them from their ancestral lands. Worse, affected Tibetans are mostly illiterate, especially in Chinese language, and live under a “climate of fear.” They hesitate to raise their voice against government projects. The few brave local leaders who express opposition, even on environmental grounds, are often convicted of “political motivations.”

For people who are directly under threat from dam projects, issues of governance are more important than economic policy. They are more concerned about the survival of their traditional livelihoods and the preservation of their traditional ways of life than any expectations of benefits from the project. Educational campaigns and public hearings on issues such as project resettlement plans and compensations are urgently needed, so that these disfranchised people become aware of the issues and their rights, so that their voice is heard by the government – a process actually required by law.

China’s ethnic policy, set forth in the 1984 Law on Regional Autonomy for China’s Minority Nationalities, directs that “every ethnic group is a part of the Chinese nation, having equal status, enjoying the same rights and performing the same duties in every aspect of political and social life according to the law, and ethnic oppression or discrimination of any form is firmly opposed.”  It also decrees the right of minorities to “participate as equals in the management of affairs of the state and local governments at various levels,” and their right “to take part in the management of state affairs are especially guaranteed.” And in 2001, the Law on Regional Autonomy for China’s Minority Nationalities was revised so as to grant preferential treatment to ethnic minorities in investment, finance policy and employment.

Furthermore, China’s constitution declares that the government will help “the areas inhabited by minority nationalities speed up their economic and cultural development in accordance with the peculiarities and needs of the different minority nationalities.” As Chinese environmental journalist Lixie claimed recently:

The environment in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has little disruption from human activities. The majority of natural resources are still in a primitive condition. The environment and way of living has great value for social, economic, historical and cultural studies. This not only is a great asset for China but also for the whole world. At the same time, we should understand that the environment in western Sichuan region is very fragile. Once it is destroyed, it will be very difficult to recover. So, the model of economic development in ethnic areas should be different from those in the central and east part of China. Many facts show that natural resources development in ethnic areas is hard work and a delicate matter. It needs more time for planning. Development policy and regulation in ethnic regions should be tailored to fit the reality of ethnic region, should consider ethnic character and its capacity to withstand development, should be sustainable, should be far sighted for future generations, and should not be the same as those in inland China.”

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