The Thirsty Dragon: Hydropower Projects On Tibet’s Main Rivers

Courtesy of The Tibetan Plateau, an updated report on hydropower projects on three of the major rivers that flow from Tibet: the Yangtze, the Salween and the Mekong.  As the article notes:

“…Tibetans proudly sing of their land as “the Land of Snows, the source of great rivers.” Indeed, Tibet is widely regarded as “Asia’s Water Tower.” This blog post highlights hydropower projects (HPPs) on three of the major rivers that flow from Tibet: the Yangtze, the Salween and the Mekong. The Yangtze River originates in Tibet as “Drichu” and flows into China, supporting one of the most densely populated watersheds in the world. The Salween River, known as “Gyalmo Ngulchu” in Tibet, supports one of the most biodiverse watersheds of South Asia, mainly in Yunnan Province, Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. And the Mekong River, known as Zachu in Tibet, flows from Tibet through six countries: China, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. What goes on in the sources of these great rivers should concern not only Tibetans but also all citizens of the world.

The map below highlights 81 HPPs on the upper reaches of Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. There are many more, especially smaller projects on the many tributaries of these rivers, which are not included in the map. We have only indicated HPPs that are relatively large, on the main stream and confirmed by two or more reliable sources. Unlike HPPs on the Yellow River and in the eastern edges of the Tibetan Plateau, most of the HPPs on these three rivers have not reached power generation stage yet. The completed projects are mostly smaller HPPs. The larger projects are either under construction (Gangtuo, Boluo, and Lawa) or in the construction ‘pipeline’ as “Under Active Consideration” or “Proposed.” It makes sense to build smaller ones first, which can help supply energy and infrastructure for construction of bigger projects.
Why is China building so many dams on these rivers? To answer this question, it is important to ask who makes the decision and benefits, and what are the larger (political, economic and historical) contexts under which these water development projects are being implemented. An important slice of this puzzle concerns China’s Water Industrial Complex. Other contextual answers include China’s project of promoting rapid economic development in Tibet under the Go West! or Western Development Campaign. Energy needed for major mining, infra-structure construction and urban development projects under the Western Development Campaign will be supplied by these HPPs. Many of these HPPs will eventually be connected to larger (“Ultra-high voltage”) power transmission lines to supply energy to prosperous Chinese cities in the East.

China also plans to divert Tibet’s rivers. The Western Route of the South to North Water Transfer Project , which is slated to begin construction in 2010, is one such project. A detailed report published by the Ministry of Water Resources in 1995 reveals plans to build at least three very large dams on the upper reaches of Yangtze River. We have indicated one of these three dams, the 302 meter tall Tongjia dam, with a separate color for three reasons: details may have changed since 1995; the dam is not a HPP; and to keep the project under public scrutiny.

Click below to view technical details of HPPs on Drichu (Upper Yangtze)
Click below to view technical details of HPPs on Zachu (Upper Mekong)
Click below to view technical details of HPPs on Gyalmo Ngulchu (Upper Salween)

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 20th, 2010 at 6:47 am and is filed under China, Thailand, Tibet, Tibetan Plateau, Vietnam.  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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