Jun 08, 2011

Tibet: Chinese Plans of Diverting the Brahmaputra River Raise International Concern

As a way of securing access to water, Chinese authorities have plans of diverting water from the Brahmaputra River that originates in Tibet is an important source of water also for India and Bangladesh. 

Below is an article published by 2point6billion.com:

Faced with severe challenges brought by reduced water resources and a severe drought that has affected a large portion of the country, China has started to consider diverting water from the Brahmaputra River, the watercourse that originates upstream from southwestern Tibet (where it is known as the Yarlung Zangbo River) and finally enters India, a recent report by Xinhua News Agency says. 

Wang Guangqian, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said on June 3 that Chinese experts have raised a new proposal to divert water from the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River to the country’s northwestern province of Xinjiang. The water diversion route in the proposal, named the “Grand Western Canal,” is slightly different from the “western canal” mentioned in China’s well-known South-North Water Diversion Project approved by the State Council in December 2002. 

While the previous canal aims to alleviate water shortages in Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia, and plans to divert water from three rivers in the Yangtze River’s upper reaches – namely the Tongtian River (Qinghai), the Yalong River (Sichuan) and the Dadu River (Sichuan) – the newly proposed route is expected to start from the Brahmaputra River, from which China can reroute the water to Xinjiang along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Hexi Corridor – part of Northern Silk Road located in Gansu Province. 

Wang admitted the serious water crisis across China has forced experts to think about the new water diversion scheme earlier than they had wanted to. 

“We thought this would be a plan 50 years later,” he said. 

Due to the increasing demand for water along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the Yellow River – China’s two largest and most heavily-exploited domestic watercourses – the upper reaches of the two rivers have seen a significant decline in their water reserves. What is worse, as a result of surface water deficiency, almost all of China’s first and second-tier cities have the problem of groundwater overdraft and are threatened by potential risks brought by the lowering of the water table (the level at which the submarine pressure is far from atmospheric pressure). 

In fact, experts originally brought up various plans to reroute water from the largest river in Tibet a long time ago. One of the most famous proposals was raised in 1990 by Guo Kai, a water expert, suggesting a project that diverts 200.6 billion cubic meters of water every year from the Brahmaputra River to the Yellow River. However, according to a 2009 Xinhua report, Wang Shucheng, the previous minister of the Ministry of Water Resources, somewhat denied the feasibility of the plan. 

At the time, Wang Shucheng believed the water diversion from the Yangtze River is enough for North China’s water supply and redirecting so much water from the Brahmaputra River every year is not even practical, because such a huge flush will destroy all the dams over the Yellow River.

Presently, Chinese experts and governmental officials are still studying the feasibility and possible impacts of distinct proposals.

Although China has claimed first use rights over the Brahmaputra and all of the other rivers in Tibet, the water resource exploitation of those international rivers does not only seem to be a domestic issue. Downstream, the Brahmaputra flows through India as well as Bangladesh and serves as a major fresh water source for a myriad of people. While China finally confirmed the construction of its dam project over the Brahmaputra last year, India’s Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh already commented the project as “unacceptable” and stressed the “great fear in India” would be China’s water diversion of the Brahmaputra, which may impact Northeastern India ecologically and bring a drought threat to the area.