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China’s craving for mad old dreams

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China’s craving for  mad old dreams

Chinese scientists continue to work on grandiose dam projects which are bound to do more harm than good. But these megaprojects may not quench the locals' thirst for freedom

China is thirsty. What can the Middle Kingdom do to quench its thirst? Simple, have said the Chinese experts for decades, divert the rivers from Tibet to the Mainland and to Xinjiang.

On March 29, the Chinese magazine The Southern Weekend carried an interview of Wang Hao, the Chairman of the Expert Group on Dialogue for the ‘Red Flag River Issue’, a group of ‘scientists’ discussing regularly these issues, in particular the diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.

Wang is also an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and honorary director of the Water Resources Institute of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research.

Though plans to divert Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes the Siang as it enters in India and then the Brahmaputra) are known for decades, the Expert Group is working on a new scheme known as the ‘Red Flag River’, which apparently has already been turned down by the Government.

The Southern Weekend admitted that despite the participation of a number of academicians and experts, the project raises a lot of questions. How is this scheme different from the previous plans? The Brahmaputra Valley is known for its rich ecosystem; it is also an area witnessing frequent geological disasters. What would be the environmental consequences of such a project?

Wang admitted that though a large number of ecological and environmental impact studies have been carried out, “the environmental impact assessment has not yet been completed”.

However, for the Chinese scientist, the ecological issue not the basic one, the real difficulty is political; each Province on the route is bound to create problems for handing over the required lands, prices will rise and competition between local interests will create more hurdles.

Wang Hao however argued: “These people (the scientists planning the diversion) are not crazy…they have a sense of responsibility.” He pointed out what he called the main issue: “There is no water in the southwest and in the northwest. (If the project is realised), the entire country will change, and future generations will be better off.”

It is true that there is a difference with previous plans; in the past, China did not possess “hard rock tunneling machine and only drill and blast method was used”. Wang observed that China is today the world leader in drilling technology: “Our longest tunnel is 55 kilometers. Considering that the hard rock boring machine also needs a proper access, we have selected a (new) alignment, where it is relatively easier.”

Already in August 2017, The Global Times had reported that some 20 scholars had met in Urumqi in Xinjiang to discuss the “feasibility of diverting water from the heights of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to Xinjiang’s lowland plains”. The tabloid wrote: “Experts want the Government to reconsider diverting water from Tibet to parched northern regions. They claim the project will help stimulate the world economy and create a ‘second China’ in the region’s arid plains. Disagreements remain strong due to the huge cost and possible environmental damage.”

For the downstream neighbours, the small mercy lies in these disagreements. Ren Qun Luo, professor at the Xinjiang University of Finance and Economics, told the party’s mouthpiece: “Water from (Tibetan) rivers can help turn the vast deserts and arid lands into oasis and farmlands, alleviate population pressure in the east, as well as reduce flood risks.”

It is not clear if these ‘scientists’ are a part of the group headed by Wang; however Ren was quoted as saying: “Xinjiang has 1.1 million square kilometers of plains, equal in size to all the plains in the country’s east. But less than 70,000 square kilometers are arable due to a shortage of water...If all these plains are greened, another China will have been created.”

The Global Times admitted the dream of massive water diversions, from soaking-wet Southwest China to the thirsty north, has been on the minds of engineers and scholars for decades: “Some say this dream could be a nightmare of environmental damage, and these concerns mean the plateau-to-plain project has never been approved.”

One wonders if the Indian mandarins in South Block will dare to question their Chinese counterparts about these crazy schemes. If they do, it will probably immediately be denied by Beijing.

When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited India in November 2006, Wang Shucheng, his Minister for Water Resources, stated that the scheme of diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo was “unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific” and it had no government backing. The China Daily quoted him as saying: “There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects.”

But nothing can stop Chinese ‘scientists’ who love these so-called impossible projects. It probably evokes for them the Great Wall or the Grand Canal.

Take another example. A few weeks ago, The South China Morning Post reported: “Vast system of chambers on Tibetan plateau could send enough particles into the atmosphere to allow extensive clouds to form.” The Hong Kong newspaper added: “China is testing cutting-edge defence technology to develop a powerful yet relatively low-cost weather modification system to bring substantially more rain to the Tibetan plateau, Asia’s biggest freshwater reserve.”

There is an obsession with Tibet’s waters and environment among some of the members the scientific community in China; the The South China Morning Post explained: “The system, which involves an enormous network of fuel-burning chambers installed high up on the Tibetan mountains, could increase rainfall in the region by up to 10 billion cubic metres a year — about seven per cent of China’s total water consumption. Tens of thousands of chambers will be built at selected locations across the Tibetan plateau to produce rainfall over a total area of about 1.6 million square.”

Ma Weiqiang from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research observed that a cloud-seeding experiment on such a scale could help answer many intriguing scientific questions; he was however quick to add that it could affect the weather in the region: “(It) might not work as perfectly in real life, as intercepting the moisture in the skies over Tibet could have a knock-on effect and reduce rainfall in other Chinese regions.”

What about India?

The point is that Chinese scientists continue to work on these grandiose schemes which are bound to bring more harm than good to China …and also to the neighbours who are never consulted anyway. The question remains: Why are Chinese ‘experts’ putting so much time and energy to materialise old mad dreams?

In the meantime, Beijing has decided to spend $300 million to improve the irrigation systems “in the heavily ethnic Uygur part of the violence-prone region of Xinjiang,” announced Xinhua which added: “The Government has increasingly turned its focus to development in southern Xinjiang in recent years, in an implicit recognition of the economic causes of some of the unrest there.”

Will more water help in solving the restive Province’s issue? Can these megaprojects quench the locals’ thirst for freedom? Certainly not.

(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)

 
 
 
 
 
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