Diversion debate

The zeal for engineering China’s rivers continues unabated among hydrologists. But will the latest proposal – to move water from Tibet to Xinjiang – get the backing of the authorities? Zhang Ke reports.

Chinese scientists have dreamed up yet another mega engineering scheme: to divert water from Tibet’s Yarlung Zangbo River, along a course that follows the Tibet-Qinghai railway line to Golmud, through the Gansu Corridor and, finally, to Xinjiang, in north-west China.

The man behind the proposal is Wang Guangqian, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and director of Tsinghua University’s State Key Laboratory of Hydroscience and Engineering. Although the Ministry of Water Resources has not given its support to the scheme, Wang insists it is “feasible”.

On June 3, Wang revealed that the authorities are considering a water-diversion plan for western China. He told reporters that, the previous day, Li Ruihuan – former member of the standing committee of the Political Bureau and chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – had gathered Wang and others together to give and listen to presentations on the proposal. He said that everyone there was in agreement: “It is time for a water-diversion project in western China.”

It has previously been suggested that such a project could move 200 billion cubic metres of water a year – the equivalent of four Yellow Rivers. It would require core project finance of more than 200 billion yuan (US$30.9 billion) and be “an unprecedented undertaking in the history of the Chinese people.”

As to why it’s necessary, Wang explained that water usage has dramatically increased as a result of social and economic development on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and Yellow River. Climate change and other factors are driving desertification, while water coming from the upper reaches of those rivers is decreasing (for more information on threats to the quality and supply of water in this region posed by factors including glacier-melt in the Himalayas, see chinadialogue’s report (“The Waters of the Third Pole: Sources of Threat, Sources of Survival”). A survey by the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Institute found that, since the 1980s, the quantity of water flowing from the Yellow River above the city of Lanzhou, in north-western China, has fallen by an average of 13% a year. In 2002, it dropped 46%.

In addition, grain-growing regions such as Henan in central China and Xinjiang in the north-west rely on large quantities of groundwater. To date, almost all major cities in a region bounded by Harbin to the north, Urumqi to the north-west, Shanghai to the east and Haikou to the south, have experienced subsidence due to groundwater extraction. “There’s no way that situation is sustainable,” said Wang. “But there is still potential to exploit the more plentiful water resources of the south-west.”

Figures from the Chinese Academy of Sciences show that rivers on the Qinghai-Tibet and Yunnan-Guizhou plateaus, including the Yarlung Zangbo, Nu and Lancang, carry between 637 billion cubic metres and 810 billion cubic metres of water out of China each year. Because little of the water in these rivers is used within China’s borders, most of it flows on to India and south-east Asia – where they become the Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong, respectively.

Wang’s proposal is distinct from the South-North Water Transfer Project, another mega infrastructure scheme approved by the State Council in December 2002. Under that plan, a “western route” would “bring water from the Tongtian, Yalong and Dadu tributaries of the upper Yangtze to the Yellow River,” in order to relieve water shortages in the regions of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia.

However, I understand from the State Council’s South-North Water Transfer project office that, so far, no concrete plans have been formulated for the western route. Speaking at a party meeting on May 13, the head of that office, E Jingping, said: “There is currently a significant gap between preliminary work being done on the project and actual requirements. In particular, much more work is needed to explain the necessity, importance and feasibility of the project in the context of national sustainable development.”

Wang Guangqian stated that the idea for his proposal – dubbed the Major Western Route – came from independent water-resources expert Guo Kai, and has many supporters. “Everybody gets really excited when they hear about it,” he said.

Guo Kai told me the project name was originally chosen to distinguish the scheme from the western route of the South-North Water Transfer project. He came up with the idea as early as 1990: take 201 billion cubic metres of water every year from the Yarlung Zangbo, divert it through the Nu, Nancang, Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu rivers, over the Aba watershed and into the Yellow River. Guo believes this project would not only ease water shortages in the north of China, but also transform desert landscapes, increase farmland, provide power and create jobs.

“It would only take five to eight years to build, and cost 225 billion yuan [US$34.7 billion] in 1997 terms,” Guo said, adding that the Yarlung Zangbo, Nu River and Lancang River are capable of providing some 380 billion cubic metres of water annually – more than enough to cover the 206 billion cubic metres required each year by the project.

Zhao Nanqi, former CPPCC vice-chair, is a keen advocate of Guo’s idea. “Guo Kai’s proposal for the Major Western Route has given us inspiration and hope,” he said.

But the plan has failed to secure the backing of the Ministry of Water Resources and other key authorities. Former water-resources minister Wang Shucheng has described the proposal as “misguided and unscientific”. Domestic and international environmental groups are also concerned – if it goes ahead, the project could have complex and far-reaching ecological impacts.

China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, released in March, includes improving the movement of water resources between north and south and east and west, and between rivers and reservoirs, building cross-basin water-diversion projects and improving access to water both in the north and the south.

Several different water-diversion projects for the west of China are under discussion. Besides the two plans outlined above, former member of the Yangtze River Commission Lin Yishan has proposed a “Major Western Route Water Diversion”; Chen Chuanyou of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Natural Resources Institute has put forward the “Tibetan Water for the North” scheme, while the Guiyang Hydropower Investigation Research and Design Institute is investigating its own “Major Western Route”. The list goes on. All of these aim to move large quantities of water from the Qinghai-Tibet plateau to the west and north of China.

Wang Guangqian’s team is understood to be working with the South-North Water Transfer office to organise a feasibility study of their proposal.

Li Ling, author of Tibet’s Water Will Save China, has long been following these proposals. He said that the Institute of Advanced Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is using supercomputers and data modelling to simulate the Major Western Route and evaluate its feasibility.

“National leaders only decided to go ahead with the Three Gorges Dam and projects on the Irtysh River, Ili River and Tarim River after seeing data-modelling and three-dimensional imaging that demonstrated their feasibility,” explained Li. He added that an initial simulation of the proposal has already been produced in Shenzhen, south China, but limitations in the data used to create it means it cannot be made public.

Li believes that the technological and engineering experience gained from constructing the Qinghai-Tibet railway – which involved challenges such as building on permafrost and working for many years in low-oxygen environments and environmentally vulnerable regions – will help to solve many of the problems presented by the Major Western Route. Building the railway cost 2 billion yuan (US$308 million) in environmental protection alone.

“If you can successfully build a railway between 4,500 metres and 5,072 metres above sea level, building the Major Western Route at 3,588 metres to 3,366 metres is not going to be a problem,” said Li.

Zhang Ke is a reporter at China Business News.

Homepage image from  Polly.Wu