A new era for Tibet’s rivers

Construction of a massive dam on the Yarlung Zangbo marks a turning point for Tibet, write He Haining and Jiang Yannan. A development boom is coming.

The rushing waters of the Yarlung Zangbo, the last of China’s great rivers to remain undammed, will soon be history. On November 12 last year, the builders of the Zangmu Hydropower Station announced the successful damming of the river – the first public announcement on a matter that, until now, has been kept under wraps.

The Zangmu hydroelectric power station is being built on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo (known as the Brahmaputra when it reaches India) between the counties of Sangri and Gyaca. Around 7.9 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) is being invested in the project, located in a V-shaped valley 3,200 metres above sea level. At 510 megawatts, the plant is much smaller than China’s 18,000-megawatt Three Gorges Dam, but still equivalent to the entire existing hydropower-generating capacity of Tibet.

The construction workers have now reached the centre of the river. The water is being diverted into sluiceways and rows of grouting machines and stone crushers are working at full pace, while trucks come and go. One worker said that the winter here is mild, so there’ll be no need to stop work. Geologist Yang Yong said the activity represents the start of a new age: “Hydropower development on the Yarlung has begun, marking the start of a hydropower era for Tibet’s rivers.”

A series of hydropower stations is proposed for the Yarlung Zangbo. If they are all built, Zangmu will be the fourth in a row of five on the Sangri to Gyaca stretch of the river, between the Gyaca and Jiexu plants. There has been no official confirmation that the construction of these will go ahead. But Yan Zhiyong, general manager of China Hydropower Engineering Consulting, said in a recent media interview: “By about 2020 most of China’s hydropower projects outside of Tibet will have been completed, and the industry’s focus will shift to the Jinsha, Lancang, the upper reaches of the Nu River and the Yarlung.”

Several well-known Chinese hydropower firms have already made their way into Tibet. The backer of the Zangmu project, the Tibet Generating Company, has already built a residential area on the open spaces alongside the river at Zangmu and a flourishing town is taking shape, with a supermarket better-stocked than those in the county’s main town. The boss, from Zhejiang, moved here from the Xiaowan dam in Yunnan, south-west China, two months ago and is positive about the future: “There’ll be loads of workers next year, business will be great.”

The Zangmu dam is located in the southern Tibetan county of Gyaca, which has a population of around 17,000. “The economy here is going to be among the fastest-growing in Tibet,” said businessman Li Hua, who has already invested in a three-star hotel here – a five-storey building that is now the tallest in the area.

Work on a highway to the administrative centre of Lhoka prefecture is to start in 2011, cutting travel time in half. “Hydropower development will very quickly spur mining, and there’ll also be very rapid growth in road and railways. The Tibetan hinterland will see a new development boom,” predicted Yang Yong.

Guan Zhihua is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research. In 1972 the academy established a survey team to study the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and Guan – now in his seventies – was the head of the group charged with calculating the hydropower potential of the Yarlung Zangbo, China’s highest river. As if describing a family heirloom, he said: “The river flows for 2,057 kilometres within China’s borders, and its hydropower potential is second only to the Yangtze. It has more power-generating potential per unit of length than any other river in China.”

Guan’s was the first comprehensive and systematic study of the plateau – a four year field project carried out by more than 400 people across 50 different disciplines. But the study of the Yarlung Zangbo and its tributaries was only a part of the survey, and at the time nobody had any idea of the extent of the river’s potential. The entire basin was found to have hydropower potential of 114 gigawatts – 79 of which was on the main river. And this potential was highly concentrated, with the possibility of a 38-gigawatt hydropower facility at the Great Bend in Medog county, equal in power to the Three Gorges Dam.

In 1980, a nationwide survey of hydropower resources was carried out and 12 possible dam locations identified on the Yarlung Zangbo. “This would have been the first hydropower plan for the Yarlung,” recalled Guan.

In the 1980s, Tibet twice planned to dam the Yarlung Zangbo, but in neither case did the project get off the ground

Zhang Jinling, a 76-year old retiree from the Tibet Surveying Institute, recalled the first bid to build a dam here: “In the 1980s, Shigatse [a city in southern Tibet] wanted to build a hydropower station at Jiangdang and that would have been the first attempt to dam the river.” But there were concerns: this part of the river carries a lot of silt and the project would have required swaths of land to be inundated and many people to be relocated – and the dam would only generate 50 megawatts of power. The plan was submitted to Beijing, but was not approved.

On another occasion, plans were drawn up to dam the river outside Lhasa. Zhang’s team carried out preliminary surveys, drilling rock samples out of the mountainsides to acquire geological data. But a large reshuffle of officials in both 1981 and 1982 saw the team lose two-thirds of its manpower. Plans were shelved.

Those plans were spurred by a shortage of electricity in Tibet. Zhang recalled that the Tibetan government was seeking a quick way of providing power by any means – diesel-fired and geothermal power generation were also used.

During the 1980s, Lhasa, with 120,000 residents, only had 20 or 30 megawatts of power-generating capacity, mostly provided by several hydropower stations each providing a few megawatts. In winter there was no choice but to rotate power supplies to different areas of the city, with those cut off using kerosene for heating.

When Zhang retired in 1995, the electricity grid in eastern Tibet was just beginning to take shape, but it has remained isolated from the national grid. A connection between Tibet and Qinghai is due to be completed in 2012, which will relieve the electricity shortages Tibet suffers in winter and spring.

“It wouldn’t have been possible to build a large dam on the Yarlung before the Qinghai-Tibet railway was completed – you need a rail line to move the building materials,” said He Xiwu, who was head of the survey team’s water-resources group at the time.

In 1994, work started on the Three Gorges Dam, but plans for the Yarlung Zangbo were kept quiet. The low-key approach was unusual given the river’s huge potential. Even recently, a water-resources official with the Tibetan government stressed that developing hydropower in Tibet was mostly about self-sufficiency.

Since the early 1990s, Tibet has built a series of medium-sized hydropower stations, of about 10 megawatts each, such as the pumped-storage hydropower station at Yamdrok Lake and the dam at Zhikong. These are intended to relieve electricity shortages in the Lhasa area.

Although government work reports mention it every year, hydropower development on the Yarlung Zangbo was never made a priority. But in the final years of the 11th Five Year Plan, things changed. “The current proposal is an appropriate degree of industrialisation, with a process of capacity building, then focusing on priorities, and then overall development,” said He Gang, research fellow at the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Economic Strategy. “The priorities most often proposed are mining and hydropower.”

Behind the scenes, preparations for hydropower development on the Yarlung Zangbo have been constant. In a recent media interview, Zhi Xiaoqian, head of the Chengdu Surveying Institute, said that plans had been drawn up for all of Tibet’s major rivers, including the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo. But a lack of clear policy direction has meant approval for those plans has been slow and the projects have not commenced. “Now the time and conditions are ripe. China’s energy supply is becoming ever more pressured, and there’s an urgent need to develop the rich hydropower resources of Tibet,” Zhi said.

Currently less than 0.6% of Tibet’s hydropower resources have been developed. In comparison with the rest of China, this is virgin territory.

The Zangmu Hydropower Station is only the start. The huge potential of the Yarlung Zangbo is concentrated at the Great Bend in Medog county, where two or more dams the size of the Three Gorges could be built. This is also the most spectacular section of the river, where it falls steeply as it makes a u-turn, and is regarded as one of the world’s most striking river sections.

As early as 1998, Chen Chuanyou of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences published an article in Guangming Daily entitled “Could the world’s biggest hydropower station be built in Tibet?” He proposed building a reservoir on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo to raise the water level, and then drilling a 16-kilometre tunnel to carry the water to its tributary, the Duoxiong – a drop of 2,300 metres that would allow for three hydropower stations. For the sake of safety and the environment, they could be built underground, he said.

In 2002, Chen published another paper in Engineering Sciences, looking at the positive impact that a hydropower station at the Great Bend would have on electricity generation in south-east Asia, and pointing out that, if there were financial issues, funds could be raised both domestically and abroad, and that electricity could be exported to south-east Asia.

He Xiwu said: “I’ve heard there is still no plan for the Great Bend. The state should spend a bit every year on long-term research. There’s 38-gigawatts of potential there, but the geology is complicated and construction would be difficult. It has to be done carefully.”

“Hydropower development in Tibet has come late, but it is on the agenda now,” said Fan Xiao, chief engineer for the regional geological survey team at the Sichuan Bureau of Geological Exploration. What worries Fan, however, is this: “Tibet’s ecology is extremely vulnerable, and would be very hard to restore if damaged. This kind of full-river development can’t just see the Yarlung Zangbo as a hydropower resource – everything needs to be taken into consideration.”


This article was first published by Southern Weekend.

He Haining is a reporter and Jiang Yannan an intern at Southern Weekend. Feng Jie, also a reporter, contributed to this article. 

Homepage image from Fighting Irish 1977