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Divided waters in China

Readinch

Chinese scientists troubled by radical proposals to divert Tibet’s water are making their voices heard. Zhou Wei listened in at a seminar about the Shuotian Canal.

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One of the boldest engineering concepts to emerge in China in recent years is a plan to “save” the country by transferring water from Tibet to the parched north. Among the schemes put forward, bringing water from Shuomatan point in Tibet to the city of Tianjin on China’s east coast – the “Shuotian Canal” – has received particular attention. It is said to have the backing of military figures and academics, but at a seminar last month scientists from a number of different disciplines were merciless in their criticism of the scheme.

The early August gathering, organised by Chinese NGO Green Earth Volunteers, brought together experts in geology, meteorology and wetlands conservation with the man behind the proposal, Guo Kai. Guo is convinced the Yarlung Zangbo River (known as the Brahmaputra once it crosses the border into India) is the solution to water shortages in some of China’s driest parts. (See chinadialogue article “Diversion debate” for more detail on proposed water transfer schemes from western China.)

Sometimes referred to as a modern day Guo Shoujing, a Yuan Dynasty water expert, Guo Kai comes from a family of hydraulic engineers and is a retired technical cadre. His business card lists a number of titles: originator and chief designer of the Shuotian Canal, author, professor, economist, vice-director and secretary of the Shuotian Canal Preparatory Committee and chairman of the Beijing Shuotian Consulting Development Company.

Guo explained that he originally planned to bring water from the Yellow River to Beijing – but then the Yellow River dried up. He also thought about the Yangtze River, but its western reaches didn’t hold enough water either. “But the Brahmaputra has plenty of water; it won’t make any difference to India,” he said.

Promotional material from the Shuotian Canal Preparatory Committee shows the canal cutting across China from west to east, crossing five different rivers on its journey from the Brahmaputra to the north-east and requiring construction of 10 separate reservoirs. Were it to go ahead, on its way to the Yellow River the canal would take water to more than 14 provinces and municipalities in the west and north of China, including Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Beijing – and generate electricity en route. The proposal claims the canal would in one fell swoop solve China’s shortages of water, electricity, grain and oil, relieve pollution and even ease the rural-urban wealth gap. Examples of support from senior levels of government over the years are also provided.

Before the seminar, Xu Daoyi, a retired researcher from China Earthquake Administration’s Institute of Geology had scrutinised the book How China will Save the World, published this year, which sets out the case for Guo Kai’s scheme. Xu pointed out that the proposal barely touches on the seismic and environmental risks, even though the canal would cross several earthquake-prone areas. Its tunnels would also pass through the high mountains of the south west, where devastating landslides are possible. There is no way to route the project without passing through these geologically unstable areas.

Xu listed 10 major earthquakes that have struck the south-west over the last 60 years. Pointing to a table of earthquake data, he asked Guo Kai: “What impact will an earthquake have on your canal? You don’t seem to have thought about that. If one of your tunnels collapses, what then?” Xu pointed out that reconstruction following an earthquake could be more expensive than the original build.

Even shouting too loudly can cause an avalanche in these steep snowy valleys, continued Xu, let alone the blasting, artificial landslides, dyke-building and river-blocking required by the Shuotian scheme. The map of the proposed canal also indicates that Qinghai Lake will be used as a reservoir – but it is a saltwater lake. The proposal says salinity will be reduced by the water from the canal, when in fact the water of the canal will become salty, argued Xu. The proposal is poorly thought through, he concluded: if the Shuotian team really wants to do this, then they should be prepared to do the necessary scientific research.

Chen Kelin, head of Wetlands International’s Beijing office, expressed concern about protecting wetlands on the Tibetan Plateau. The Yellow River dries up almost every year now – in 1999, the dry patch continued for more than seven months – and the ground in many areas along its banks has become salty, he said. The 490,000-hectare Zoige wetland on the upper reaches of the Yellow River has plenty of capacity to store water, but is suffering from over-grazing, pest infestations and the impacts of mining, all man-made issues. “If we looked after it properly, there wouldn’t be any need for wasteful water-transfer projects,” said Chen.

In his speech, Guo Kai described the Tibetan Plateau as an area of permafrost, with huge quantities of water resources in the form of ice – as the climate warms and that ice melts, that water should be used, he said. Meanwhile, the Shuotian team’s solution to Chen Kelin’s concerns about the Zoige Wetlands was another water transfer scheme: “bringing in water from Sichuan’s Dadu River”.

But Guo Kai’s arguments received short shrift from the assembled scientists. Tao Zuyu, a retired professor from Peking University’s Department of Atmospheric Physics, was next to jump in. He started by criticising the map the Shuotian Canal team had provided to the seminar’s participants: beautifully made, with a detailed explanation of the project in the back, but lacking scale or contour lines, it looked more like a tourist map than a scientific document, making the project seem like a mere fantasy, he said.

We’re all entitled to our dreams, Tao said, but if you want to turn dreams into reality, you have to put the work in. How much water is there to transfer, and will moving it change the climate? Desert formation is linked to atmospheric circulation, which in turn is connected the layout of the land and ocean, he said – the implications need to be worked through.

Geologist Yang Yong has been researching water diversion in western China for the past four years. He had four major concerns: first, he said, there is still vigorous debate over the risk of triggering earthquakes and geological disasters on the Tibetan Plateau with such schemes. Second, the points identified for water diversion into the Shuotian Canal would not actually be able to supply the quantity of water claimed in the proposal. Third, the canal would change the entire distribution of water across China, particularly in the south-west: there are already many hydropower stations in this region, but the transfer and damming of rivers for the Shuotian Canal would result in existing dams and power stations lying idle: a massive waste.

Finally, Yang questioned whether the project had the necessary mechanisms and systems to respond to situations such as drought, or climatic changes caused by the scheme, as well as earthquakes and mudslides. He pointed out that China’s water authorities had previously proved themselves to be slow or incapable of reacting adequately to drought in the south-west.

Tao Zuyu urged the Shuotian team to take heed of international lessons: the former Soviet Union once transferred water to Kazakhstan, but ended up turning the local soil salty. The colonisers of America planted grain on land once used for grazing – and caused desertification. “We must respect nature,” Tao said.

Zhou Wei is assistant editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office. 

Homepage image from Nasa Images

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雅鲁藏布江能拯救中国吗?

越来越多的迹象表明,最好的解决办法是一个大型液压计划,这个计划甚至比三峡工程还要复杂,从远至西藏南部的雅鲁藏布江抽水,通过大运河一直送到中国北方,目的是为了缓解北京的用水压力。考虑到围绕着喜马拉雅山的雅鲁藏布江和北京市的遥远距离,这是一个非常大胆的计划,却拥有不计其数的支持者。它可能是世界上最大的液压工程计划,跟苏伊士或者巴拿马运河一样,但要长得多。中国会因此更加自豪,作为发展中国家,有如此能力战胜自然。李鹏把三峡大坝作为他的个人业绩,他的名誉将会永远和它紧密相连。正如官方所称,任何领导人,只要资助了这样的南水北调西线工程,就会被永远铭记。

但首先它(调水工程)需要建好。多方面的障碍和异议——经济、生态、工程方面的——其和工程本身的吸引力一样大。

Can Yarlung Zangpo save China?

There are now increasing signs that the preferred solution is a mega hydraulic scheme that dwarfs even the Three Gorges dam complex, drawing water from as far as the Yarlung Tsangpo of southern Tibet, sending it by canal all the way to northern China, in the hope that it will eventually relieve Beijing. Given the enormous distance between the Tsangpo, skirting the flanks of the Himalayas, and Beijing, this is an extraordinarily audacious plan, whose proponents sprout numbers of unimaginable size. This would be the biggest hydraulic engineering feat in the world, as famous as the Suez or Panama canals, but much longer. China’s pride would be immense, and it would seal China’s credentials throughout the developing world as the go-to supplier of expertise in conquering nature. Li Peng made the Three Gorges dam his personal project and his reputation will always be associated with it. Any leader who makes himself patron of the south-to-north interbasin transfer western route, as it is officially known, will be remembered for it forever.

But first it has to be built. The obstacles and objections, on a wide range of grounds –economic, ecological and engineering- are as big as the attract


该项目需要预可研报告

建议的项目给国家带来的优势是巨大的,可以保证一系列预可研不延误地进行。应在向中国和国际最好的专家咨询后,所有的决定都应由最高决策层做出。如果最后的裁决是继续,那么全部的项目研究将开始并获得资金。中国和世界上更多的专家将参与其中。中国主要的优势在于可以筹集资金来支持大项目,并且强烈的政治意愿去追求对国家有益的决定。

Pre-feasibility studies

The proposed project advantages to the country are immense and may warrant a series of pre-feasibility studies to be conducted without delay.The best experts in China and international consultants should be tapped and the final decision should be made by the highest decision making body in China. If the final verdict would be to go ahead, then a full-blown project study should commence and funded. More experts in China and around the world should be consulted. The main advantages of China now is that it can financially raise the money to support big projects and it has the political will to pursue whatever is finally decided to be beneficial to the country !


郭开越推荐,这个项目越难启动

其实这个方案很好,但关键是发起人不是水利系统内部人士,让水利系统很没面子,好像水利系统白吃干饭,所以水利系统就极力反对,而且是打着环保的旗号。

The more Guo Kai recommended this project, the harder to promote it

Actually this is a great idea, but the key problem is it's not initiated by someone within the system of hydraulic engineering. This made the system lose face, as if it was good-for-nothing. So it strongly opposed to this project in the name of environmental protection.


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