chinadialogue, June 13, 2011
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
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