Mekong Utility Watch

Water: Tibet, China, and Asia

(September 23, 2010) “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water,” warned Dr. Ismail Serageldin, former Vice-President for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development at the World Bank, in 1995.

European countries being relatively smaller, a river often runs through several of them. Over one hundred agreements have been signed among those countries to regulate the usage of water resources.

In Asia, however, few international agreements have been reached and countries are already finding themselves in the struggles Dr. Serageldin foresaw. Disputes over water resources have been factor in the unrest between Israel and its Arab neighbours; and between India and Pakistan.

A Once Abundant Flow from Tibet

The Tibetan plateau, often referred to as “the water tower for Asia,” has in it the source of the Yellow river, the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, the Lancang, the Nujian, the Yaluzangbu, and the Yangtze. Among these, but for the Yellow river and the Yangtze, all are trans-boundary, supporting millions of lives downstream.

These rivers provide an abundant and relatively stable flow, their water source being not just precipitation along the river basin, but the glacial snow on the Tibetan plateau.

Since rain in most parts of Asia is largely concentrated to a few months every year, nearly 10 countries downstream depend on the flow from the Tibetan plateau.

In the past few decades, and more so in the past few years, an unbridled exploitation of resources in Tibet by China, and the resultant devastation of the environment, has resulted in its precious water resource being adversely impacted.

During the severe draught that recently hit southwest China, the exit flow volume of Lancang River (the upper stream of Mekong River) was only 60 percent of the previously recorded lowest in history. This caused strong dissatisfaction in nations downstream, such as Thailand, who demanded the Chinese regime release water resource information.

De-Tibetizing the Plateau

Greed for quick economic growth has led to severe damage of the ecosystem in the Tibetan plateau. This damage continues to be inflicted on the plateau and its water bodies under the banner of “economic development.”

Those in power in Tibet are usually Han communist cadres from the inland, assigned to Tibet. Usually, their term of office is two to three years, after which they are transferred back inland and promoted according to their achievements.

These cadres, eager to achieve economic development, often immediately set about mining local resources such as gold and jade, harvesting Chinese medicine and native flora, and building hydraulic power stations.

The preamble to these development projects is forcing the local Tibetan herdsmen to settle their herds in one place—into a way of life alien to them and their land. A land lease system, designed for Han people living in inland China, is imposed on them.

Traditionally, when the herds had grazed on the grass sprouts, the herdsmen would move to fresh pastures; returning when a pasture is verdant again. Settling in one place forces the animals to feed on the roots as well, rendering the lands barren.

Like the land lease system imposed on the herdsmen, the Chinese regime’s policies for Tibet target immediate economic growth, while ignoring the local ecology, environment, and traditions. The consequence has been grassland degradation, disappearance of swamps and wetlands, glaciers retracting and the snowline drawing away.

Two years ago, reports said that where the Yangtze springs, the glaciers had retracted 300 meters, and reports this year say the glaciers have drawn back another 1,000 metres.

Early this year, a friend working in the Thai consulate, Germany, told me that the water levels in the Mekong River had decreased dramatically, ships were stranded, and sailing on the Mekong River was suspended. People living along the river, the Thailand media as well as Thailand NGOs, all believe this is related to the dams built on Lancang River in China. At the time, there had not been any report about a draught in southwest China.

The Thailand government, however, being economically dependent on China, did not dare offend the regime, particularly during the economic recession. Besides, the Thailand government was in a vulnerable situation because of Thailand’s unstable domestic politics.

According to mainland Chinese media Spring City Evening News (Chuncheng Wanbao), in February the exit flow rate of Lancang River dropped to 240 cubic meters per second. Data collected at the Yunjin hydrological station, the last check point on Lancang River inside China, say the average exit flow rate is 2,180 cubic metres per second, the maximum recorded being 12,800 cubic metres per second, and the previous lowest being 395 cubic metres per second.

Dams and Destruction

Between April 2 and 5, the first Mekong River Commission Summit was held in Thailand. Besides representatives from the member countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam, China and Burma sent their representatives as dialogue partner countries. The focus of the meeting was the impact of Chinese dams on the water level of Mekong River.

A day before the summit, Chinese ambassador in Thailand, Mr. Guan Mu, met with Thailand’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Mr. Suwit Khunkitti. Guan stressed that the hydraulic power station built on Lancang River in China does not impact the flow as it does not have the ability to regulate the pondage (level of water held in a reservoir), that the volume of water entering and exiting the reservoir are the same, and that the loss from evaporation is negligible as the opening area of the reservoir is small.

Later, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Mr Song Tao repeated similar arguments at the summit.

Official statements aside, the situation could well be arising from China’s cascade of hydraulic power station projects underway on the Lancang River. Eight dams have been planned, with, to date, four completed: the Man Wan, the Dachaoshan, the Jinhong and the Xiaowan. The Xiaowan, in particular, is a massive project second only to the Three Gorges Dam.

A hydraulic power station, by itself, consumes no water, but its presence mean that the flow will no longer be regulated by natural factors or downstream water requirements. When water is not needed downstream, as during a flood season, the dam needs to discharge to ensure its safety; when the downstream regions need water, as during a draught, the dam needs to save water to maintain the water level needed to keep the power station operating.

Beside the dams on Lancang River proper, an additional 35 dams are planned for its branches.

The official claim that the evaporation of water in the reservoir is “negligible” cannot hold for a large reservoir, and even less so for a river that has a cascade of large dams.

In the Aswan reservoir in Egypt, for instance, the official stance has been that only 12 percent water loss occurs through evaporation. Mr. Fred Pearce, a journalist and writer who specializes in global environmental issues, unveils in his book “When the Rivers Run Dry,” that the actual evaporation loss accounts a quarter of the entry volume of the reservoir, and the figure could touch 40 percent in a dry year—an amount which equals water from the running taps of England, for a whole year.

In China, after the communist regime took control, they immediately built the Guanting reservoir on Yongding River to provide water supply to Beijing. Then the annual flow volume of Yongding River was 1.9 billion cubic meters. Now the river is almost dry, with a yearly flow of about 300 million cubic meters.

With 528 dams on the Yongding River, the river runs dry as each reservoir evaporates a little.

Now the massive South-North Water Transfer Project plans to divert water from the upper, middle, and lower reaches of the Yangtze River to meet the development requirements of northwest and northern China. Upon finishing, it will provide Beijing about 1 billion cubic meters of water every year. If the 1.6 billion cubic meters of flow, lost to short-sighted engineering, could be brought back to the Yongding River, there would be no need for the south-to-north water diversion project.

The regime’s former Minister of Water Resource Qing Zhengyin admits that it was “over – development” that lead to this year’s severe draught in southwest China. The regime, however, sticks to its official stance that the problem was but “caused by nature.”

There are four reservoirs on Lancang River already, and a dozen on its tributaries. No doubt, the accumulated evaporation from these reservoirs has a large negative impact on the exit volume of Lancang River.

China’s multiple reservoirs on the Lancang mean that the low exit volume of the water can no longer be attributed to natural factors but are largely the outcome of dam cascades, and the decisions of the managers of the dams. The decrease of the flow is a direct consequence of human factors.

The argument about the water resource on the Mekong River could be a precursor to grave unrest in Asia, over water that once flowed abundantly from the high Tibetan plateaus.
Dr. Wang Weiluo is a Chinese engineer who participated in the Three Gorges project feasibility study in the 1980s. He holds a PhD in land use planning and currently works for an engineering firm in Germany.

Wang Weiluo, The Epoch Times, September 23, 2010

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