Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tibet's Rivers and China: Dammed If They Do, Damned If They Don't

There's power in these waters

        Within China, it is second only to the Yellow River in hydropower-generating potential. But, in an already-polluted country where 900MW of coal-fired power generating capacity comes online weekly, the Yarlung Zangbo has remained unexploited, until recently.[1] The moment when construction began on the first dam across the river – at Zangmu in Tibet's Gyaca County – is uncertain. What is clear is that Chinese diplomats frequently denied the country’s plans for the Yarlung Zangbo before April 2010, when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi confided in his Indian counterpart that construction of hydropower infrastructure on the river was indeed underway. Yang tried to mollify the Indian foreign minister by explaining that China’s plans were limited in nature and would have little impact on the flow of the river. Nevertheless, in the following months, revelations of grand dam-building aspirations, including the proposed construction of a 38GW dam on the Great Bend near Motuo, would come to light. These unconfirmed revelations were followed by a November 2010 article in the People's Daily that proudly proclaimed the completion of the first stage of damming for the 510MW Zangmu plant.
China’s halting official revelations, along with the leakage of additional details through lower-key sources, demonstrate the sensitivity of the issue of hydropower development on the Yarlung Zangbo and other Tibetan rivers. India and Bangladesh both have plans to develop the waters of the Yarlung Zangbo, which becomes the Brahmaputra after it turns the Great Bend en route for the Indian Ocean. Both states worry that Chinese dam construction would affect the river’s flow. Meanwhile, activists ranging from Tibetans, who have long considered the Yarlung Zangbo to be a sacred waterway and are hesitant to send its electric power to the Han-dominated central government, to environmentalists, who worry about a loss of biodiversity in Tibet, have raised calls of alarm. All detractors are destined to be disappointed by China's hydropower push. For, whether one gazes at Tibet through the eyes of the central government or through those of the Chinese power industry, the incentives for Himalayan dam construction, whether on the Yarlung Zangbo or any other Tibetan river, actually do seem to outweigh the sky-high costs. 
A few quick facts serve to underline the government’s interest in developing Tibetan hydropower resources. The most important of these facts is China’s persistent electricity shortage. According to the China Electricity Council, the country’s power plants supplied 4.03 trillion kWh of electricity in 2010, falling just short of national consumption of 4.2 trillion kWh. Maintaining this slightly uneven balance has been difficult in an economy growing at 10 percent per year. In 2010 alone, China added 91.24GW of generating capacity. Coal-fired thermal plants make up most of that new capacity, contributing to an output of 7,706.83 million metric tons of CO2 in 2009, up 13 percent from 2008. Meanwhile, operators of Chinese coal-fired plants, protesting a government-imposed electricity price ceiling that cost them 18.1 billion yuan in the first seven months of 2011 due to rising world coal prices, are restricting output against the backdrop of the worst drought to hit the country in half a century. The water shortage has reduced existing hydroelectric generation. The example of the Three Gorges Dam is instructive. As of May 2011, the water level in the reservoir was 10 feet below the optimal power generating level due to the release of water to support the ailing crops of farmers downstream. As a result, state media reported that mandatory power cuts would be effectuated at 24,000 industrial firms in Shanghai.
China’s top leaders have made no secret that they see economic growth as the key to ensuring domestic stability – and the longevity of the Communist Party’s rule. For the Party, electricity shortages are not merely an inconvenience. They are an existential crisis, the resolution of which seems ever more inextricably tied to highly polluting and increasingly pricey coal. Meanwhile, a mere 0.6 percent of Tibet’s hydropower resources have been developed – by far the lowest percentage for any Chinese-administered region. Therefore, it is not surprising that the development of hydroelectric power, especially that in West China, is a priority of the 12th Five-Year Plan. If the plan’s recommendations are fully implemented, by 2015, China will have developed 71 percent of its available hydropower resources – 100 percent in the East and Center, and 54 percent in the West. Specifically, Chinese experts are anticipating that Qinghai and Tibet will be major sites for future construction.
Even without this high-level encouragement, plenty of motivation would exist for developing Tibet’s hydropower resources due to recent Chinese power industry reforms. According to China geography, energy and water specialist Darrin Magee, China’s State Council began reforming the country’s power industry in the mid-1990s in order to separate generation from distribution and to realign priorities in terms of profit and the market. This “corporatization” of the power industry occurred in several steps. First, the Ministry of Electric Power was reorganized into the State Power Corporation of China. The SPCC was later broken into six power-generation stock companies with the government owning a controlling share in each. Each company was responsible for generation in a different region, except for the sixth, which would focus on the Three Gorges Dam. These holding companies proceeded to create many subsidiaries with the responsibility of project development. Today, these subsidiaries, many of which raise capital through public listings, compete against each other to exploit power resources, often as components of public-private conglomerates. This atmosphere of competition, combined with indirect state support, has an accelerating effect on power resource development.[2]
If Tibet has been spared extensive dam construction until recently, it is because these enterprises have been prevented from proceeding. According to Zhang Boting, Deputy Secretary-General of the Chinese Society for Hydroelectric Engineering, dam builders had previously invested in projects under the 11th Five-Year Plan, but, from 2007 onward, were refused project approval by State Council departments responsible for investment due to complaints by environmentalists and concerns over population displacement. Therefore, many of the hydroelectric projects that are slated for development under the 12th Five-Year Plan will simply be implementations of original plans.[3] Nevertheless, it is clear that, under the latest Five-Year Plan, the incentives of the central government and of the Chinese power industry overlap, resulting in a strong impetus for development of unexploited hydropower resources. The construction of additional dams in Tibet seems inevitable.
Of course, in the interest of reducing criticism, the government has been careful to adopt a narrative that presents Tibetan hydropower exploitation as a local development solution. The People’s Daily article that confirmed the damming of the Yarlung Zangbo at Zangmu stated that the 510 MW project would greatly alleviate power shortages in central Tibet with an annual electricity output of 2.5 billion kWh. Tibet, which is not yet connected to the national power grid, currently generates its own power. Locally, 2 billion kWh were consumed in 2010. Therefore, when it reaches full capacity in 2014, the Zangmu Dam alone will double Tibet’s potential electricity supply and, despite the current existence of power shortages in winter months, will probably satisfy demand with room to spare. Yet this narrative of providing power for Tibetan development is currently shared by another major power project. Construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Power Grid Interconnection Project began in July 2010 and, by May 2011, it was 60 percent complete. The project is designed to connect the Tibetan power grid with the national power grid via a high-altitude DC transmission line from Golmud to Lhasa. Incidentally, the project is expected to transmit 4 billion kWh of electricity to Tibet between 2013 and 2015. Since both projects are sufficient to entirely cover Tibet’s current annual consumption on top of the region’s existing generating capacity, it is clear that regional development is not the only goal of dam construction.
The Three Gorges Dam: China's Problem Child?
Activists’ fears that Tibet would be turned into ground-zero for hydropower extraction were heightened by a May 2010 article by journalist Jonathan Watts (previously linked) in The Guardian. Watts refers to comments by Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan scholar of environmental policy at the University of British Columbia, who claims that over 28 dams on the Yarlung Zangbo are planned, completed or under discussion. The most notable of these projects would be a dam on the Great Bend at Motuo with a total generating capacity of 38GW – twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. Notably, the article contains a link to a map of these projects published by Hydro China, a government enterprise that undertakes dam construction. Due to the State Council’s recent acknowledgement of technical, environmental and other problems at the Three Gorges Dam, activists have good reasons to be concerned about the impact of such an ambitious dam-building regime on the local culture and ecosystem. Likewise, the Indian media can be forgiven for questioning the assertions of Chinese diplomats that Chinese dams will not affect the flow of the river, especially when reports of the Zangmu Dam’s construction specifications reveal a larger potential impact on the watercourse than the Chinese government is admitting. Unless China provides more concrete reassurances to downstream states, this issue could still lead to significant regional friction.
This does not mean that China is unwilling or unable to settle on a Tibetan dam-building strategy that minimizes the impact on the local culture and environment while ensuring the provision of sufficient water resources to allow for further exploitation by India and Bangladesh. As yet, it is unclear whether Hydro China’s plan is really government policy or a pipe dream.
Certainly, China could easily find guidance on choosing appropriate dam sites and technologies. Notably, a 2003 report by the World Bank, entitled Good and Bad Dams, provides a simple methodology for choosing dam sites. The report includes recommendations based on reservoir surface area, water retention time, biomass flooded, length of the river impounded upstream or left dry downstream, the number of downriver tributaries, the likelihood of reservoir stratification, useful reservoir life, persons needing resettlement, critical habitats affected, impact on fish species and cultural property affected. Moreover, the World Bank’s assertion in a report on “India’s Water Economy” that the Himalayas contain some of the world’s “most environmentally and socially benign sites for hydropower” based on the area submerged per megawatt and the number of persons resettled per megawatt indicates that the organization does recognize avenues for sustainable Himalayan dam development.
Nevertheless, the potential for dam construction to be mismanaged by Chinese developers is huge. At the least, preliminary reports of the effects (previously linked) of the Zangmu Dam on the local area are troubling. One businessman, predicting an economic boom for the 17,000-resident Gyaca County, has already invested in a three-star hotel there. Additionally, construction of a highway to the prefectural center is slated to begin this year. A Chinese geologist claims that mining operations, themselves spurring road and rail development, will not be far behind. If all of these projections come to fruition, the impact on the local culture could be enormous. The impact on the environment could be just as large. According to Conservation International, the Himalayas contain over 10,000 plant species, 3,160 of which are endemic to the region. A further 1,827 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fishes live in the area, 150 of which can be found nowhere else.
Sichuan shares Tibet's shaky quaky plateau 
Dams on rivers such as the Yarlung Zangbo may encounter technical problems as well. Himalayan rivers are known for their very high rates of sedimentation, a factor which may help Bangladesh stay above the waves as global temperatures rise. Unfortunately, as Good and Bad Dams specifies, dams built on rivers with greater sedimentary runoff tend to have shorter reservoir lives and are, therefore, less economically viable over the dam lifetime. Finally, Chinese hydroelectric engineers will have to overcome the challenges of building dams in one of the world’s most seismically active regions. Unless future dams are properly designed, the relative frequency of magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes in the Himalayas will greatly raise the threat of catastrophic dam failure.
        Based on the projections of the 12th Five-Year Plan, these are risks that China’s leaders are apparently willing to take. After all, as Sinologist David Shambaugh explains in China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, Chinese leaders have learned through the experience of the collapse of other authoritarian systems that one-party rule is not necessarily indefinite. One-party governments can fall when they fail to live up to the expectations of the people they govern.[4] In a China, where economic growth serves as the foundation for legitimacy, the question of whether or not to build dams in Tibet becomes a matter of balancing the priorities of 2 million Tibetans and the interests of the Indian Subcontinent against the survival of the CCP. The costs of dam construction may indeed be sky high. On the other hand, for China’s leaders, the longevity of the Party is priceless. 


[1] Yarlung Zangbo has 54,960MW of potential installed capacity compared to 210,810 for the Jinsha/Yangtse. See: Chiang Mai University Unit for Social and Environmental Research and Green Watershed. Yunnan Hydropower Expansion: Update on China's Energy Industry Reforms and the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha Hydropower Dams. Kunming, 2004. "
For statistics on China’s new coal-fired generation, see: International Energy Outlook 2011." U.S. Energy Information Administration. EIA, 19 Sept 2011. Web. 16 Oct 2011. <http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/electricity.cfm>.
[2] Magee, Darrin. "Powershed Politics: Yunnan Hydropower under Great Western Development." China Quarterly. 185 (2006): 23-41.
[3] Xie, Liangbing, and Yong Chen. "Making Up for Lost Time: China's Hydropower Push."
[4] Shambaugh, David. China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008. 5.

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