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Reports

Divided waters in China



Zhou Wei
September 27, 2011

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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"Even shouting can cause an avalanche in these steep snowy valleys, said Xu, let alone the blasting, artificial landslides, dyke-building and river-blocking required by the Shuotian scheme."

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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