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China-Tibet: Is Beijing's Dam Plan Developmental Or Destructive?

Summary: The reflection of the powder blue sky shimmers in the clear water of the vast, pristine Yamdrok Lake, a holy site to Tibetan Buddhists. Source: Inter Press Service; Date: 18-Oct-1996 08:29 PM


YAMDROK LAKE, Tibet, (Nov. 18) IPS - The reflection of the powder blue sky shimmers in the clear water of the vast, pristine Yamdrok Lake, a holy site to Tibetan Buddhists. Pilgrims make the trek here, 15,000 feet in the Himalayas, to erect intricate monuments of small, carved rocks. Prayer flags flutter constantly in the wind.

The lake is also at the centre of a dispute between the Chinese authorities, Tibetans and environmental campaigners over Beijing's construction of a hydroelectric plant at the site, some 75 miles south-west of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Critics charge that the Yamdrok Tso hydroelectric station will pollute the lake and lower its water level. Chinese officials say they are using the latest Western technology to guarantee the lake's ecology.

Yamdrok Tso symbolizes a much wider debate on the economic future of Tibet. Government authorities say they want to modernize a largely backward, agricultural society. Exiles demanding independence for Tibet say they want to protect the area's traditional culture, religion and environment.

For centuries Tibetans survived as subsistence farmers and nomadic herders. Tibetan Buddhists believe that lakes and mountains are holy, so many will not engage in mining or other occupations that despoil the earth. Some believe that any construction at Yamdrok Tso would be tantamount to a desecration.

The Beijing government, on the other hand, says Yamdrok will bring 112,500 kilowatts of power to the Lhasa areas, to alleviate the nightly black-outs in some parts of that city.

Critics of the project however say it threatens fragile wildlife and ecosystems, the already scarce wetland resources on the Tibetan plateau, as well as the lake itself. Of specific concern is the project's impact on the black-necked crane, listed in the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) 1996 Red List of Threatened Animals.

The hydroelectric station will "definitely pollute the lake", says Rinchen Dharlo, a U.S. representative of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious and political leader who heads a government-in-exile in India. "It is one of our most beautiful lakes." On the contrary, says Ling Zheng He, in charge of the construction project. He argues the plant's advanced technology will protect the environment.

Yamdrok Tso is a pump storage facility, where water will drain from the lake, pass down a pipeline, drive the turbines and then pass into a river. Three times a day, water will be pumped back up the pipeline into the lake, thus insuring its water level will remain steady, according to Ling.


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