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China Planning Nuclear Blasts to Build Giant Hydro Project

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/10/23; October 23, 2000.]

By Damien Mcelroy in Beijing

BEIJING, October 22, 2000 (The Telegraph) -- CHINESE leaders are drawing up plans to use nuclear explosions, in breach of the international test-ban treaty, to blast a tunnel through the Himalayas for the world's biggest hydroelectric plant.

The proposed power station is forecast to produce more than twice as much electricity as the controversial Three Gorges Dam being built on the Yangtze river. The project, which also involves diverting Tibetan water to arid regions, is due to begin as soon as construction of the Three Gorges Dam is completed in 2009.

China will have to overcome fierce opposition from neighbouring countries who fear that the scheme could endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of their people. Critics say that those living downstream would be at the mercy of Chinese dam officials who would be able to flood them or withhold their water supply.

International opposition may bar Beijing from World Bank loans for the project and prevent it from listing bonds and shares on world markets to fund the scheme. If, as its experts believe, China has to use nuclear materials in order to blast the proposed 10-mile tunnel, the country will attract international opprobrium for breaching the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Nuclear devices have been used in the past by Russia for engineering schemes, but the United States has rejected their use for civil projects on safety grounds. Last week, China's state-run media reported that the project would form part of a national strategy to divert water from rivers in the south and west to drought-stricken northern areas. The reports said that a 38 million kilowatt power station at Muotuo on the Yarlung Zangbo river in Tibet would harness the force of a 9,840ft drop in terrain over only a few miles.

The capacity of the station would make it the world's largest power generation facility, much bigger than the 18 million kilowatt plant at the Three Gorges. The cost of drilling the tunnel through Mount Namcha Barwa has not yet been announced, but appears likely to surpass 10 billion.

At the bottom of the tunnel, the water will flow into a new reservoir and then be diverted along more than 500 miles of the Tibetan plateau to the vast, arid areas of Xinjiang region and Gansu province. Beijing wants to use large quantities of the plentiful waters of the south-west to top up the Yellow River basin and assuage mounting discontent over water shortages in 600 cities in northern China.

The government said last week that it would fund three huge water-diversion schemes in the west, centre and east of the country to quench the north's thirst. The proposal to dam and divert the Yarlung Zangbo as part of the western leg of this policy has drawn fire from several Chinese scientists.

Yang Yong, a geologist who has explored the river, said the dam could become an embarrassing white elephant amid growing signs that the volume of water flowing in the Yarlung Zangpo could shrink. He said: "Environmental conditions in the upper reaches of the river continue to deteriorate, with glaciers receding and tributaries and lakes going dry."

Tibetan activists have warned that the plans are likely to devastate the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo, which flows south where it becomes the Brahmaputra. This river irrigates the northern plains of Assam state in India before flowing through Bangladesh and emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

Lorne Stockman, of the International Tibet Support Group Network, said: "The countries downstream are at the mercy of China in regard to the water flows from the Yarlung Zangbo. During the dry season, the water will be held back to keep the water reservoir full for power generation, and during the monsoon season, the Chinese will be compelled to release the water in bursts."

The Soviet-trained engineers who dominate China's Communist hierarchy have been tagged "dam fetishists" by opponents of their gargantuan hydropower programme. The country has built more dams than the rest of the world combined in the past 30 years and is responsible for the most controversial of them all: the 6 billion Three Gorges project, which is displacing more than 1.2 million people as it submerges towns and scenic and historical sites.

Senior government figures have announced that the dam-building programme will be expanded in the next decade. Thirty-one large dams are currently on the drawing board. Wen Jiabao, a Chinese vice-premier who is tipped to be the next prime minister, said: "In the 21st century, the construction of large dams will play a key role in exploiting China's water resources, controlling floods and droughts, and pushing the national economy and the country's modernisation forward."

The new focus on the south and west as a source of energy has infuriated China's neighbours. Dam projects under way or proposed have prompted protests from countries as far apart as Kazakhstan and Vietnam. In addition to the Brahmaputra river, development plans on the Tibetan plateau are set to affect the flow of water out of China into the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Ganges and Indus rivers. Earlier this month, Vietnam issued an unusual public statement criticising the construction of a series of 14 dams on Chinese stretches of the Mekong.

Phan Thuy Thanh, a foreign ministry official, said: "We think that the use of the Mekong should not cause any impact on the quality and quantity of water in the river. It should ensure the sustainability of the ecological environment of the entire river as well as legitimate and equal interest of all the countries located in the basin."

Vietnam is worried that sudden releases from Chinese reservoirs during the rainy season could swell the annual death toll along the Mekong. More than 600 people have been killed by floods this month - a figure that officials fear could one day be dwarfed by any great rush of water from overburdened Chinese dams.

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