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Resources Corridor Identified in North Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/03/23; March 23, 2001.]

China has given high priority to the Qinghai-Tibet railway and a controversial gas pipeline between Xinjiang and Shanghai in its Tenth Five Year Plan. The railway and pipeline are listed in the central budget for 2001, confirming previous reports that they are to receive direct state funding rather than relying on local or private investment. The Chinese oil company PetroChina, of which the UK company British Petroleum is the largest minority shareholder, is responsible for construction of the planned natural gas pipeline between Xinjiang's Tarim Basin and Shanghai. Other major schemes for the Plan period (2001-2005) include the transmission of electricity from west to east China and the diversion of water from the Yangtse river into the Yellow river, the sources of which are both located on the Tibetan plateau. According to the People's Daily, these large-scale infrastructure projects "demonstrate the heroic spirit of the industrious and valiant Chinese people" and will bring an "unprecedented mammoth transfer of resources". (People's Daily, 14 March)

The railway to Lhasa is expected to bring a large increase in the number of Chinese labourers and entrepreneurs moving to Tibetan areas. Publicity for the project has already attracted significant numbers of migrant workers. According to the People's Daily on 16 February, rural labourers, with hopes of finding jobs, "queued up" at Chengdu's long-distance bus station to buy tickets to Tibet when they heard about the construction of the railway. Field survey work on the railway began on 1 March and is scheduled to be completed in October, according to Xinhua. "During the peak period" more than 1,600 surveyors will be employed along the route. (Xinhua, 1 March)

An article in the People's Daily yesterday (22 March) outlined the unique geological challenges presented by the construction of the railway - the first being the permanently frozen earth of much of the territory to be crossed. According to Wu Ziwang, described by the People's Daily as "a noted expert on frozen earth projects", the Ministry of Railways has found a way to build railways on such frozen ground, with measures including "heat-insulated layers, and more elevated sections". A further difficulty is presented by the altitude - according to the People's Daily, over four-fifths of the railway section will be built at an altitude of more than 4,000 metres, and ordinary locomotives can only exert 60% of their full power at such a height. The People's Daily does not explain fully how this difficulty will be overcome, although locomotive expert Wu Xinmin does disclose that experts will consider electrification of the railway in future, "as well as taking advantage of local rich sunlight and wind energy as a supplement". Mike Knutton of the International Railway Journal told TIN that in his opinion overcoming the technical difficulties of building the railway would be "challenging but possible".

Solutions to resolving the problems of oxygen shortage and low air pressure in the high altitude environment are also outlined in the article; one of the Chinese locomotive experts said that they are now thinking of using airtight cars similar to airliners, while other experts have predicted that "the world's first train with equipment to provide oxygen and plateau-illness doctors will appear on the Qinghai-Tibet railway".

There has been some criticism within China of the economic and environmental costs of the railway project. CNN Senior China correspondent Willy Wo Lap-Lam quotes the Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekend as saying: "The short-term economic benefits [of the link] are not commensurate with the tens of billions yuan of investment." The newspaper also reportedly said that damage to vegetation due to the engineering works "will be very difficult to recover". (CCN.com, 14 March).

Willy Wo Lap-Lam adds that few Chinese academics or government members are known to have expressed concerns about the railway due to the personal interest that Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji have reportedly expressed in its success.

Tibet Rail Link Will "Pose No Threat to Religious Beliefs"

China is already engaging in a process of damage-limitation and information-management in order to counter criticism of the planned rail link. Lobsang Gyaltsen, the mayor of Lhasa, was quoted by China Daily as saying: "The railway will bring modern concepts and living styles into Tibet, but this should pose no threat to people's religious beliefs. In Western countries with developed science, technology and transport systems, don't religions still flourish?" (China Daily, 9 March). However, the attitude often expressed by the Chinese authorities is that Tibetan religious beliefs are an impediments to development - Buddhist religious practices are frequently portrayed in the official media as "backward" and "superstitious". The culture and religion of minority nationalities are viewed by the Chinese state as "problems" to be dealt with and the Beijing hierarchy has long believed that "ethnic distinctiveness" can be eroded through development of the economy.

Most official statements deal with the potential environmental impacts of the railway. China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) says that Chinese experts have passed a report on the environmental impact of the first phase of the project and that every effort will be made to minimise any damage to the local environment (Xinhua 22 March). On the same day a People's Daily report stated that "any human activities, including railway building, will have a drastic influence on the earth" due to the sensitivity of the frozen earth to air temperature changes resulting from strong sunshine and frequent earth crust movements on the plateau. SEPA official Mou Guangfeng has said that the railway will "keep away from" wild animal migration routes in nature reserves along the route, although he does not specify which animals this will include. The People's Daily has said that "more bridges and passages for animals will be built" along the sections of the railway that fall inside nature reserves and that top soil that is removed for construction will be "mostly restored". (People's Daily, 22 March). Mou Guangfeng also said that they will "strictly limit" the construction site to protect the "rare frigid-zone plants". China is known to have employed similar restrictions in the past to keep construction sites within a limited corridor. No mention is made of the potential environmental impacts of the increased migration and resource exploitation that the railway is likely to bring.

A Western environmentalist who has travelled extensively in Amdo (the traditional Tibetan area now incorporated into Qinghai and Gansu provinces) said that the environmental impact of the railway line itself will depend on what development there is along the route and the extent to which settlements and towns will be established and expand. "If it's a straight line though with the bare minimum of service facilities the environmental impacts will be limited. But every single building that goes up along the line is a potential threat to the environment of the Jangtang [northern plateau; Changtang in Chinese]." The environmentalist also said that the biggest threat to the environment posed by the railway is resource extraction.

"The railway alters the economics of ore extraction. At the moment extraction is limited due to factors like fractured deposits, permafrost, the difficult environment and the distance from markets. They can't set up processing plants near the mineral deposits because of the constraints of water and temperature, they need the plants near urban centres. With the railway, ore can be more easily and cheaply transported - that is going to happen".

Yesterday (22 March), SEPA official Mou Guangfeng, said that "the first phase of the railway to Tibet will stretch 138.9 kilometres from Golmud to Wangkun" and that a construction plan for this phase will be drafted by June this year. (Xinhua, 22 March). Official sources indicate that the railway will be completed in the next five or six years and will receive 20 billion yuan in funding from the central government during the Tenth Five Year Plan period (2001-2005). Sun Yongfu has said that once construction is completed the railway will be extended to Shigatse (Rigaze in Chinese) and Nyingtri (Linzhi in Chinese) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and then on to Yunnan province (Xinhua, 7 March 2001). This would open further possibilities for population migration and resource exploitation. A line from Lhasa to Yunnan was one of the four original routes proposed for a railway link to the TAR, but is much more expensive than the Qinghai route. It would require total investment of over 63 billion yuan according to 1997 figures and would take about ten years to build according to Tibet Daily on 12 December 2000.

Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-2005) - Four "Major" Projects

The Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-2005), was outlined at the Fourth Session of the Ninth Chinese National People's Congress in Beijing, which has just finished. Stating that development is to be the "main theme" over the next five years, the Plan focuses on the restructuring of the economy and the "driving forces" of reform, opening up and scientific and technological advancement. Key aims over the next five years are to intensify exploitation of natural resources to meet domestic demand, to deal with environmental issues and to "forge ahead aggressively" with the development of the western regions of China, concentrating on "priority projects". Other planned reforms will allow for increased population migration between regions of China, to "ensure an orderly flow of labour forces in urban and rural areas as well as between regions".

According to the budget report for 2001, funding for the railway, the west to east gas pipeline, transmission of electricity from west to east and the north to south water diversion scheme - billed as the "major" projects of the Plan - are all listed in the central budget. This year, the government is to issue 50 billion yuan in bonds to finance infrastructure and resource projects in western China. These projects are similar in concept and design to past state "prestige" projects in China, including the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtse River.

The Qinghai-Tibet railway will extend the current Xining-Golmud line in Qinghai province to Lhasa, linking the Tibet Autonomous Region's capital to the Chinese rail network. Completion of the railway to Lhasa will facilitate the supply of goods to and from the Tibet Autonomous Region, exploitation of natural resources and development of the tourist industry. However, it is unlikely to be able to fund itself and it will probably require continued subsidy from the central government. Although the project is very unlikely to be viable on purely economic grounds, it is seen as essential to achieving a "stable" domestic environment and to national defence. According to Lhasa mayor Lobsang Gyaltsen the Qinghai-Tibet railway "is expected to play an important role in enhancing exchanges between ethnic groups, bolstering the exploitation of resources, reinforcing economic development in western China and consolidating national security." (China Daily, 9 March 2001). According to the People's Daily, the lack of a transport infrastructure in Tibet and "especially laggard ideas" due to "an isolated life" have "partly led to Tibet's backward economy". (13 March 2001)

Another of the major projects of the Plan is construction of a pipeline to transport natural gas from the Tarim Basin in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to Shanghai municipality on China's east coast. This has been presented as one of the key components of China's plans to develop a "pipeline transport network". A second pipeline project to transport natural gas from Sebei in Qinghai province to Lanzhou in Gansu province may be linked into this network, although at present the aim is understood to be the supply of gas for Xining and Lanzhou cities. Both of these gas pipelines are being built by PetroChina, a subsidiary of the state-run China National Petroleum Corporation. British company BP has a US$580 million investment in PetroChina and has come under pressure from human rights groups and environmental groups including the Free Tibet Campaign in the UK to divest from PetroChina, citing the issue of Tibetan resources being exploited by the Chinese state without the consultation of local people or conduct of impact assessments.

The Xinjiang-Shanghai gas pipeline and another project to transmit electricity from west to east China, also listed in the Plan, are designed to meet the energy demands of the relatively wealthy and developed eastern regions of China. They appear to offer little benefit to locals in the western regions, such as Tibet, where the resources are found. According to People's Daily, completion of the projects to pipe gas from west to east and to transfer electricity from west to east, will turn the western regions into "a powerful energy base", while the east will be the "production base". (14 March 2001)

The fourth major project involves the diversion of water from the Yangtse River into the Yellow river. There are three possible routes planned within this project, at the lower, middle and upper reaches of the rivers. The upstream project involves the diversion of water near the sources of the two rivers on the Tibetan plateau. It has not yet been confirmed if this will go ahead. The upstream route would be the most problematic of the three routes to implement, but if it does go ahead, it is likely to pose serious risks to the ecology of the Tibetan plateau.

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