Monday, 21 October 2013

Damming Tibetan and Himalayan Rivers

‘More than 60% of the world’s 227 largest rivers have been fragmented by infrastructures such as dams and diversions. Rivers are turned on and off instead of flowing by natural rhythms. Many rivers are thus but shadows of their former selves and the blue lines on the map are often tokens of faded glories’- UNESCO-IHP 

Rivers originating from the Himalayan ranges and other regions in Tibet drain approximately 6 million sq. km or more. These snow peaks and glaciers enable these regions to be the source of major rivers that flow into Asia, approximately sustaining 1.3 billion people. 

One could easily observe the Chinese dam building frenzy from their past records, as per the World Commission on Dams, China had only 22 large dams in 1949 and today there are more than 87,000 dams in China.  It even plans to dam the rivers that still remain free flowing, such as the Arun (Arun flows from Tibet as Bhumchu to Nepal and India) and the Subansiri (Subansiri River is a tributary of the Brahmaputra River flowing from Tibet to the Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) before flowing into India. 

According to South China Morning Post , on the 23 of January 2013, the state council has released an energy-sector blue print for 2011-2015 in which they have decided to construct at least 54 hydro power stations with total capacity of 120 GW on the upper reaches of Yangtse, Mekong and Salween. It clearly disregards the geological risks, global biodiversity, resettlement and impacts on downstream communities.   This plan also includes the reopening of previously shelved damming projects on Salween River due to environmental concerns. 

According to International Rivers, many of these damming projects have forced over 23 million people from their homes and land, many of whom are still suffering the impacts of displacement and dislocation. Yet despite serious impacts of dam construction in China, the Chinese government has ambitious plans to expand hydropower generation.  Not only are these rivers subjected to hydropower projects but also these free flowing rivers and its power attracts major extractive industries from distant mainland. Now, with a strong policy backings from Beijing towards the mining sector, designating them as one of Beijing’s “Four Pillar” industries in Central Tibet. These transboundary rivers will obviously face more toxic pollutions and barriers along its path. The western rivers such as Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and its major tributaries in Tibet (Kyichu, Nyangchu, Tongchu, Nyang Trib Chu, Drakchu, Wolga Chu, Chllong Chu, Yiwong Chu, Parlung Chu) are now being increasingly interrupted by medium sized dams (Fig. 3). Such activities paint a bleak picture as they would definitely impede the downstream flow of water and alluvial sediment to the floodplains of India and Bangladesh. The information has it that, two new additional dams (Bayu and Daigu) are being planned along the mainstream of Yarlung Tsangpo along with the full swing construction of 510 megawatt project at Rdzam/ Zangmu.

The official narration from China towards these damming is, as usual, same except a small change in the date. 'The Chinese side always takes a responsible attitude towards the exploitation of cross border rivers and every new project will be planned and reasoned in a scientific way - before being started' was the response by Hong Lei, the foreign ministry during a daily press briefing. 

China is (indeed) the central (poker) player in many of the controversies surrounding shared water resources in Asia with more damming plans for its upstream reserves that will have dramatic impacts on the lower riparian countries.  

On this side of the political border, the hydropower potential for the remaining Himalayan countries also remains very attractive for the power companies. K. Pomeranz, estimated that for Pakistan, India, Bhutan and Nepal, the hydropower potential could be jaw dropping 192,000 megawatts with almost half of it on the Indian side.  
Fig1. Distribution of dams under various planning stages on the rivers flowing from Tibet and on The Indian Himalayan regions; Adapted from Zoomer & Tashi (2013) and Pandit and Grumbine, 2012.

According to Pandit and Grumbine , the hydropower potentials within the Indian Himalayan Rivers (Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus) are enormous (50,000 MW) and the Government of India is keen to invest on these water resources. The authors also mentioned that this region could be the highest dam density in the world and would also cause huge loss and extinction of terrestrial species and change in land cover should all the 292 Dams (under construction and proposed - Fig. 1) are constructed as planned. A separate article published by Hindustan Times-Darjeeling discusses about the grand master plan as envisioned by the Central government of India in identifying the North-Eastern region as 'India’s future powerhouse' by building about 160 or more dams. It also quoted a statement from a former West Bengal State Planning Board member that the earthquake that struck Sikkim on September, 2011 could have been induced or accelerated by the multiple dams on Teesta River. 

A UNESCO-IHP report mentioned that both water and culture are strongly interrelated and their perfect blending is crucial for flourishing of human culture.  But, by looking at the current pace of damming activities and its various impacts, it appears that we have moved too far for a complete U-turn to a point close to ‘A’, but still, timely enough to admit our past errors in understanding the true value of these resources to sustain our ancestral culture and tradition.

The geological nature of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan belt indicates that the whole region in its entirety is still rising higher and often jolted with strong and weak earthquakes. The dams constructed on the seismic prone zones and near active fault lines could be a perfect recipe for an unfolded future disaster. In most cases, the locals were poorly informed or not consulted during this maddening spree of damming and traversing the natural rhythm of rivers in the name of developments.

In China, dam safety has always been treated as a sensitive subject. Now, incidents at a number of dams and reservoirs have cast doubt on the quality of these projects, but they are rarely reported to the general public.  In 2012, a study conducted by ‘Probe International’ mentioned that more than 99.7 percent of large dams in western China (in Tibet) are located in zones of moderate to very high seismic hazard (as defined by UN Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program). 

Fig2. Seismic events (magnitude ≥ 5) that occurred between 1973-2013 and active structures within the Himalayan Regions. Source: EDD/ DIIR 2013.

Figure 2 explains the seismic prone areas within the Himalayan belt and warns us about the imminent threat posed by those 200 or more dams that are built or under construction throughout the Himalayan regions.


Water, Cultural Diversity, and Global Environmental Change, Emerging Trends and Sustainable Futures? (UNESCO-IHP, 2012);
China, International Rivers,
China Holds the Key to Asia’s ‘Blue Gold’ (December 15, 2011),
South China Morning Post, ‘Ban lifted on controversial Nu River dam projects’ January, 2013
International Rivers China Moves to Dam the Nu, Ignoring Seismic, Ecological, and Social Risks,
South China Morning Post, ‘Ban lifted on controversial Nu River dam projects’ January, 2013
China, Internaitonal Rivers,
Xinhua, China justifies Yarlung Zangbo River exploitation, Updated: 2013-01-30
Kenneth Pomeranz , ‘The Great Himalayan Watershed: Water Shortages, Mega-Projects and Environmental Politics in China, India, and Southeast Asia,
Maharaj K. Pandit  and R. Edward Grumbine, 'Potential Effects of Ongoing and Proposed Hydropower Development on Terrestrial Biological Diversity in the Indian Himalaya', Conservation Biology, Volume 26, No. 6, 1061–1071, 2012, Society for Conservation Biology, DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01918.x
'Sikkim quake may have been induced by dams across Teesta', Hindustan Times  Darjeeling, September 21, 2011
Water, Cultural Diversity, and Global Environmental Change, Emerging Trends and Sustainable Futures? (UNESCO-IHP, 2012);
Lu Zongshu and ShenNianzu, Dams gone wrong: Is danger lurking in China's dams?, August 24, 2011,     

John Jackson (2012), A Probe International Study, Earthquake Hazards and Large Dams in Western China.

Friday, 26 July 2013

IATS Conference in Mongolia Discussed Climate Change in Tibet

The 13th International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS) conference is being held at Ulaanbatar in Mongolia from 21-26 July, where for the first time, the issue of climate change on the Tibetan plateau was discussed.

Click here to read more

Friday, 3 May 2013

Water availability and management

Growing industrialization, population growth, and increasing levels of consumption are placing heavy demands on water resources, which provide vital support for the subsistence livelihoods of millions of people. Figure 1 explains in brief the baseline water stress regions in Asia. The tension on water availability is further raised by the rate at which Chinese are commissioning damming projects on those trans-boundary rivers. With no foreseeable increase in the water availability and no water sharing treaty in action, all the riparian states from Pakistan till Vietnam are at the mercy of these massive reservoirs within Tibet and China. As for India, its water demand will double by 2030 reaching 1.5 trillion cubic meters, principally driven by population growth and the domestic need for agriculture [1]. 

Figure1. Baseline Water Stress Regions in Asia Map © EDD/ DIIR 

According to recent report released on Himalayan Glaciers, the combined river basin of Indus, Ganga/ Brahmaputra benefits/ supports more than 744 million people living within the contiguous arc from Afghanistan to Bangladesh (Fig 2). The use of water in the agricultural sector has increased over the past few decades. It is estimated as per 2000 data that the irrigation area for Indus (15 MHA), Ganga/ Brahmaputra basin (29 MHA) - million hectares and will continue to increase further[2]. 

Fig 2. Fraction of the land equipped for irrigation in the HKH region. Irrigation is widespread in both the Indus and Ganges/Brahmaputra basins. A relatively large amount of irrigated water consumption in the Indus basin is for cotton production. In the Brahmaputra basin, by comparison, irrigation water use is dominated by rice production, while in the Ganges basin, irrigated water is used primarily for wheat production.
Source: National Academy of Science (2012)

Looking towards China, a survey data analyzed by the Joint Monitoring Program for Water and Sanitation of WHO and UNICEF mentioned that about 100 million Chinese still did not have access to an improved water source in 2008, and about 460 million did not have access to improved sanitation. Water scarcity threatens the ability of China's farmers to irrigate their crops, impacting food security as well as social stability, especially in northern China. A case in point is the impact in Yunnan province which is facing a severe drought and government is responding by proposing huge reservoirs and dams on the already stressed rivers flowing from the province[3].   Every year, water shortages cost the country an estimated 40-60 billion RMB  in lost economic output. Continued scarcity and uncertainty will affect the willingness of foreign and domestic companies to invest in China, further lowering the production of existing facilities, and ultimately affecting its job market[4]. 

For China, Tibet's rivers are proving as rich resources for hydro electric and geo-political power as its mineral wealth. Chinese 12th Five Year Plan (2011- 2015) has prioritized the development of Hydro power projects, it also plans to revive two third of those unfinished hydro power projects detailed in the 11th Five Year Plan. According to South China Morning Post, (on line edition -January 2013)[5], the Chinese state council has released an energy sector blueprint for 2011-2015 in which they have decided to construct at least 54 hydro power stations with a total capacity of 120 GW on the upper reaches of Drichu (Yangtse), Zachu (Mekong) and Salween. It clearly disregards the geological risks, global biodiversity, resettlement and impacts on downstream communities. This plan also includes the reopening of previously shelved dam projects on the Salween River due to environmental concerns. On a macro level, China is planning to install 1.2 TW (1200 GW) of water-reliant power capacity by 2030 and 277 GW of coal fired power plant by 2015. As for the latter case, the majority of the coal reserves in China are in water scarce regions of Shanxi and Inner Mongolia and it is a well known that coal mining requires heavy water use[6].

Managing and securing the water resource in Tibet could be the biggest and most important challenge for the new Chinese leaders. Downstream users of water originating in Tibet should establish a regional forum to create policies on trans boundary issues that effectively safeguard access and quality of water, at a time of accelerating glacier melt and damming activities.
[1] As quoted in (‘The McKinsey Report’)by IDSA, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 'Water Security For India: The External Dynamics,' IDSA Task Force Report, September, 2010, ISBN # 81-86019-83-9
[2] Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security Committee on Himalayan Glaciers, Hydrology, Climate Change, and Implications for Water Security; Board on Atmospheric Studies and Climate; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council
[4] Yusha Hu, Foreign Investment in China’s Water Infrastructure, A New Strategy for National Security.
[5] Ban lifted on controversial Nu River dam projects,
[6] HSBC Global research, ‘No water, no power, Is there enough water to fuel China’s power expansion?’ September, 2012.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Massive Exploitation of Mineral Resources Caused Mining Disaster in Tibet: CTA report

Last week, Environment and Development Desk (EDD) issued a press statement refuting Chinese government's claim that the landslide in Gyama mine was a "natural disaster".  EDD expressed its fear that this tragic incident could be a result of the aggressive expansion and large-scale exploitation of mineral in the Gyama Valley—a man-made phenomenon rather than just a ‘natural disaster’.

Today, Central Tibetan Administration issued the following press release about the "Assessment Report of the Recent Devastating Landslide in Gyama Valley" prepared by EDD. The report dwell in great detail about the possible man-made cause of the event that claimed at least 83 lives.

Press Release

April 10, 2013

Central Tibet Administration has enough evidence to prove that Gyama (Jiama) mining tragedy is man-made disaster

Monday, 1 April 2013

LANDSLIDE IN GYAMA MINE: Natural or Man-made?

The tragic incident of landslide could be a result of the aggressive expansion and large-scale exploitation of mineral in the Gyama Valley. The tragedy could have been averted.

On Friday, 30 March 2013, China’s official media reported that 83 miners including two Tibetans have been buried after a major landslide hit a part of the Gyama (Ch: Jiama) Copper Polymetallic Mine. So far, the rescue efforts have failed to find any survivors and the chances of survival for those buried are getting slim.  This is a sad and unfortunate incident that resulted in large number of casualties that could be higher than reported. Environment and Development Desk (EDD) fear that this tragic incident could be a result of the aggressive expansion and large-scale exploitation of mineral in the Gyama Valley—a man-made phenomenon rather than just a ‘natural disaster’.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Environment Talk Series in remote Tibetan Settlements

Environment and Development Desk (EDD) Staff Jigme Norbu and Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha traveled to the remote Tibetan Settlement of Odisha, Mainpat and Bhandara at the end of February 2013. The trip was a follow up to the on going environment awareness  program by EDD to educate general public about current environment situation on Tibetan Plateau. The two staff made it very clear and firm in their approach to make the presentations short, relevant and convenient to the general public.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Twin Earthquakes in Tibet: USGS vs CENC

Yesterday, Xinhua reported about twin earthquakes measuring 5.4M and 4.1M in the Gerze county of Ngari prefecture. ( Xinhua's report was based on the information from the China Earthquake Networks Center (CENC) (

Monday, 4 February 2013


ཛམ་ལྷ་བསྟན་པ་རྒྱལ་མཚན། ཕྱི་དྲིལ་ཁོར་ཡུག་ཚན་པ།
བསྐལ་བ་སྔ་མོའི་དུས་ཤིག་ལ་སའི་གོ་ལའི་སྒང་གི་གླིང་དང་གླིང་ཕྲན་ཡོངས་ས་ཕྱོགས་གཅིག་ལ་མཉམ་དུ་འདུས་པའི་གླིང་ཤིན་ཏུ་ཆེན་པོ་ཞིག་ཡིན་ཀྱང་རིམ་པས་ཁ་གྱེས་ཏེ་སིལ་བུ་འཐོར་སོང་འདུག དེ་བཞིན་བོད་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་འདི་ཡང་དང་ཐོག་འཛམ་བུ་གླིང་གི་ལྷོ་ཕྱོགས་སུ་ཨ་ཧྥ་རི་ཀཱ་དང་ཨོ་སུ་ཊིར་ལི་ཡཱ་སོགས་དང་མཉམ་དུ་འབྱར་ནས་གནས་ཡོད་ཀྱང་། ས་ཕྱོགས་དེ་ནས་རིམ་བཞིན་ཁ་གྱེས་ཏེ་ད་ལྟར་གནས་བཞིན་པའི་ས་ཕྱོགས་སུ་སླེབས་འདུག།
བོད་ཡུལ་གྱི་ས་གཤིས་རིག་པའི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་སུ་ཆགས་ཡུལ་མི་འདྲ་བ་ལྔ་དང་གདོང་ཐུག་སྔ་ཕྱི་གཉིས་བཅས་དུས་རབས་བདུན་ལ་དབྱེ་ན་གོ་བདེ་ཙམ་ཡོང་། བོད་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་འདི་ཆགས་ཡུལ་མི་འདྲ་བ་ལྔ་བྱུང་བའི་དབང་གི་བོད་ཀྱི་ནང་བཅུད་རྩི་ཤིང་རི་དྭགས་སོགས་ལ་འགྱུར་ལྡོག་ཆེན་པོ་བྱུང་བ་དང་། དེ་བཞིན་གདོང་ཐུག་སྔ་ཕྱི་གཉིས་བྱུང་བའི་དབང་གི་ཕྱི་སྣོད་ལ་འགྱུར་ལྡོག་ཆེན་པོ་བྱུང་ཡོད་པ་དཔེར་ན། གདོང་ཐུག་སྔ་མས་བོད་ཡུལ་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་འོག་ཏུ་བསྣུབས་པ་དང་། གདོང་ཐུག་ཕྱི་མས་བོད་ཡུལ་རྒྱ་མཚོ་དང་བྲལ་ནས་མཐོ་སྒང་ཞིག་ཏུ་བསྒྱུར་བ་བཅས་སོ།།

Friday, 1 February 2013

Is Brahmaputra China’s next target for dam building spree?

After much media speculations, the 510 MW dam of Zangmu (Tib: rDzam) on Brahmaputra in Tibet went on construction in 2010 leaving India and its neighboring country Bangladesh dumbfounded.

Once again the media takes China’s state council approval of three dams-Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu on Brahmaputra-with immense surprise although it was already circulating in the news for over a year except for Dagu dam (Patranobis, S., 2013). The Times of India reported last year about the six dams Lengda, Zhongda, Langzhen, Jiexu, Jiacha and Zangmu that China is planning to build on Brahmaputra in Tibet (Bagchi, I., 2011).

Monday, 28 January 2013


On 25 January 2013, two major announcements were made by China’s official news media: the plan to invest over 3.5 billion Yuan to protect environment and creation of a new county in Nagchu Prefecture in the so called Tibet Autonomous Region (comprising western half of the historical Tibet).

China daily reported that according to the draft budget of 2013 submitted by the finance department of the so called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), "the region plans to invest 3.5 billion Yuan (USD 563 million) in 2013 […] in environmental protection”. The report further stated that most of the investment (3.23 billion) will be used for “major forestation projects and for compensating and rewarding locals who protect grass and forests, and conserve wetlands, lakes and water resources”. Besides, “over 50 million Yuan will be allocated to support environment improvement projects and preserve resources”. The investment will also “support the building of an ecological safety screen on the plateau”, report said.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Tibetans Forcibly Removed to Make way for Mining Development

Chinese government in Lhasa forcefully removed Tibetan families from their ancestor homes in Lhundup (Ch: Lhunzhub) county of Lhasa municipality, in so called Tibetan Autonomous Region to make way for an extensive mining in the region.

Pile of ore deposits at the mining site in Lhundup County

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Comeback of the Tibetan Beast?

A recent research suggests that the population of Wild Yaks called "drong" in Tibetan are increasing in some parts of the Tibetan Plateau.

According to the press release issued by Wildlife Conservation Society on January 16, 2012, around 1,000 wild yaks (འབྲོང)were counted by a team of U.S. and Chinese conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana in a rugged northern area of the plateau known as Hoh Xil Nature Reserve, (Achen-Gangyal in Tibetan; ཨ་ཆེན་གངས་རྒྱལ).

"Wild yaks are icons for the remote,untamed, high-elevation roof of the world," researcher Joel Berger, wholed the yak-counting expedition, said in a statement. Joe Walston, WCS executive director of Asia programs stated, "For millennia, yaks have sustained human life in this part of Asia; it would be a cruel irony if their reward is extinction in the wild,"