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.

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