The blame game, voiced in vulnerable river towns and Asian capitals from Pakistan to Vietnam, is rooted in fear that China’s accelerating programme of damming every major river flowing from the Tibetan plateau will trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies and divert vital water supplies. Beijing is signalling it will relaunch mega projects after a break of several years to meet skyrocketing demands for energy and water, reduce dependence on coal and lift some 300 million people out of poverty.
Associated Press & The Straits Times (18April 2011):
The wall of water raced through narrow Himalayan gorges in north-east India, gathering speed as it raked the banks of towering trees and boulders. When the torrent struck their island in the Brahmaputra river, the villagers remember, it took only moments to obliterate their houses, possessions and livestock.
No one knows exactly how the disaster occurred, but everyone knows whom to blame: neighbouring China.
‘We don’t trust the Chinese,’ says fisherman Akshay Sarkar at the resettlement site where he has lived since the devastating flood a decade ago.
About 800km east, in northern Thailand, Ms Chamlong Saengphet stands in the Mekong river, in water that comes up to only her shins. She is collecting edible river weeds from dwindling beds. A neighbour has hung up his fishing nets, his catches now too meagre. Using words bordering on curses, they point upstream, towards China.
The blame game, voiced in vulnerable river towns and Asian capitals from Pakistan to Vietnam, is rooted in fear that China’s accelerating programme of damming every major river flowing from the Tibetan plateau will trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies and divert vital water supplies.
Beijing is signalling it will relaunch mega projects after a break of several years to meet skyrocketing demands for energy and water, reduce dependence on coal and lift some 300 million people out of poverty.State media recently said China plans to construct dams on the still pristine Nu river, known as the Salween downstream.
The remapping of the water flow in the world’s most heavily populated and thirstiest region is on a gigantic scale, with potentially strategic implications. On the eight great Tibetan rivers alone, almost 20 dams have been built or are under construction, while some 40 more are planned or proposed.
But the stakes may be even higher, since those eight Tibetan rivers serve a vast west-east arc of 1.8 billion people stretching from Pakistan to Vietnam’s Mekong river delta.
Chinese officials have said the dams can benefit their neighbours, easing droughts and floods by regulating flow, adding that hydroelectric power reduces China’s carbon footprint.
‘China will fully consider the impact to downstream countries,’ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu told Associated Press. ‘We have clarified several times that the dam being built on the Brahmaputra River has a small storage capacity. It will not have a large impact on water flow or the ecological environment downstream.’
China is hardly alone in disrupting the region’s water flows. Others do it with potentially even worse consequences. But China’s vast thirst for power and water, its control over the sources of the rivers and its ever-growing political clout make it a singular target of criticism and suspicion.
In north-east India, a broad-based movement is fighting central government plans to erect more than 160 dams in the region, and Laos and Cam-bodia have proposed plans for 11 Mekong dams, sparking environmental protest.
‘Everyone knows what China is doing, but won’t talk about it. China has real power now. If it says something, everyone follows,’ says Thai environmental advocate Somkiat Khuengchiangsa.
But there is little chance the activists will prevail.
‘There is no alternative to dams in sight in China,’ says Mr Ed Grumbine, an American writer on Chinese dams. Mr Grumbine, currently with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan province, notes that under its most recent five-year state plan, China failed to meet its hydroelectric targets and is now playing catch-up in its 2011 to 2015 plan, as it strives to derive 15 per cent of energy needs from non-fossil sources, mainly hydroelectric and nuclear.
Noting that Himalayan glaciers which feed the rivers are melting due to global warming, India’s Strategic Foresight Group last year estimated that in the next 20 years, India, China, Nepal and Bangladesh will face a depletion of almost 275 billion cubic m of annual renewable water.
Mr Jeremy Bird, who heads the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental body of Laos, Cam-bodia and Thailand, sees a tendency to blame China for water-related troubles, even when they have natural causes. He says diplomacy is needed, and believes ‘engagement with China is improving’.