Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Asia’s Great Water War

The Tibetan plateau is one of the richest sources of fresh water in the world, with its melting ice sheets and rainwater run-off supplying over a billion people with fresh water. But who does this water belong to? As China attempt to take control of Asia’s water source, what will the results be for its downstream recipients?

China has plans to divert the major rivers flowing off the plateau, and hydro-engineers are fast moving in, causing disputes between China and its thirsty neighbors. Chinese engineers are hoping to dam the vast Brahmaputra River in Tibet, to create two monstrous hydroelectric plants that will each deliver twice the power of the world’s current largest dam, the Three Gorges on the Ganges. These plans are upsetting India and Bangladesh, who both lie downstream of the Brahmaputra. For Bangladesh in particular, the results could be disastrous – the country relies on the river for two thirds of its water, with 20 million farmers dependent on the Brahmaputra for irrigation.

In the past, China has dammed rivers that are within its borders – however, as the super power’s energy and irrigation demands increase, so Chinese engineers are looking to rivers outside of the country. China has in fact already started damming projects on some of the Brahmaputra’s major tributaries, with the $1 billion Zangmu dam aiming to be completed in 2014, and two dams in Tsangpo canyon that will together deliver 80 gigawatts of power.

And it is not just India and Bangladesh that have cause for concern – China is also planning 13 major damming projects in Burma, and further west in Northern Pakistan, construction is beginning on the 7 gigawatt Bunji dam on the Indus river. This move has both angered India, who own the territory, and made the locals fearful, as the dam is situated near the epicenter of a major earthquake that killed over 100 000 people in 2005.

But do China’s neighbors have real reason to be concerned? Many may argue that these dams may be more beneficial and harmful, as hydropower is crucial for countries such as India and China as an energy source that is sustainable. Evidence either for or against such developments is thin, but an environmental impact report recommending against the development of the Myitsone dam in Burma has recently come to light, that claims that the dam may cause flooding of important forest ecosystems. 

The best evidence that dams can cause harm come from the Mekong River in China itself, which has been extensively dammed. So far, China has constructed 4 of 8 planned hydroelectric dams along the Mekong, including the Xiaowan Dam that is higher than the Eiffel Tower. The dams capture monsoon flood flows, and the United Nations Environment Program have warned that the effects could threaten ecosystems downstream of the river. The lower flood levels have been found to destroy rice paddies in the region, as wall as the fish nurseries that have made the Mekong Delta one of the world’s largest fishing regions. 

Serge is the founder of Edictive and is a seasoned production professional as well as a leading technology product and project management leader. 

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