In-depth explanation of ecological risks of China’s construction of giant hydropower plants in Tibet

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is known as the “roof of the world”, a thousand peaks and rocks, straight into the clouds. The plateau canyons are bottomless, isolated and untouched by people.

Although the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is mountainous and uninhabited, it is vital for one-fifth of the world’s population because of the huge amount of fresh water resources there.

The plateau is covered with a vast ice cap, often referred to by glaciologists as the “third pole” of the Earth. Apart from the North and South Poles, the Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water.

The glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau feed ten of Asia’s major rivers. Over the centuries, they have played a key role in nurturing the region’s ecosystems.

In recent decades, the rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau have not only provided fresh water, but also an important source of energy for the world’s most populous nation. Since the 1950s, China has built more than 20,000 dams higher than 15 meters, including the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant.

Hydroelectric power generation is China’s second largest source of energy, after coal. Hydroelectricity accounts for almost one-fifth of China’s total energy production. China has been building hydroelectric dams for years, and the momentum shows no sign of slowing down.

China is committed to achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060, and to that end is turning its attention to some of the most untouched parts of the Tibetan Plateau. China has ambitious plans to build a large hydropower plant there, designed to produce three times the power of the Three Gorges Dam.

Late last year, as the world struggled to combat the new epidemic, the Chinese government announced its commitment to developing the hydropower potential of the lower Yarlung Tsangpo River. The Yarlung Tsangpo is a cross-border river that flows from Tibet into India, where it is known as the Brahmaputra, and then enters Bangladesh as the Jamuna.

The Chinese government announced this goal in the 14th Five-Year Plan. (The Five-Year Plan is a series of plans outlining China’s economic and social priorities.

Experts believe that this may be the riskiest mega-project ever undertaken. Not only is it prone to massive landslides and some of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, but also because of its proximity to the disputed India-China border. That means any mega-project could lead to an escalation of discontent and inflame a territorial dispute between the world’s two most populous countries.

It is here, in western Tibet, that a great river rises from, a river that surges and plunges for thousands of miles and that explorers call the Everest of rivers.

Traversing the Tibetan Plateau for nearly 3,000 kilometers, the Yarlung Tsangpo flows through the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam before entering Bangladesh and flowing into the Bay of Bengal.

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the highest major river on earth, averaging 4,000 meters above sea level, and until recently was one of the few rivers in China without any established water facilities.

For the past decade, China has sought to harness the power of this river. Several hydropower plants have begun to appear along the Yarlung Tsangpo, and some are still being planned.

But all of them will be dwarfed by what China is planning to build here. This is the most remote part of the Yarlung Zangbo, the Great Bend.

The Yarlung Tsangpo winds its way through a remote part of the eastern Himalayas, forming a huge bend near the disputed border with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Because the bend is so large, until the early 20th century, Western geographers and explorers were unsure whether the Yarlung Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same river.

One of the reasons for the confusion in mapping the area at the time was the huge difference in elevation between the two rivers. The Yarlung Tsangpo is thousands of meters higher than the Brahmaputra.

Western explorers were forbidden to enter Tibet at that time. But they speculated that the two rivers might be connected by a huge waterfall. So, tempted by the possibility of discovering the largest waterfall on earth, many explorers undertook a series of daring expeditions into the Himalayas.

Charles Allen, in his book “A Mountain in Tibet,” chronicled a clandestine foray into Tibet in the late 19th century. He made a secret trek to a remote part of Tibet and put 500 logs inlaid with metal rods into the Yarlung Tsangpo River and let them flow downstream to see if they could be found in the section of the river that enters India.

The Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo is one of the most remote places in the world Supplied: China National Tourist Office in Singapore
But the plan was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the attempt proved to be a vital source of information for future generations. Decades later, it was finally discovered that the two rivers were actually connected.

Unlike the huge waterfall that some had envisioned, what the explorers found was a huge gorge. This canyon is located between two Himalayan peaks: Namcha Barwa (7,782 meters) and Galapai Peak (7,294 meters).

After hiking the area in the late 1990s, Chinese scientists claimed that the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is not only the longest canyon in the world, at more than 500 kilometers, but also the deepest, at a depth of more than 5,300 meters. This is almost three times the depth of the Grand Canyon in the United States.

The team of scientists also determined that this area is the richest untapped hydro-energy resource on Earth.

This is due to the steep drop in elevation of the river in a very short period of time.

From one side of the Big Bend to the other, the elevation drops by more than 2,000 meters.

Since this discovery, the idea of building the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant was conceived in China.

Very little is known about the details, but there is a proposal for a project called the “Murdoch Hydroelectric Power Plant”, which experts believe could involve drilling a huge diversion tunnel through Namgyabawa Peak.

Under this scenario, water would fall rapidly through this diversion tunnel and onto turbines on the other side of the bend below, generating massive amounts of energy.

“This is insane. It’s completely insane,” said Dr. Ruth Gamble, a La Trobe University historian and expert on the area.

Chinese media reported that the head of the Chinese power company thought to be leading the project said the canyon has the potential to generate more than 60,000 megawatts of electricity, three times the amount of power generated by the Three Gorges Dam.

Although the project’s design has not been released, experts on China, such as Professor Wang Yaolin of the University of Melbourne, believe that the fact that the project is mentioned in the Chinese government’s five-year plan means that it will go ahead in some form.

“If something is listed, even if it’s not possible, that will get done. I’m 120 percent sure of that,” he said.

“The riskiest project in the world.”

The complexity and risk of building the world’s largest generating hydroelectric facility on what is arguably the wildest stretch of river on the planet is almost immeasurable.

The location is extremely remote and off the beaten path, with little infrastructure nearby to handle a project of this magnitude, and until 2013, there was not even a single road in Murdoch County connected to a major year-round highway.

Not only that, but there was no infrastructure in place to transmit such a large amount of energy.

These projects alone are already enormous. This, combined with the geological instability of the area, is enough to make some experts question whether the project is a pipe dream.

“It’s the riskiest project in the world. Technically, it is the most difficult project ever built, the most expensive project, and it is unparalleled for any river anywhere in the world. So I always look at a project like this with a little bit of skepticism,” says Himanshu Thakkar, a water expert with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. said.

The project is so risky because the Big Bend sits on top of the so-called Indo-Tsangpo Suture Zone. This is a seismically active zone in the Himalayas, where the tectonic plates of India and Eurasia meet.

Chart: Red dots represent the world’s most powerful earthquakes recorded since 1900

The 8.6 magnitude earthquake in 1950 was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, with its epicenter 200 kilometers away in the Assam state of northeastern India.

Any project built in the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River needs to consider the possibility of a strong earthquake.

The area is also prone to severe landslides, which could have a catastrophic impact along the river.

In March, just upstream of the Big Bend, a glacier on a Himalayan cliff disintegrated, sending ice and rocks plunging nearly 4 kilometers into the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Satellite images documented the rising water level in the upper reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo River after the incident due to the truncation of part of the river.

Earlier this year, a very similar landslide in the Uttarakhand state in the Himalayan region of India temporarily blocked the Rishi Ganga river. When the glacier broke, a torrent of water surged downstream, killing dozens of people and destroying two hydroelectric plants.

Himanshu Thakkar said the likelihood of landslides in the Yarlung Tsangpo basin would only increase, not decrease, because of the massive land clearing required to build the giant hydropower plant.

“As a result, the disaster potential in the downstream area has increased many times,” he said.

Despite the geological challenges of the plan to build the hydropower plant, Professor Wang Yaolin believes that Beijing has the technical ability to complete the project. He said he would not be surprised to see it completed within the next few years.

But he believes the biggest challenge facing the project is not technical, but political.

The area lies along an ill-defined border line, known as the Line of Actual Control, which extends westward from Pakistan to this area in eastern Tibet.

Chart: Red areas are areas where there are territorial disputes between India and China

The area along the Line of Actual Control includes a large area claimed by India but occupied by China. Likewise, China has claimed large areas of land that are occupied by India.

This disputed area has been the scene of numerous wars and conflicts since the early 1960s.

In June 2020, a skirmish erupted in the Galwan Valley in the northern part of the disputed area, resulting in the first loss of soldiers between Chinese and Indian troops since the 1975 conflict.

The idea that China intends to build a giant dam just a few kilometers inside its territory from the Line of Actual Control between China and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh has unnerved countries in the lower Yarlung Tsangpo for years.

India fears that China is trying to use the river as a weapon to cut off the flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo or to redirect its course.

Soon after China announced plans for a hydropower plant on the Yarlung Tsangpo, Indian media reported that the Indian government was carefully examining the construction of a 10-gigawatt hydropower plant with a supporting dam and reservoir to offset the impact of the giant Chinese hydroelectric plant.

“What is needed now is a dam in Arunachal Pradesh to mitigate the adverse impact of the Chinese dam project,” a senior Indian government official told Reuters.

China has consistently said it has no plans to redirect the river’s flow, but India’s concerns are not the slightest lessened by this.

Professor Wang said the lack of transparency in China’s plans for giant hydropower plants makes it impossible not to worry.

“I don’t think the Chinese would consider [giant hydropower plants] a weapon, but it’s obviously a big issue for India or downstream countries,” he said.

So why would China want to undertake such a risky and costly project?

For its part, China says the giant hydropower plant plan is an important part of its efforts to peak its carbon emissions by 2035 and achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060.

To do this, China will need to move away from its dependence on coal. Currently, more than 60 percent of China’s energy comes from emissions-intensive coal-fired power plants, and more coal-fired plants are being built.

In 2020, China approved nearly 37 gigawatts of new coal-fired power projects, with nearly 250 gigawatts of planned coal-fired generation capacity.

The report shows that the potential installed capacity of the Murdoch hydroelectric project is between 40 and 60 GW (1 GW = 1,000 MW). While this figure is far from the figure needed to meet carbon neutrality targets, Dr. Gambrell said the Chinese government plans to achieve its green energy goals and is particularly fond of engineering projects to meet its goals. The Murdoch hydroelectric project is a case in point.

“The tone in the Chinese media when they started talking about [the Murdoch hydroelectric plant] was a bit déjà vu, and it reminded me of when China talks about the moon landing.”

“There are technical challenges, though. ‘But we’re ready to go for it and do everything right. Ready to do so.'”

“Extremely serious consequences”

Some are closely following the impact of China’s hydroelectric dams. They say that whatever the motivation for building giant hydropower plants will have a huge impact on the lives of people living downstream of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.

One of the biggest ecological impacts of hydropower dams on the river is that they trap sediment that would otherwise flow downstream.

“It does have serious consequences,” says Maureen Harris, program director for the environmental group International Rivers. International Rivers is an advocacy group that protects rivers.

“These dams disrupt the livelihoods of a variety of fish species, disrupt water flow, cause problems such as streambank erosion, and also put agricultural productivity at risk, among other problems that put the livelihoods of people downstream of the river at risk.”

China has said externally that it is trying to address the issue of climate change. Many see this attitude as a big step forward for China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

But some have expressed concern about China’s approach to controlling carbon emissions. Groups like International Rivers have argued that building hydroelectric dams won’t solve the problem and that China should seek other forms of renewable energy.

“So, I think it’s good to ask, ‘At what cost? ‘What would be destroyed by doing that?’ I don’t think that’s the only way that carbon neutrality can or should be explored,” Harris said.