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Diverting the Brahmaputra - start of the Water Wars?

By Arthur Thomas - posted Friday, 2 May 2008

The reason for China's intransigence on Tibet is simple. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always referred to Tibet as China's Water Tower and considers it key to sustaining China's northwest in water, revitalising its deserts and the Yellow River itself, as well as being crucial to its Himalayan Strategy.

To guarantee China's water needs, Beijing's excessive and often disastrous policies seriously endanger the survival of hundreds of millions in countries downstream on trans-national rivers that rise in Tibet. One such plan is the unsustainable diversion of a river's flow into north western China. That river is the Yarlung Tsangbo, that when crossing the Indian border, becomes the Brahmaputra.


Initially referred to as the Shoutian Canal, the brainchild of hydro geologist Guo Kai caught the attention of the military in 1988.


1989: The "Preparatory Committee for the Shoutian Canal" was formed and headed by three senior generals.

1996: The west became aware of the project.

Late 1990s: 208 NPC (National People's Congress) deputies and 118 CPPCC (Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) delegates produced 16 proposals supporting the project.

May 18-June 22, 1999: An official survey covered 13,600km and calculated that 600B m3 per year of the Brahmaputra waters were being wasted in Tibet.

1999: Jiang Zemin announced the "xibu da kaifa" (Great Western Extraction) that would transfer huge volumes of water from Tibet into the Yellow River. It was now fully supported by 118 generals, and the Politburo. It inspired Li Ling's book How Tibet's Water Will Save China, detailing Guo Kai's “Shuo-tian” (reverse flow) canal as the solution to chronic water shortages in China's dry north and northwest.

2000: Leaked reports include "Chinese leaders are drawing up plans to use nuclear explosions, in breach of the international test ban treaty, to blast a tunnel through the Himalayas for the world's biggest hydroelectric plant".


July 2003: Small article in the People's Daily "China to Conduct Feasibility Study on Hydropower Project in Tibet". The text ran "China plans to conduct a feasibility study in October on the construction of a major hydropower project on the Yarlung Zangbo River in the TAR. An expert team was sent to the area for preliminary work between late June and early July."

Li Guoying director, Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee said "the project was essential because the Yellow River's current flow is being exhausted by development demands in western China".

November 2005: Strategy manual Save China Through Water From Tibet adopted by the PLA, relevant ministries and directorates.

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About the Author

Arthur Thomas is retired. He has extensive experience in the old Soviet, the new Russia, China, Central Asia and South East Asia.

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