Siphons to the north

As with much that has to do with China, the numbers alone are bewildering: build hundreds of tunnels and nearly 3000 kilometres of artificial canals, interlink four of the largest rivers in Asia, in order to bring trillions of tonnes of water per year from southern to northern China? Or is it nearly 10,000 km and five rivers? And what is this talk about the damming of the Brahmaputra? Indeed, amidst increasing international alarm over rising temperatures, growing populations, melting glaciers, encroaching deserts, polluted watersheds and the prospect of future 'water wars' over 'blue gold', the magic and mystery traditionally associated with water have come to the fore. Few may understand the technicalities of the promised crisis, but all understand its effect: water, water everywhere, but nothing in my sink. That is the worry, anyway.

In the ensuing atmosphere of paranoia, 'water security' has entered the parlance of the upper echelons of various home and defence ministries alike, and bafflement and misinformation with regards to water affairs is camouflaged in strident nationalism. Nowhere is this more the case than in the capitals of Southasia – and no other country is able to strike as much fear into the hearts of regional policymakers as that great unknown to the north, China. Indeed, though official consternation has spiked in recent years, anxiety over a great Chinese siphoning has been festering in the Subcontinent throughout the region's modern existence. After all, Beijing formally took control over Tibet in 1951, just four years after most Southasians took control over their own capitals. The two transitions inevitably gave rise to a host of new foreign-policy concerns, not the least of which was the fact that the site of China's occupation was also Southasia's wellspring.

Mao Zedong soon stoked these anxieties to a fever pitch. The story goes that in 1952, on a visit to a water-conservation operation on the Yangtze River, Mao noted that water was scarce in China's north, but plentiful in China's south. His suggestion that the north 'borrow' some of the south's water subsequently set in motion six decades of planning, feasibility studies and boastful pipedreams in China, and increasing apprehension in the lower riparian states – India and Bangladesh in particular, but also Burma and Pakistan.

Over the years, the announced plans have evolved and changed, grown and shrunk, and all the while Beijing's commitment to them has been far from certain. While a reasonably concrete understanding has emerged of what these plans have entailed in the past and what they involve today, what the broader public in Southasia thinks it knows about China's water-diversion programme is far more frightening, being the result of decades of confusion on the part of worried politicians and hysterical media pundits.

The Western Route
The spectrum of Beijing's plans for water diversion has long been referred to in China by the utilitarian moniker nan shui bei diao, or 'transferring water from the south to the north'. Its goal is to link China's four largest rivers – the Chang (Yangtze), Huang (Yellow), Huai and Hai – and, through what would be one of the world's largest network of canals, tunnels, pumps and related paraphernalia, to gain the upper hand once and for all over China's and Tibet's massive hydro-topography. In theory, all construction will be finished around 2050 and will cost around USD 62 billion, more than twice the price tag of the country's most recent feat of man-over-nature, the slightly less contentious Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project is actually three separate schemes, with a multitude of additional possibilities and alternatives (see map). The first of these three diversion projects (1155 km from Jiangsu to Tianjin) is in fact near completion, and will start delivering water to Beijing by next year, in time for the Olympics. Work on the second (nearly 1270 km from the Han River to Beijing) is already well underway, and work on the third is supposed to start in 2010. The third path of the nan shui bei diao, what is referred to as the Western Route, has long been simultaneously the most problematic for Chinese planners and the most worrisome for China's Southasian neighbours. At the same time, it has also always been central to the whole project, as it promises the most direct routing of Tibetan waters, right from the source, to the increasingly parched areas of northern China.

Ultimately, the Western Route is expected to bring around four billion cubic metres of water per year from three tributaries of the Yangtze River – the Yalong, Dadu and Tongtian rivers – nearly 500 km, through the Bayankala mountain range, into northwestern China. (In the early days of project planning, a significantly more ambitious plan reportedly called for the construction of a 6800 km-long canal along this route. Even during that era of extra-large thinking, this idea was shelved as dangerous overreaching.) Last year, officials from the state's Yellow River Water Resources Committee urged that planning for construction on the Western Route be expedited.

At various times during the past half-century, plans for the Western Route included the diversion of waters from the upper reaches of the Salween and Mekong rivers (locally known as the Nguchu and Dzachu, respectively), two of Southeast Asia's most important waterways. Although these ideas have long been shelved, they continued to cause disquiet among China's downstream neighbours during subsequent years. Of course, the most persistent (and pernicious) rumour has held that, somewhere deep within Beijing planning offices, a scheme exists to dam the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo River, known downstream as the Brahmaputra, and further downstream as the Jamuna. In fact, this is rumour and nothing more.

Yarlung Tsangpo pipedreams
The Yarlung Tsangpo is fed by glaciers originating in Mount Kailash, the peak in western Tibet considered sacred by at least four religions. From there, the watercourse runs around 1700 km all the way to eastern Tibet, where over the eons it has created what would be the world's deepest and longest gorge, before making a great bend and flowing into Arunachal Pradesh as the Brahmaputra. Although the British botanist Francis Kingdon Ward did explore the western edge of the canyon in the early 20th century, its remoteness, coupled with Beijing's skittishness in allowing foreigners into the Tibetan hinterlands, kept Westerners almost completely out of the gorge until the mid-1990s. At that time, however, it was 'rediscovered' by an American explorer, who eventually led an expedition funded by National Geographic magazine through the gorge's reaches.

Following the subsequent upsurge of international interest in the Yarlung Tsangpo, an engineer in Beijing had a sudden insight: a massive dam at the Tsangpo gorge, the electricity from which could power the network of pumps and dam-related infrastructure required for the planned nan shui bei diao! (There was even talk of utilising a "peaceful nuclear explosion", to get the water flowing in the right direction.) As could be expected, the rumour mills set turning in Southasia as a result have yet to shut down, and the Tsangpo gorge is now believed to be an integral part of Beijing's water-diversion plans. As recently as this past May, Dhaka's Daily Star ran a nervous article under the heading "China plans to divert Brahmaputra waters: Environmentalists fear huge eco disaster in Bangladesh". The piece went on to warn: "China plans to construct a dam at Yarlung Tsangpo … to divert 200 billion cubic metres of water … 60 percent of the total water flow."

The increase in concern to which the Daily Star article gave voice cannot be said to be uncalled for, given debates over water diversion that have taken place in China over the past year. In early 2006, a book titled Tibet's Water will Save China was published in Beijing, garnering much attention. The book championed the Western Route in general, and the idea of a Brahmaputra 'taming' in particular. This piqued interests within the country and without (though few outside China would be able to read the book), and the Western Route's longtime chief proponent, septuagenarian water engineer Guo Kai, came to be quoted liberally by its critics and advocates alike. Guo subsequently gave rise to such rhetorical nuggets as: "With one engineering project, we could solve all of northern China's water problems," and "the Yarlung Tsangpo can quench the thirst of all of China. The water supply can last 1000 years!" Guo's grandiose vision has earned him ardent supporters in the past, including at least 15 senior generals in the Chinese army, who reportedly were able to get him nearly a dozen separate meetings with top government officials in 2006 alone.

Even as media speculation in India and Bangladesh grew (all unsure as to whether the Tsangpo plans were or were not part of the larger Western Route plan), in late November, just days after President Hu Jintao made a high-profile visit to New Delhi, Beijing moved to pour cold water on the discussion. "There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects," stated China's Minister for Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, in a rare public quashing of the Western Route idea as a whole. Wang further termed the ideas espoused by Guo and Tibet's Water will Save China "unnecessary, unfeasible … promoted [merely] by a group of retired officials". Soon thereafter, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "There may be some retired officials that support the plan, but they're not the experts advising the government." With that, the conversation on the Western Route – along with, one could assume, the Tsangpo damming – was closed. Or was it?

Funding marvels
There are a number of things that must be taken into account before attempting to answer this question. First, there exists in Chinese officialdom a deep-rooted fear of nature, and expression of this fear has a long tradition. Official anxiety concerns flooding and desertification, but also a more ephemeral unease with regards to the 'great untamed'. The government has thus placed overwhelming emphasis on the taming of the elements, and the official belief has been maintained that it is possible to do so. The paradigmatic example of this is the Grand Canal, which stretches for nearly 1800 km between Hangzhou and Beijing, the earliest parts of which were constructed during the 5th century BC. To this day it remains the longest manmade river in the world. It is a pat connection to say that China has been involved in linking and diverting its waterways for millennia, but continuity is impossible to ignore at this point: 2500 years after construction began, the Grand Canal is now being upgraded as the Eastern Route of the nan shui bei diao.

There is an important ideological component to all of this. When Mao Zedong first mentioned the possibility of moving massive amounts of water from China's south to its north, the idea was proffered at a time in which great hopes were invested in planning at a monumental scale. Land reform, ideological 're-education', the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution – these were gargantuan undertakings that offered the Chinese state a way to put its ideology into motion, as well as a way to show to onlookers (including its own citizenry) of just what the new Beijing government was capable. To a great extent, these dual concerns continue to this day: the new railway line up into Tibet and the Three Gorges Dam are both trumpeted as engineering 'marvels', as indeed they are.

Plans are now afoot to divert some of the water from the Three Gorges' reservoir into the Central Route of the nan shui bei diao. The way in which construction on the dam came to begin offers a note of caution for those who would say that the Western Route's lack of feasibility would not allow construction to go forward. The original idea for the Three Gorges project was posited way back in 1919, but feasibility concerns and internal debate made it impossible to move forward with construction until the project suddenly received surprise approval at the top levels in 1992. One year earlier, its approval had not seemed imminent in the least. Fourteen years later, in May 2006, the Three Gorges Dam became the largest dam reservoir in the world. At this point, with naysayers looking dubiously at the massive price tag and essentially insurmountable engineering concerns of the Western Route, Beijing planners may yet throw caution to the wind once again – to prove that when the Chinese government sets its mind on a particular undertaking, no price is too massive, no concern insurmountable.

Massive projects necessitate funding on a massive scale, and finance and public policy have as cosy a relationship in China as do the one-party government and the owners of the country's largest companies. Large projects, of course, also employ large numbers of people. And so the equation works out for everyone: the project gets built, large numbers of people get employment, and a select coterie of people get very, very rich. Considerations such as this have led to the observation that, howsoever reckless it would be, it is impossible to rule out that construction on the Western Route may start on schedule, in 2010.

New guard hesitating
This is why Beijing's late-November denial of Guo Kai's Western Route dreams was so significant. By publicly terming the plans "unfeasible", even "unscientific", (this last a particularly scathing remark) the Chinese government made clear two things. First, that indeed these plans had been discussed at the highest of levels (Beijing had always been cagey on this point). And second, that the capital is in the throes of a significant generational shift, one that has been taking place for a decade. All of engineer Guo Kai's supporters, it may be noted, are elderly members of the Communist Party establishment. It is also worth noting that, in their public denunciations, both Water Resources Minister Wang and the Foreign Ministry spokesman underlined the retired status of those pushing the plan, and that the members of this group, mostly aging army officers, did not know what they were talking about. This group no longer has any real control in modern-day policymaking in China, but rather symbolises an ideological approach that led infrastructure planning in China for decades – and about which Beijing's current crop of leaders is far less enthusiastic.

This attitudinal shift does not mean, however, that the official outlook on nature has completely changed. While the reaction to this anxiety was always to take on massive taming projects, a newfound concern – angst, even – regarding environmental issues has touched the current leadership. This has led to what can be thought of as a moment of 'hesitation', between doing things the old way (how Guo Kai and his backers would approach issues, for instance) and taking a more reasonable, nuanced approach. This has been at least partially informed by some of the drastic repercussions of the large-scale projects of the past. Current President Hu Jintao has a postgraduate degree in hydro engineering, while former President Jiang Zemin was an electrical engineer.

Meanwhile, the country's water crunch is very real. China is home to 20 percent of the world's population, but has just eight percent of its fresh water. Even while nearly 40 percent of China's arable land is in the northern part of the country, Beijing estimates that it loses more than 3000 square kilometres of land in this area to desert every year. This is most likely a perfectly natural process of desertification – people have been living on the fringes of desert in these areas for centuries, after all, and have been able to cope – but in China, Beijing's perceptions of a situation matter greatly. The question now is, will the moment of 'hesitation' on large, vainglorious water projects last long enough for straight-thinking bureaucrats and engineers to figure out sustainable, even traditional, alternatives? Or will they barge ahead with attempts to massively rework east and central Asia's hydrography?

The answer to these questions is mixed at best. Last year, for instance, China became one of the first countries in the world to regularly publicise its 'green GDP', estimates of how the country's full-throttled GDP growth was affecting its environment. For 2004, the assessment was that the cost of pollution was a bit more than three percent of GDP. Despite the fact that this was a ridiculously low estimate, this past July, after less than a year, Beijing announced that it was calling an indefinite stop to any discussion of 'green GDP'. While many external observers have pointed to 'political infighting' in motivating this about-face, in reality there is very little of any such thing in today's Beijing. The simple fact is that the pragmatism of 'progress' remains at the heart of official policy decisions in China: if a decision was made that publishing bad environmental news was not good for the Communist Party, then a halt would be called instantly, the environment be damned.

One way or another, such policy-jiggling will continue for years. On the one hand, foreign policy, evolving or not, has come to play a crucial role here. Unlike earlier projects that were entirely within China, where Beijing could easily override various objections, the issues at play are vastly different when dealing with Tibetan waters – particularly with any discussion of the Tsangpo. As Qin Hui, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, recently noted that, whatever Beijing's hopes, "without international cooperation, it is impossible to launch any major water project for an international river." In this regard, Southasian paranoia about the plans to the north have paid off.

On the other hand, confusion and misinformation are important parts of politicking, particularly in terms of regional relations. While Beijing found it apropos to distance itself from Guo Kai's vague plans for water diversion in the immediate context of Hu Jintao's state visit to India last November, since then rhetoric has again heated up regarding one of the other longstanding points of frustration in Sino-Indian relations – the contested borders of Arunachal Pradesh. Could the dropping of another well-placed hint on the future of the nan shui bei diao – this time less conducive to downstream communities – work as a bargaining chip in Beijing's favour? Pundits and politicians alike in India and Bangladesh, inevitably goaded on by increasingly complex water crunches, would surely be quick to ensure so.
~ Carey L Biron is desk editor of Himal Southasian

~ Thierry Dodin is a Tibetologist attached to the University of Bonn. He is director of TibetInfoNet. The views expressed in the accompanying article are his own.

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