#8 in a series of blogs on China’s latest plans for Tibetan rivers

This series of blogs began with China’s announcement, in its list of top priorities for the 13th Five-Year Plan for 2016 through 2020, of “big reservoirs in Tibet”. This last blog in the series returns to those big reservoirs, to locate where else they are planned, in addition to the reservoirs intended to extract water from the upper Yangtze to be pumped to northern China. That by no means exhausts China’s plans for extracting water and energy from Tibet. China’s engineers and military men have spent decades in the remotest areas of the Tibetan Plateau, pushing through alpine deserts, topographical maps in hand, plotting routes for diverting Tibetan waters northward into Xinjiang, and several other directions.

All of these potential projects, while not yet approved to go ahead, or funded for construction to begin, remain on official wishlists, described in glowing terms, awaiting their turn. All are readily available on the E-government website maintained by the Communist Party’s official organ, People’s Daily, which collects all these Tibetan water diversion projects, classified as Recommendation No. 42322. [1]


The first on the drawing board list goes much farther up the Yangtze, into its uppermost reaches that China calls the Tongtian, proposing to intercept it approximately where the railway and main highway into Lhasa, from Lanzhou, Xining and Gormo, heading south, crosses the Tongtian as it heads east-southeast. This far upriver it is a much smaller stream, but fed steadily by glaciers. The plan calls for the waters of the Tongtian to be sent across alpine desert to the Narin Gol, an intermittent river draining away into the sands of the Tsiadam Basin in northern Qinghai, where it would replenish local flows so scarce that shortage of water is a major constraint on the gas and oil extraction fields of the Tsaidam, as well as the petrochemical plants of the one big industrial complex of the Tibetan Plateau, at Gormo, the hub of the Tsaidam Basin. The source of the Yellow River lies between the Tongtian/Yangtze to the south and the Tsaidam Basin to the north, but it does not stretch as far inland as the Tongtian. From the Tongtian to the Narin Gol is 280kms in a straight line, with a major mountain range, the Kun Lun, separating the watersheds, which would have to be tunnelled through. Already, this would be a very expensive project. But the Narin Gol is not the end, merely a side benefit. The ultimate destination is Xinjiang, further north, where, 600 kms further, on the other side of the Tarim desert basin is the irrigation district of Hami, famous for its melons sold all over China. In between the two deserts -Tsaidam and Tarim- is another mountain range, the Altun Shan, which would also have to be tunnelled.

It is little wonder this scheme shows no sign of approval or funding, even though Xinjiang is industrialising rapidly, its coal deposits now attracting energy-intensive heavy industries including aluminium smelting, reliant on coal-fired power stations that in turn need water to manage coal production at every stage of its extraction and use. However, it does remain on the officially recommended list, China’s to-do list of major projects to be done some day.

Tibetan exiles sometimes suppose that anything announced by China is immediately and energetically made a reality, that when central leaders approve a project, it is certain to happen. Reality is more complex. The People’s Daily E-government site cheerfully describes this far-fetched project as feasible and effective, and with little impact on the Yangtze.



Another possible but improbable scheme, also included in Recommendation #42322, is to drain the upper Yellow River, again diverting water north, to the parched Hexi Corridor, for decades a base of China’s military industries, missile and space rocket launch pads, heavy industrial smelters and replicas of Taiwan airfields built to give China’s air force bombing run practice.

This too would require tunnelling through a mountain range, Qilian in Chinese, Chokle Namgyal in Tibetan. The canal would have to be over 400 kms long.

The obvious disadvantage of this scheme is that the Yellow River needs all the water it can get, and diverting its headwaters only exacerbates shortages not far downstream, which are meant to benefit from the big reservoirs that are due to be built, starting with the current Five-Year Plan.

Yet this remains on the official books, oblivious to contradictions. This project is based on the possibility that, below the Longyangxia dam on the Ma Chu/Yellow River in Amdo (Qinghai in Chinese), completed in 1992, and above the Liujiaxia dam, completed in 1974, further downriver, it could be possible to divert the Yellow River, not only to the Hexi Corridor but also to the arid province of Ningxia and western Inner Mongolia. No doubt these poor areas would appreciate the water, but serving their needs at the expense of heavy industrial users further down the Yellow River, especially the coal industry, is unlikely to attract sufficient political patronage. What looks good on paper may not translate readily to territorial realisation.



The Nu River, before it becomes the Salween of Myanmar flows a long way southwards through Yunnan, after rising in the Chushi Gangdruk region of eastern Tibet, in what China calls the Hengduan mountains.

Since several major rivers flow here in parallel, on paper only a few kilometres apart, there is a ready temptation to capture one or more river, especially one about to exit China –the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra).

But all of these Recommendation #423222 projects are inter-basin water transfers. Water basins are made by the mountains that surround them. By definition, transferring water from one basin to another means crossing a mountain range, or tunnelling through it. The closeness of the parallel rivers is because they are separated by sharp ranges, flowing in steep valleys.

The Yarlung Tsangpo drains not only the entire north face of the Himalayas, for well over a thousand kms before dramatically slicing through the Himalayas into India, it also drains complex mountain terrain well to the east of its southward turn to India. The main tributary feeding in to the Yarlung Tsangpo from the east is the Parlung Tsangpo, already dammed not far above the confluence.

The proposal kept alive on the People’s Daily E-government list is further up the Parlung Tsangpo, where it is closer to the Nu, and in a region receiving 600mm rainfall a year, which for Tibet is a lot.


This long series of eight blogs has revealed China’s official agenda for Tibet, as a source of extraction, for distant beneficiaries.

This is presented as “development”, as no more than following the natural laws of development, for the benefit of the locals, the six million Tibetans. This is very seldom challenged, not by Tibetans in Tibet who are compulsorily silenced, leaving China free to re-present them. Tibetans in exile have limited experience of development of national economies; and supporters of Tibet are focused on human rights, spirituality and environment, rather than development.

So it passes unnoticed that China has consistently failed to invest in development of the Tibetan economy, failed to add value to the abundant products of the pastoral livestock economy, and failed to integrate the pastoralists into China’s booming urban economy, which consumes and desires the very things pastoralists produce.

Instead, China’s massive investments in Tibet have been concentrated on infrastructure construction, providing employment for immigrant urban populations, resulting in an economy deeply dependent on endless subsidies from Beijing. This skewed pattern continues to deepen, as the habitual path dependency of central leaders persists in tunnel vision.

A major consequence of the failures of development is that Tibet produces very little that China wants, all the trucks that enter Tibet full, leave empty. There has been no dividend, despite the colossal expenditure, unless one counts the boom in domestic tourism to Tibet, as the sole profitable industry.

In the absence of yield, China has re-imagined Tibet, less as a source of mineral wealth, wool and dairy products, and more as a source of two inputs essential to all industrial output: water and electricity. Tibet is to be repurposed, in a new imaginary of extraction, as a major source of water and electricity for distant users, as much as 2000 kms away. This is the new resource curse.

The persistent failure to invest in the actual, indigenous Tibetan economy; the prevalence of dependence and subsidies; and the new extractive strategy focused on capturing water and electricity, all share one basic assumption. Tibet must be integrated into China, the boundaries established almost three centuries ago by Qing conquest must be made into a single nation-state, the empire must become a nation. Both the development failures and the new capital expenditures on intensive extraction can be understood as elaborate, expensive and locally disempowering exercises in nation-building. It has been implicitly understood since the 1950s that strengthening the Tibetan economy is not the objective. Since bringing in huge numbers of Han Chinese settlers proved impossible, for climatic reasons, nation-building strategies have sought other ways of creating employment for Han immigrants, while keeping Tibetans under-employed or even wholly redundant in areas where grazing bans have removed them altogether from their plateau pasture lands. The new strategy builds the Chinese nation, and asserts national sovereignty over even the remotest Tibetan river valleys, by building big new reservoirs, dozens of hydro-power dams, tunnels, canals and ultra-high voltage power lines to export electricity to distant Shanghai and Guangzhou. These build the nation, a Chinese nation inhabited solely by one nationality, the Chinese people (Zhonghua minzu), a newly contrived identity that supersedes Tibetan identity.

This will not be achieved fast. Even the latest Five-Year Plan announcements for the 13th Plan period of 2016 to 2020 may yet turn out to be but another instalment in a long range plan that takes several successive Five-Year Plans to implement. It is no longer the case (if it ever was) that central planners in Beijing need only announce what is to be done, and it is thus done. But we can certainly take the announcement of the big new reservoirs, for water diversion and to enhance hydro power generation year-round, and the many new hydro dams and power grids, as clear statements of intent.

Nation-building asserts the sovereignty of the nation-state over all landscapes, even the most remote. Establishing sovereignty remains a higher priority than development, even if, in the absence of Tibetan voices speaking for themselves, China persists in proclaiming its new campaign of extraction to be poverty alleviation and development, a win-win for all. The Tibetans know otherwise.


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