The previous blogpost revealed the vision of the official custodians of China’s Yellow River to build a huge inland shipway, capable of allowing shiops as big as 50,000 tonnes, as far inland as 3300 kms, to the foot of the Tibetan Plateau; all made possible by diverting nearly all of Tibet’s rivers to the Yellow River.

To call this vision of planetary geo-engineering ambitious is an understatement. See the previous blogpost for the details.

But will it ever be built? Here is one preliminary analysis:




There are grandiose projects, products of the edifice complex that so attracts politicians seeking  in posterity  fame that will long outlive them. Then there are super grandiose projects that look terrific on paper, solving all known problems plus a few more that nobody knew were problematic. Then there are the truly megalomaniac projects that, in one go, conquer nature, stamp the imprint of the engineer on the land, make the deserts bloom and dust storms that shame Beijing to magically disappear, and even more magically, turn the entire 3300 kilometres of the Yellow River from the sea up to Lanzhou into a Suez Canal plied by ships up to 50,000 tonnes.

Fortunately, this plan will never be constructed, for myriad reasons. Here are eight of them.

ONE:      The age of super mega projects in China is fortunately past, or at least passing. The engineers no longer dominate the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, as they did up to 2012. Although China’s leaders are addicted to massive infrastructure spends, as economic stimulus and a way of funnelling capital to their favourite State owned enterprises, this one is just too big. China’s central leaders do talk of growing the remote western provinces so they can catch up, but in practice, the remote provinces get left behind, and Beijing has little enthusiasm for “backward” areas which, according to economic orthodoxy, can best get rich by most folks migrating to the bigger or even mid level cities.

As China enters a period in which labour is no longer the cheapest in the world, hidden debt is rising, and governments can no longer spend as freely as they did until recently, the pressure is on to shift spending away from infrastructure, financed by state borrowings, in favour of domestic consumption, by raising incomes of ordinary folk.

TWO:                     Then there is the highly factionalised competition within China between powerful individuals and their power bases. One competition is between the southern China powerhouse of economic growth, and the water-short north, the original home of Chinese civilisation.

The staggeringly ambitious plan promoted by the Yellow River Water Conservancy (YRWC), a powerful official regulatory agency, to turn their river into a navigable canal for big ships, is a proposal that dwarfs even the Three Gorges Dam in size and expense, and even dwarfs the fantasies of the hydraulic engineers to harness the putative hydropower potential of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) of southern Tibet as it turns sharply through the Himalayas, plunging with great force through the greatest canyon on earth. That project could theoretically generate even more electricity than the Three Gorges dam, but damming the Yarlung Tsangpo great gorge (in several places), in extremely remote, precipitous jungle and raging mountain torrents, would cost far more then the disappointing Three Gorges dam. Yangtze water users will be unimpressed.

THREE:                  Amazingly, the Yellow River Conservancy’s Great Western Line project requires that all those Tibetan dams be built, solely to provide the electricity to pump water uphill, and over thousands of kilometres. Of the many audacious aspects of the Great Western Line, none is bolder than its decisive move to scrap the basis of all past mega project plans to capture and divert the rivers of Tibet, all of which relied on finding routes to let gravity take the water to where downstream China most needs it. This dependence on the law of gravity is now dismissed, with plans to pump no less than 150 billion cubic metres (m3) of water  out of Tibetan rivers and pump not only to downstream China but also all over the deserts and drylands of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia.

Even Adolf Hitler, who had dreams of comprehensively reshaping the entire landscape of conquered eastern Europe to make it fit for incoming German farmers[1], never dreamt on this scale.

FOUR: THE YANGTZE FACTION:                  Fortunately, China is now unlikely to embrace this super mega project, if only because China’s factionalism and powerful vested interest will  put it on the back burner until it can be forgotten. The cluster of powerful provinces along the Yangtze increasingly resist any further diversion of water from their river to the north. Already two massive south-to-north water transfer canals have been built, in eastern and central China, draining the Yangtze to benefit the middle and lower Yellow River. These enormous canals are due to begin operating in 2014, after almost a decade of construction and a much longer period of planning and political juggling. Although the Yangtze is a much bigger river than the Yellow, powerful provinces such as Sichuan upriver, Shanghai  and Zhejiang downriver are no longer willing to see further diversions, as China’s water use further intensifies, both as an industrial/agricultural input and as a sewer for wastes.

FIVE: FLOODS AND SHIPS FLOOATING ABOVE THE LAND:                              Even the YRWC proponents of the Great Western Line resort frequently to hyperbole when faced with the absurdity of a plan to make the Yellow River a shipway. The Yellow River is yellow because of the enormous amount of silt it carries from upstream Tibet to the lowlands where, as the river slows (and is ruthlessly extracted for human use), it slows, dumping its silt, clogging the river, making it much more prone to spill and flood in the wetter months. This tendency to flood is what gave the Yellow River its classic label, of China’s Sorrow. The response, over several dynasties, was to mobilise massive human labour forces to build up the banks, to such an extent that in places the bed of the Yellow River is above the surrounding landscape, hemmed in by massive banks that need constant repair. The idea that this could now be made into a canal carrying 50,000 ton ships, when the Yangtze and Three Gorges Dam have already failed to attract heavy shipping, is ludicrous.

SIX: WHO STANDS TO BENEFIT:                  The reality is that the richer, downriver provinces that most need water and have the greatest political weight, will benefit the least; while the poorest upriver provinces will benefit most. The days are long gone when China’s central government can simply allocate a massive redistribution of wealth away from the best endowed provinces towards the poorest. Under the prevalent neoliberalism, such nation-building extravaganzas are no longer in fashion, nor is there finance for them, or the political will to command such allocations. All the YRWC can say is a flowery phrase: “it will make Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Tibet take a giant step towards parity with central China, as if the “golden coastline” of Southeast China was extended all the way into the belly of the deep West.”

SEVEN: COST/BENEFIT;                  As for the cost of this vision of making the deserts bloom, even its boosters know that any careful cost/benefit analysis will throw it out the window: “If we can bear those operating costs, then the plan described above is feasible.” Such appeals to arduous struggle fail these days to cut much ice, especially at a time when paramount leader Xi Jinping is trying to rein in profligate spending as a relic of a bygone era. In the opulent lives of China’s elite, calls to eat bitterness and sacrifice for the long term benefit of remote desert provinces no longer gets much traction.

EIGHT: ALTERNATIVE STRATEGIES FOR ASSIMILATING THE FAR WEST:                     Nor is it the case that China has only infrastructure and more infrastructure as its only strategy for assimilating remote border regions into the Chinese economy. That may have been the case until quite recently, especially in Tibet, where China struggled to find industries that could generate wealth, and lots of employment for politically reliable immigrant Chinese. But decades of massive capital expenditure on infrastructure are at last paying off, in Tibet, in massive new and highly profitable copper/gold/silver mines and in mass Chinese domestic tourism. Justifying megaprojects as essential nationbuilding is no longer as persuasive an argument as it was, when (state-subsidised) industries can also achieve the goal of integration and also make a profit, thus stimulating Han Chinese employment..

So there is a host of reasons why the pharaonic project is unlikely to ever happen. One can never definitively rule out the appeal of the edifice complex, for central leaders wanting fame in posterity; but this is a proposal whose time, if ever, was decades ago, not now. The last time China could mobilise the entire resources of the country in this way was when it designated much of the Tibetan Plateau part of the Third Front, to build China’s nuclear weapons and military industries deep in innermost China, to protect against the menacing US Navy and the Soviet revisionists. That began in the late 1950s and ran for around 20 years before fizzling.

The engineers who cooked up this project, with impressive detail on the technicalities of locks, dams and pumps, and no mention of costs, have actually rolled two projects into one. Their starting point is the possibility, at least on paper, that it is possible to intercept, dam and divert, almost every major river of eastern Tibet, and send the water north. The quantum of water that could be made available to northern China is staggering, in fact so much that it is hard to think how it could all be used, as well as how to store the highly seasonal, monsoonal influx long enough to supply water downstream round the year, especially in winter, when it is most needed in a Yellow River that sometimes dries up altogether in the cold months. Such plans have been dreamt up before.

Where this plan breaks new ground is in its disregard of the laws of gravity, using massive hydropower plants on the same Tibetan rivers, to pump their waters far away and up. Its second audacity is the vision of big ships, up to 50,000 tons, sailing up and down the Yellow River. The same rhetoric drove the Three Gorges Dam on a much bigger river, the Yangtze, which was also supposed to attract big ships deep inland. What has instead happened is a boom in rail construction, including long-haul and high-speed lines that connect inland, upland western China not only with the coast, but also with Europe. Not only is it possible for Hewlett Packard, for example, to manufacture computers far inland in Chongqing, but  they can then be despatched to European markets overland, by rail, faster than sending them downriver and across the oceans.

For the Yellow River Water Conservancy, the romance of steaming up and down China’s primal river remains eternal, but days of inland shipping, likening the Yellow River to the Rhine and the Mississippi, are beyond grasp. No doubt the YRWC will dream on, but Tibetans need not assume, as some do, that just because one influential arm of the state endorses a fantastical megaproject, it will automatically happen.

[1] David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany, Pimlico, 2007, 225, 252-3, 270-3

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.