A major official agency, the Yellow River Water Conservancy, has grandiose plans to dam all the major rivers of Tibet, and pump massive amounts of water (using hydropower generated in Tibet) uphill to the Yellow River of northern China.

First, here is how the officials of the Yellow River Water Conservancy (YRWC) define their latest epic plan, followed by an analysis of whether this pharaonic project will ever be built.

TITLE: Preliminary Research on the Feasibility of the “Datongdao” Project for Yellow River Shipping


Development of the Yellow River for Navigation and its Necessity


For a long time, people have been much more concerned with the exploitation of water resources than with the development of marine shipping. The Northwest of our country is dry, with little rainfall, and has a great need for water. There are vast areas of wilderness waiting for development, which really means they are waiting for large quantities of water to be brought in, because once they have water, the desert can become green, and only on that foundation can development begin. So people are very interested in projects to bring water from the South to the North. With regard to the extremely challenging idea called the “Western Line”, many tempting plans have been proposed for large-scale water relocation. People have grasped the importance of water resources, but there is another important point still missing — marine transportation and shipping. The Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) has the best conditions for marine shipping of any river in the world, and can carry a greater volume of goods than any other river, but its utilization is not up to the standard of the Mississippi and Rhine, the other 2 great shipping waterways of the world. The Three Gorges project should have provided the best opportunity for full and efficient use of the Chang Jiang’s shipping potential, but at that time, development proceeded under the principle of “power generation first, marine shipping second”, and so the project never lived up to its potential to promote marine shipping. There is a limit to what electric generation can do for our country, but the river’s capacity to carry goods can keep growing and growing as the riverbed is excavated deeper, so the potential long-term economic benefits are very great. Even under the limits imposed by the current condition of the Chang Jiang, the Chang Jiang river basin area accounts for a solid 45% of China’s GDP, and stands firmly as the main economic development axis of the entire country. If it can be said that survival and ecology are tightly linked to water resource management, then development and becoming strong and prosperous are even more tightly linked to the development of marine shipping.



The key characteristics of marine shipping are high capacity and low cost, and it is suitable for the transportation of energy sources, minerals, heavy chemical products, heavy equipment, grain, livestock, and other large goods. This is most clearly seen with ocean shipping. Since China opened up for economic development, the fast development of the Southeast coast clearly proves the advantage conferred by marine shipping. The Yellow River basin, and the Northwest provinces, which are closely linked to it, have rich energy and mineral resources, and enormous potential for production of agricultural and animal products. It is an ideal area for large-scale marine shipping of heavy goods, and has potential far exceeding the Chang Jiang. Developing Yellow River shipping, and especially opening it up to the ocean for navigation of ships exceeding 10,000 tons, is a fabulous prospect which the Yellow River basin could only dream of for centuries past. Therefore, opening up navigation of the Yellow River, and especially enabling ocean navigation for super-heavy class vessels, is of great necessity, and the day when it comes true is the day when the Yellow River basin and the Northwest will spread their wings and fly.



Continued improvements in quantity eventually result in a revolution in quality. As quantity increases, quality also improves, and qualitative improvements open the way for even greater improvements in quantity. The huge scale and vast area of the Yellow River corridor are an opportunity for a qualitative leap, and the economic and societal benefits which navigation of that corridor could bring, and what it would mean for the entire country, are of incomparable value, almost beyond words. Therefore, for continued high growth rates in China’s economy, expanding domestic demand, faster societal transformation, and sustainable development, opening up the Yellow River waterway could provide an enormous driving force forward, and is of the utmost strategic meaning.




The Necessity of Construction of the “Western Line” Water Diversion Project



As humans make ever greater use of water resources, and as the world’s climate grows ever warmer, the importance of strategic planning in water resource management is ever more prominent. In the next 30-50 years, as renewable energy sources come into widescale use, the importance of energy to societal and economic development will gradually give way to the greater importance of water resources for societal and economic development and human survival.


China has total water reserves of 2.8 trillion cubic meters, which is 4th in the world. But per capita water reserves are only 2300 cubic meters, which is 1/4 of the world average, and comes in 121th place. China is therefore among the 13 most water-poor countries in the world. Of China’s more than 600 cities, more than 400 are in short supply of water, and more than 200 have severe water shortages. More than that, China’s North-South distribution of water is severely skewed. 44.3% of the population live in the North, and 59.6% of arable land is in the North, but the North has only 14.5% of China’s water resources, with average per capita water reserves of 747 cubic meters, 1/3 of the national average. Among the North’s water supplies, the Yellow River, Huai River, and Hai Luan River are most prominent. The river basins of those 3 account for about 30% of both national agricultural output and GDP, but they possess only 7.2% of the country’s water. As water supplies become tighter each day, water quality degrades, plant ecology deteriorates, and the land is subject to desertification. This has developed into the harsh reality we now see of dust storms. Ongoing water shortages in the North have already become a great obstacle restricting economic and societal development, and severely threaten sustainable economic growth for the people.



The Great Western Line water diversion project is the groundwork for the Yellow River shipping waterway project, and without it, there is no room to even talk about opening up the Yellow River for marine shipping. That is because the Yellow River has only 50 billion cubic meters of flow per year, not even enough for human consumption and industrial use. During dry periods, the probability is great that the Yellow River could even run dry, and not have enough water flow to float ships. The Yellow River shipping waterway project can provide full utilization of the Western Line water diversion project; with it, much more efficient use can be made of the water diverted into the Yellow River basin. Without it, it will be very hard to “digest” the high capital expenses incurred by the Western Line project and its long period for break-even on investment. The Western Line project can provide a foundation, and the Yellow River shipping waterway project can make it worthwhile. The 2 projects are tied together as one; without the other, neither of them could achieve its potential.



Aside from providing the water needed for marine navigation, the Western Line project can also provide much-needed water resources. To the dry Northwest, that is highly desirable and seemingly unattainable. Only with large quantities of water, the Northwest can improve its soil, check the expansion of deserts, and finally rein in the raging dust storms. The trend of “local improvements in human habitat, but ongoing degradation as a whole” can be turned back, the poverty and backwardness of the West can be changed, the ever-growing gap between rich and poor can be shrunk, the ongoing sluggishness of domestic consumer demand can be improved, and economic development can be expedited. Therefore, the Western Line project, as challenging as it is and as long the distances which must be crossed between river basins are, is utterly imperative and must be carried out.


Overall Situation of Yellow River Navigation


The Yellow River shipping waterway, with the assistance of the Western Line water diversion project, will use the existing Yellow River riverway, and will open up navigation from the Bohai Sea to Lanzhou. The riverbed of the Yellow River will be excavated and dredged, to permit passage of 50,000-ton class vessels from the mouth of the Yellow River to Lanzhou, and with that, it will become the greatest “golden” waterway of the world. The main Yellow River shipping route will be 3300 kilometers in length, from Dongying at the mouth of the Yellow River into the Bohai Sea, all the way to the upstream area of Lanzhou. It will pass through Shandong, Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu, a total of 7 provinces, providing access for 50,000-ton class ships. The shipping route along the Wei River (渭河)a tributary of the Yellow River, will extend for 388 kilometers, from Tongguan at the mouth of the Wei, to the midstream area of Xianyang, for passage of 50,000-ton class ships. The shipping route along the Yiluo River, another tributary, will extend 50 kilometers, from the mouth of the Yiluo to Luoyang, for passage of 50,000-ton class ships. The shipping route along the Fen River, yet another tributary, will extend 600 kilometers, from Hejin at the mouth of the Fen, to the upstream area of Taiyuan, for passage of 50,000-ton class ships. The Datong shipping route, from the Qingshui River, to Datong, and on to Tongzhou, will extend for 1000 kilometers, from the upper reaches of the Qingshui River, in the middle of the Yellow River, along the Sanggan River, through the Guanting water reservoir, to Tongzhou District in Beijing. It will pass through Datong, and connect to the northern stretch of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in Tongzhou, allowing passage of 1000-ton class vessels. On the lower reaches of the Yellow River, the Wei River (卫河)and Majia River secondary shipping routes on the North bank, as well as the Jialu River and Huiji River secondary shipping routes on the South bank, will all connect to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, for passage of 1000-ton class vessels. The Beijing-Hangzhou Canal is 1700 kilometers in length, and can carry 10,000-ton class vessels. At its Northern reaches, it permits passage through Tianjin and into the Bohai Sea, whereas at its Southern end, it reaches Hangzhou, and permits passage out into the East Sea. As such, the entire marine shipping network will on one hand reach up to the Bohai Sea, on the other down to the East Sea, and going inwards, all the way to the heart of the West, forming a super-network which will encompass half the country.



Overall Situation of Water Diversion Project


The Western Line water diversion project, will draw 150 billion cubic meters of water from 6 rivers: the Brahmaputra, the Nu River, the Lancang River, the Jinsha River, the Yalong River, and the Dadu River. The water will be sent to the Maqu Daguaiwan super-reservoir on the upper stretches of the Yellow River. Out of that water, 50 billion cubic meters will pass through man-made canals, sending 10 billion cubic meters to Qaidam Basin in Qinghai Province, 30 billion cubic meters to the Taklimakan Desert in Tarim Basin in Xinjiang Province, and 10 billion cubic meters to Lop Nur. The remaining 100 billion cubic meters will flow out along with the existing waterflow of the Yellow River, allowing many hydropower stations serving Lanzhou to operate at full capacity, as well as providing 50 billion cubic meters for diversion along the river branch at Qilihe District of Lanzhou. Those 50 billion will be carried by man-made canals, through the Hexi Corridor, sending 10 billion cubic meters to the Turpan Basin in Xinjiang, another 10 billion to the Junggar Basin, and 30 billion to boost the laggard waterflow of the Shiyang River, Hei River, and other rivers. The balance of 50 billion cubic meters will flow through the Yellow River to the ocean, boosting the river’s water level to permit navigation.



Construction Plan for the Shipping Waterway


The construction can be divided into 2 phases: phase 1 will include tributary river projects, discharge channel projects, tributary shipping waterway projects, shipping canal projects, and water-supply canal projects; phase 2 will include the main shipping waterway project, water locks, reservoir, widening of the Beijing-Hangzhou canal, and water-supply canals into the Northwest.



Tributary projects: These projects will start from the highest class of tributary rivers. First, simple, temporary dams will be built to shut off the entrances of the level-3 tributaries and their large and small gullies [1], and they will be drained of water. Then, the riverbed will be dredged, and the slopes on either side of the river will be graded. Since gentle slopes are advantagous for preventing soil erosion, a 15-degree slope is best. Then, simple, temporary dams will be constructed on the level-2 tributaries and their large and small gullies, and the same procedure as above will be followed. Last will be the level-1 tributaries and their large and small gullies, with the same procedure again. As these projects progress to the lower-class tributaries, the amount of water to be drained will be larger and larger, so if it proves necessary, low-lying land can be found for excavation of temporary drainage reservoirs, or the water can be discharged through canals into other rivers.



Discharge Channel projects: The Wei River (卫河)and Majia River, on the north bank of the lower reaches of the Yellow River, will be blocked off with temporary dams. Then the base of the trapezoidal cross-section of their entire riverbeds will be widened to a minimum of 100 meters, with a minimum depth of 9 meters, a normal water level of 6 meters, 15-degree slopes on each side, and an average downhill slope of 0.04% or less. The Jialu River, Huiji River, and other similar tributaries on the south bank will be dealt with in exactly the same way.



The discharge channels on the north bank will be situated at the mouth of the Fen River, and will flow through man-made channels to the Wei River (卫河), Majia River, etc. The discharge channels on the south bank will be situated at the mouth of the Qinhe, and will flow into the Jialu River, Huiji River, etc. The trapezoidal cross-section of the discharge channels will be 150 meters wide at the base, at least 9 meters in depth, with a normal water level of 6 meters, a 15-20 degree slope on either side, and an average downhill slope of 0.04% or less.



The discharge channel for the Wei River (渭河)can make use of the existing Luo River; man-made channels will conduct water from the mouth of the Wei River to the middle reaches of the Luo River, and further down, other man-made channels will connect the Luo River to the discharge channels on the south bank. The trapezoidal cross-section of these channels will be 20 meters wide at the base, at least 9 meters in depth, with a normal water level of 6 meters, and a 40 degree slope on either side. There is no need to pay special attention to the downhill slope.



The discharge channel in the upriver area of Lanzhou will conduct water through Lanzhou, along the West side of the Yellow River, through Jingtai County, and into the Hexi Corridor. At Wuwei it will flow into the Shiyang River. This channel will help in transporting water through the Hexi Corridor to Xinjiang.



Shipping Canal projects: Upstream from the temporary dams at the mouths of the Wei (渭河) and Yiluo Rivers, a large dam with water locks will be constructed, whereas upstream from Xianyang and Luoyang, dams extending down below ground level will be constructed. The trapezoidal cross-section of the riverway will be at least 400 meters at the base, with a depth of no less than 18 meters, a normal water level of 15 meters, and a slope of 20-25 degrees at the sides, as well as an average downhill slope of 0.04% or less. The trapezoidal cross-sections of other tributary rivers will be decided based on whether they will be opened for shipping, and if so, what the class of ships sailing on them will be.



Canal projects: The canal from the Qingshui River, through Datong, and on to Tongzhou will have a dam with water locks at the entrance of the Qingshui. Another dam with water locks will be located at the exit of the Guanting water reservoir. The trapezoidal cross-section and slope will be the same as the discharge channels on the north and south sides of the lower stretches of the Yellow River.



Channels for Diversion of Water for Human Use: The discharge channel upstream from Lanzhou, also known as the Northwest Channel, will have a branch which will carry water for human use, stretching from Jingtai, along the Yellow River on its Northwest side, to Hohhot.



After the phase 1 projects are completed, the temporary dams for the Wei River, Majia River, Jialu River, and Huiji River, as well as other discharge channels, will be dismantled. All the temporary dams constructed at the mouths of level-1 tributaries will remain. The discharge channel on the upstream side of Lanzhou will be opened up. At the exit of the Northwest Channel, near Lanzhou, a temporary dam will be built on the side toward the downstream side of the Yellow River. The portion of the channel cut off by the dam will be drained. The water can be used locally, or if it is too much, it can be diverted into the desert and used for irrigation.



Main Corridor project: At the mouth of the Yellow River, going out into the sea, a temporary dam will be built. On the downstream side of the temporary dam at Lanzhou, a dam extending below ground level will be built. The trapezoidal cross-section of the dry river bed will be at least 500 meters at the base, with a maximum depth of no less than 18 meters, normal water level of 15 meters, sides with slope of 20-25 degrees, and downhill slope same as the shipping channels. In the canyons of the upper and middle stretches of the Yellow River, the natural features of the terrain and its green cover can be maintained, but the depth and width of the channel must be made to reach the desired dimensions.



The entrance of the Wei River (渭河) water-supply channel will be directly across from the exit of the Lanzhou Northwest Channel.



Water-lock projects: Three dams extending below ground level, with water locks, will be constructed on the dry riverbed at Heishanxia [2], Tuoketuo, and Yumenkou. They will divide the drained riverbed into 4 sections, from Lanzhou-Heishanxia, Heishanxia-Tuoketuo, Tuoketuo-Yumenkou, and Yumenkou-Dongying. All three dams will have multiple locks, including one pair for 50,000-ton class ships, one pair for 20,000-ton class ships, one pair for 10,000-ton class ships, two pairs for 5000-ton class ships, and two pairs for 1000-ton class ships. The chamber inside the 50,000-ton class locks will have effective measurements of 300 by 50 by 12 [3]. The width of the water-lock dams will be about 800 meters laterally, and 1500 meters in the longitudinal direction [4].



Water reservoir projects: At the Maqu Daguaiwan area, there will be a water reservoir with a capacity of 150 billion cubic meters. On the inner side of the Daguaiwan area dikes will be built, and will connect with the mountains surrounding the area to form a vast reservoir 30 kilometers wide, 90 kilometers long, and 60 meters deep. The cofferdam dikes built around the reservoir will be trapezoidal in cross-section, with a 45 degree incline on the inner side, and a 30 degree incline on the outer side, running for a total length of 240 kilometers, at least 184 meters thick at the base, 60 meters tall, and at least 20 meters thick at the peak. The reservoir outlet will be on the downstream side of the Maqu Daguaiwan area. The dikes will be constructed using gabions, with geomembrane on the inner side, and filled with earth dug up on site.



Widening of the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal project: When the elevated riverbed of the Yellow River comes down to ground level [5], and connects with the Beijing-Hangzhou canal, the original capacity of the canal to carry vessels up to 1000 tons will make for a severe mismatch with the 50,000 ton vessel capacity of the Yellow River. Therefore, the capacity of the canal can be increased to carry 10,000 ton vessels, and the elevated portion of the canal in Shandong can be lowered to the same elevation as the connections with the Yellow and Yangze rivers. As the entire course is made flat and level, it will also be deepened and widened. The trapezoidal cross-section of the canal will be at least 300 meters at the base, at least 15 meters deep, with a normal water level of 12 meters, and a 20-25 degree slope on the sides. The average downhill slope of the canal will be decided by the relative elevation of the Yellow River and Yangze River riverbeds. If the slope is excessive, then the construction of water locks must be considered.



At the point where the main Yellow River shipping channel exits to the sea at Dongying, the bottom will be dredged to a depth of at least 25 meters. In the gulf port at the mouth of the Yellow River, the depth to which the mooring berths will be dredged will be decided according to the depth which the ships require.



After the phase 2 projects complete, all the tributary and main riverbed temporary dams will be dismantled. The bypass channels running along the Wei River and Yiluo River will be taken out of commission, but can be left in place in case they are useful in the future. The discharge channels on the north and south sides of the lower reaches of the Yellow River will be kept and will serve as secondary river channels. The primary river channel on the lower end of the Yellow River will become its primary shipping channel, and the secondary river channels will become secondary shipping channels. The primary and secondary Yellow River shipping channels, along with the Qingshui-Datong-Tongzhou canal and the Beijing-Hangzhou canals will all connect for passage of shipping traffic, and will form the backbone [6] of the new marine shipping network.



The discharge channels chosen for use during the Yellow River shipping channel project, are all preexisting riverways, which will greatly reduce the work to be done and the amount of movement required. The discharge channels used on the upper stretches of the Yellow River, however, do include some man-made channels for diversion of water to the Hexi Corridor. These discharge channels will not require too much work, will not occupy too much space, and will not require many people to be relocated.



Since the average downhill slope of the Yellow River riverbed is as high as 0.46%, the limited water volume available cannot maintain the required depth when descending such a steep slope. If we were to limit the average slope to no more than 0.06%, the height of each big dam with water-locks would have to be extended as high as 400 meters, or more. If that was the case, the work required to build each dam, and the technical difficulty involved, as well as the work involved in building dikes on either side of the riverway, would be greatly increased. The enormous dams and dikes, protruding hundreds of meters from the ground, would form huge barriers, as well as being a safety hazard. While our plan does involve a certain degree of height to the dams, we solve the problem primarily by making the base of the dams extend down below ground level, thus increasing the difference between water level behind and in front of the dam, and making it possible to flatten out the slope of the riverbed. The height of those huge 400-meter dams will mostly be *below* ground level, greatly mitigating the safety hazard, and reducing the technical difficulty of construction. This way, the above-ground height of both dams and dikes can be kept within reasonable limits.



Plan for the Water Diversion Project




150 billion cubic meters of water are to be drawn from the Brahmaputra, the Nu River, the Lancang River, the Jinsha River, the Yalong River, and the Dadu River, and be diverted to the upper Yellow River. Of that amount, 50 billion cubic meters will be taken from the Brahmaputra, approximately 30% of its yearly flow of 165.4 billion cubic meters; the Nu River will contribute 24 billion cubic meters, roughly 35% of its yearly flow of 74 billion cubic meters; from the Lancang River, 26 billion cubic meters, roughly 35% of its yearly flow of 74 billion cubic meters; from the Jinsha River, 28 billion cubic meters, roughly 20% of its yearly flow of 143 billion cubic meters; from the Yalong River, 12 billion cubic meters, roughly 20% of its yearly flow of 60.4 billion cubic meters; and from the Dadu River, 10 billion cubic meters, roughly 20% of its yearly flow of 50 billion cubic meters.



The water outlet on the Brahmaputra will be the point where the level-2 tributaries Palongzangbu and Yigongzangbu flow into the (level-1 tributary) Layue River. The diverted water will flow east along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, from Mibo to Bashe, and will join the channel for water diverted from the Nu River. The merged channel will continue flowing along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, from Xiaya to Changdu, and will merge with the channel carrying diverted water from the Lancang River. The channel, now carrying water from 3 rivers, will continue along the highway, from Jiangda to Dege, and will then merge with the channel carrying water from the Jinsha River. The merged channel will will continue along the highway, past Que’er Mountain, through Manigange to Ganmu, and will then merge with the channel carrying water from the Yalong River. Now carrying water from 5 rivers, the merged channel will continue along the same highway, through Huhuo, to Lianghekou, on the Dajin River, a tributary of the Dadu River. There, it will merge with the water diverted from the Dadu River, and will turn north, flowing along the Aba Highway, through Rangtang and Aba. It will continue flowing to the upper Yellow River, and will cross over the Yellow River and flow into the Maqu Daguaiwan reservoir.



Previous proposals for the Western Line water diversion project, have generally recommended using natural (downhill) water flow to transport the water, so as to reduce the operating costs of water diversion. However, this would make the technical difficulty of the project very great. It would mean building highly elevated reservoirs, and excavating long, deep tunnels for the water to flow through. If we take a different perspective, and abandon the idea of natural water flow, instead using external electric power to pump the water, that extreme technical difficulty can be avoided, though the operating costs will of course be much greater. If we can bear those operating costs, then the plan described above is feasible. The difference between the Datongdao water project and most other water projects, is that the economic and social benefits to be reaped are far greater. Most water projects take a long time to recoup the construction costs, or even never recoup them at all. In contrast, the Datongdao project has enormous meaning; in effect, it can turn Henan province, Shanxi province, Shaanxi province, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia province, Gansu province, and Anhui province into “coastal” provinces. At the same time, 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. So the Datongdao project can pay back all the capital expenses of the entire project, it can compensate for all the damages caused, and it can pay for the high operating expenses of electric pumping. Therefore, there is no reason why this project cannot proceed by use of electric pumping for water transport, thus easily avoiding the difficulty of building elevated reservoirs and deep, long-distance tunnels. Besides, the enormous power generation capacity which the Brahmaputra Daguaiwan power station will provide, will do much to relieve the strain on the existing power network.



If electric pumping is used all along the entire water diversion course, then there is no need to worry about altitude and levelness when choosing the route to be taken, so a route which takes the pipes along a public highway will be simplest and most convenient for construction. The volume of the reservoirs and channels for diverted water will not be an issue for water delivery, so construction of reservoirs at the water inlets and outlets will not be required. In the high mountains and deep valleys of the Southwest, there will be no need to build dams or dig long, deep tunnels, and the need to build roads for transporting construction supplies into remote areas will be greatly alleviated. Basically, all the tricky technical parts of the Datongdao and Western Line projects will disappear. With no high-altitude reservoirs, no deep tunnels, and pipes and channels running along public highways, the quantity, difficulty, and expense of construction work will be slashed. The investment capital required to set up water pipes and channels, and the high operating expenses of pumping the water, can all be carried by the enormous economic and social dividends provided by marine shipping. The electric power generated will be seasonal, which is disadvantageous for any other use; but for water diversion, it’s perfect. When the rivers are high, the hydroelectric power stations will produce at full capacity, just when the pumps need the most power. When the rivers are at moderate level, the hydroelectric stations will generate a moderate amount of power, and the power consumption of the pumps will also be moderate. When the rivers are low, water will not be diverted. Any hydroelectric power generated during the low season, as well as any excess power during the high season, will be given to Tibet.



The great canyon of the Brahmaputra forms a “U” shape facing toward the Northeast. The water reservoir which is to be built on the Brahmaputra will be toward the end of one branch of the “U”, at Paiqu town. That part of the canyon has yearly water flow of 68 billion cubic meters. The dam will be 50 meters high, and will pass 40 billion cubic meters through the generator turbines each year. The generator station itself will be located close to the other branch of the “U”, will have a capacity of 35,000 megawatts, and will connect to the reservoir through a sloped tunnel 30 meters in diameter and several kilometers long. The top and bottom of the tunnel will have a 2.2 kilometer difference in elevation, and will pass enough water to generate 150 million megawatt-hours per year.



The power used for pumping the diverted water could be brought in from elsewhere, or could be transmitted from the Brahmaputra power station. Ideally, the power generated from the diverted rivers would be used to cover the power needs of the whole diversion project, though this would increase the required investment and difficulty of construction. Even if it is deemed necessary to buy power from elsewhere, the economic benefits of the Datongdao project are still enough to pay for its operating expenses. Of course, if building the new power stations proves too difficult to do right away, the project could initially run on purchased electricity, and when the time is right, the Brahmaputra power station could be built. Or, if China’s level of engineering and construction expertise advances in the future, maybe converting the water diversion channels over to use natural water flow rather than pumps would become feasible.



Research Needed on Key Technological Questions for Shipping Channels




Through simulation and experimentation, the required downhill slope of the main shipping corridor sections, tributary shipping channels, and canals, as well as the height of the dams, and the dimensions, structure, and number of water locks can be determined.



Generally, a single set of water locks can raise a ship by 30-35 meters. To raise a ship over 400 meters, it will have to sequentially traverse more than 10 sets of locks. That will make the size of the big water-lock dams in the longitudinal direction exceed several kilometers. If we limit the number of locks to be traversed to cross a single dam to 5, then each set of locks will have to elevate ships by close to 100 meters, which would require a major breakthrough in water-lock design.



Geological analysis and experimentation will be required on the sites slated for construction of big water-lock dams. Through design modelling, the structure and dimensions of the dams can be determined (with a goal of achieving over 100 years of useable lifetime).



After calculating the steady-state water flow through the Lanzhou dam, the size of valves required and hoists for actuating the valves can be calculated. Estimates of the water level in the shipping corridors and below the Lanzhou dam will be made, and the design of the PLC programs for real-time control of water flow in and out of the water locks will be determined.



Likewise, according to the steady-state water flow through the Qingshui-Datong-Tongzhou canal dam, the size of valves and value actuators required will be calculated. Estimated water levels will inform the design of the PLC programs for control of water locks.



Likewise, calculations will be made for the Wei River (渭河) dam, the other tributary shipping channels, and the channels to Qinghai and the Hexi Corridor.



After soil study on the sites for reservoirs, the type of dike construction required to prevent leakage, and the dimensions of the dikes will be decided.



Research Needed on Key Technological Questions for Water Diversion




According to the cross-section and flow required through each of the water inlets on the source rivers, the design of the equipment for drawing water and the PLC programs for adjusting and controlling pump output will be determined.



Likewise, the cross-section and flow through the channel into the Brahmaputra hydroelectric station will determine the valves and valve actuators to be used, as well as the design of the PLC programs for controlling and adjusting water flow.



Regarding the 30-meter diameter, 40 kilometer long tunnel or pipe for sending water from the reservoir to the hydroelectric station, study is needed to see how to reduce leakage, to provide more electric power (at the cost of higher construction capital).



To control flow and reduce energy wastage, the water from each source river will go through its own set of intake pipes before flowing into the main pipe. The number and diameter of the intake pipes will be determined according to the desired volume of water to be drawn from each river. Likewise, according to the volume which each set of intake pipes adds to the flow in the main pipes, the number of main pipes and their diameter at each section will be determined.



Other Relevant Questions




The section from Lanzhou-Heishanxia is 290 kilometers long, with a drop of 280 meters, for an average slope of 0.96%. To reduce that slope to 0.06%, the drop must be reduced by 263 meters. If the dam at the bottom of this section is 150 meters high, the base of the dam at the top must be 113 meters below the ground. For Heishanxia-Tuoketuo, the distance is 950 kilometers with a drop of 250 meters, for a slope of 0.26%. To reduce that to 0.055%, the drop must be reduced by 198 meters. If the dam at the bottom is at ground level, the base of the dam at the top must be 198 meters below ground. For Tuoketuo-Yumenkou, the distance is 720 kilometers, drop is 610 meters, making a slope of 0.85%. To reduce slope to 0.045%, the drop must be reduced 578 meters. If the dam at the bottom is 150 meters tall, the base of the dam at the top must be 428 meters below ground. Yumenkou-Dongying is a distance of 1340 kilometers, with a drop of 340 meters, for a slope of 0.28%. To reduce the slope to 0.04%, the drop must be reduced by 328 meters. The outlet of this section will be at sea level, so the base of the dam at the top must extend 328 meters below ground. In these 4 sections, the greatest difference in water level across a dam is 478 meters; if that difference must be traversed through 5 sequential sets of water-locks, then each set of locks must have doors more than 100 meters tall. There is no way that such doors could be manufactured in a single piece and transported from elsewhere; they can only be built in place.



The elevation of the Qingshui River is about 500 meters, and the water level in the Guanting reservoir will be over 400 meters. So the slope of the channel leading to the reservoir will be rather shallow. At the entrance of the Qingshui from the Yellow River, a dam with water-locks, several tens of meters high, can be built. After the reservoir, the channel leading to Tongzhou is rather steeply sloped, so a dam with water-locks and 400+ meters difference in water level across the dam will be needed.



These dams which extend down into the ground, will require excavation of a vastly greater amount of earth, with a corresponding increase in construction cost. But on the other hand, those deep reservoirs will not require as much land area, reducing the number of residents who will have to be relocated.



When excavation for the dams reaches a certain depth, the earth will turn to bedrock, and further excavation will be much more difficult. To overcome this difficulty, we can do research and development of equipment for cutting away bedrock, as well as equipment for suspending and moving loads on cables drawn across the river in mid-air.



If the water level of the Fen River is too low, water can be drawn from the source of the Sanggan River (where the Datong canal is) and supplied to the Fen River. That water can flow through the Qingshui River, into the Fen River, and back into the main flow at the exit of the Fen River.



The shipping channel will pass through canyons in the Lanzhou-Heishanxia and Tuoketuo-Yumenkou sections. If the sides of the canyons are structurally sound, they can be left as is (with their green cover), and do not need to be widened. However, the base of the channel must be at least 150 meters wide.



The water-supply channel running from the Wei River (渭河) can use natural, downhill water flow. The tunnel required for this channel may be as much as 50 kilometers long.



Because the slope of the 4 sections of the main shipping channel will intersect with ground level (starting below ground level and moving above ground level), to stay out of the way of the 10,000-plus ton ships passing through, some cross-river structures can pass directly at ground level, some must cross over at a certain minimum height, and some may cross over underneath the river bottom.



Suppliers for large water locks, icebreaker ships, rock cutting equipment, and cross-river cable cars must be searched out and selected. If necessary, R&D of this equipment can be done specially for the Yellow River project.



Because the reservoir for diverted water will be on the upper Yellow River, and the volume of water to be diverted will vary with the seasons, water diversion will primarily be concentrated from May to November. This means that the required pump power and pipe capacity will be more than double what it would have been if the water diversion was evenly spread over the whole year.



Because this project will convey water at high pressure over long distances, equipment for real-time detection and reporting of water leaks will be needed. Also, in case of sudden pressure spikes caused by mechanical breakdown, real-time pressure monitoring and automatic pressure blow-off valves will be needed.



Suppliers must be selected for water pipes and pumps.



Influence on the Environment




Because of the large, high-volume reservoir on the upper Yellow River, other reservoirs will not be needed at the water inlets and outlets for water diversion. The dam at the Brahmaputra power station will be less than 50 meters high, and not excessively large, so the chances of causing a geological disaster is small. Even if a geological disaster was to occur, it would be unlikely to cause disastrous consequences. The water transmission pipes will be running along rivers and highways, not through long underground tunnels, so even if struck by a major earthquake, they would not be a threat to human life.



The limits imposed by geography on the routing of water transmission pipes, means that aside from the Brahmaputra, the water outlets and points for drawing water will mostly be at the upper reaches or the sources of the supply rivers. The water will be drawn in stages. On the condition that river ecology should kept fairly good, we will try to avoid laying excessively long pipes or using too much energy [7]. The water drawn from the Jinsha River, Yalong River, and Dadu River will be 20% of their yearly flow. On each river, water will be drawn at 2 points, one “water outlet” and one “water-drawing cross section” [8], each point taking 10% of the river’s flow. The water flow required to maintain healthy river ecology is 50% of this cross-section flow [9]. The water drawn from the Nu River and Lancang River will be 35% of their yearly flow, and will be drawn using 1 “water outlet” and 2 “water-drawing cross sections”, each point taking 11.7% of the river’s flow. The ecological water quantity will be 50% of this cross-section flow. The water drawn from the Brahmaputra will be 30% of its yearly flow. The proportion of water drawn at the Layue He water outlet, as well as the proportion diverted through the electric turbines will both be 60%, with ecological water flow of 40%. Basically, this conforms with accepted norms for ecological water flow, and will have only limited impact on the river ecology.



Building the reservoir for diverted water on the upper Yellow River will mean there is no need to build large reservoirs on the supply rivers. The technical difficulty of building a reservoir is the same no matter where you put it, but the upper Yellow River area is broad and open, and easy to access. This is much better than building a reservoir in the mountains and gorges where few people live, and where fault zones are closely concentrated.



Aside from the power station, the supply rivers will have no dams and no reservoirs, causing only limited damage to plant and animal life. This will make it possible to maintain the original ecology fairly well. The impact on ecology and the environment will be reduced to its lowest possible limit.



Benefits of the Projects




Overall Benefits of Marine Shipping




Currently, the Yangze River basin accounts for 45% of China’s GDP. The Yellow River basin’s contribution to GDP is only 20% of the Yangze River basin. But after the Yellow River shipping corridor opens up wide, the Yellow River area has room for development far exceeding that of the Yangze River area. It has rich energy and mineral resources, vast areas of arable land, ample sunshine, unique tourism resources, and the potential for a booming cruise industry. All this potential can be fully set loose by the Datongdao project. If we set 2030 as a baseline for completion, we estimate that in the first 10 years after completion, GDP would grow by 14%; in the 2nd and 3rd 10-year periods, GDP growth would slow down by 2%; and in the 4th and 5th 10-year periods, it would again slow down by 1.5%. If the project is not carried out, during the same time period, we estimate that GDP growth in the 1st 10 years would be 7%, dropping by 0.5% for each 10-year period following that. Under these 2 projections, over that 50-year period, tax revenues would differ by 20% of current GDP (social discount rate of 7%), and financial benefits would differ by 5% of current GDP [10].



If GDP growth in the Yellow River area was to drop by 1.5% in the 3rd 10-year period, and again in the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th, and if we estimate GDP growth in the Yangze River area at 7%, dropping 0.5% every 10 years, then in 32 years, the Yellow River could equal the Yangze River in economic output. Each would account for 30% of GDP, forming 2 pillars of the national economy. After another 38 years, the 2 areas would differ by a ratio of 2:1. In other words, by 2062 the Yellow River basin and Yangze River basin could each account for 30% of GDP, and by 2100, the Yellow River basin could exceed the Yangze River basin by a factor of 2, accounting for 45% of GDP, and forming the greatest axis of economic development in the entire country.



Ecological Benefits




The diverted water combined with the natural water flow of the Yellow River will total about 105 billion cubic meters per year. The water will be allocated as follows: To satisfy the needs of marine navigation on the Wei River (渭河), 10 billion cubic meters will be divided off and sent to the source of the Wei River; 5 billion cubic meters will go to the Jilantai desert lake; 20 billion cubic meters will be used to promote the growth of plant cover on the Loess Plateau, 10 billion of that going to the Ansaiwangyao Reservoir, and the other 10 billion to both Haotongyinchagan Nur (desert lake) in the Maowusu drylands, and Hongjiannao (desert lake) in the Kubuqi Desert; 10 billion cubic meters will go to areas along the Yellow River itself, 5 billion of that to Wuliangsuhai in the Hetao area, 3 billion to Liangchengdaihai, and 2 billion to Huangqihai in the area of Chahar Right Front Banner Tugui Town [11]; 5 billion cubic meters will flow into the Qingshui He-Datong-Tongzhou canal; and the original 30 billion cubic meters plus 50 billion more will be available for domestic and industrial use for residents of the Yellow River basin. The remaining 5 billion cubic meters, plus 10 billion more which will flow from the Wei River back into the Yellow River, will promote the ecological health of the Yellow River delta, and will finally flow out into the Bohai Sea. The amount of water available for human consumption and industrial use along the Yellow River will be increased by 20 billion cubic meters, and that for ecological use will be increased by 30 billion cubic meters.



The Datongdao is not only a massive shipping corridor, but also a huge ecological protection area. The ecological protection plan will be formed alongside the marine shipping corridor project plan, and will be carried out in parallel, harmoniously, with a goal of ensuring that the positive environmental impact will far outstrip any negative effects. Central China will benefit from a new and impregnable “green wall” [12]. A new “Great Wall of water” will be built, and for all of China, the trend of “localized improvements in living environment, but ongoing degradation as a whole” will be completely turned around.



20 billion cubic meters of the diverted water will be used for large-scale expansion of the grasslands and forests of the Loess Plateau. After several decades, the Loess Plateau will return to the warm and rainy climate, lush vegetation, and vast primeval forests of 6000 years ago.



100 billion cubic meters of diverted water will be used for large-scale conversion of deserts to healthy land, effectively arresting the ongoing spread of dust and sand storms. The areas which give rise to sand storms will be both shrunk and surrounded, and the deserts will turn into an oasis, until the source of sand storms has been completely rooted out.



In China, the cost of environmental pollution and ecological damage was calculated in the mid-90’s as 8% of GDP. The World Bank proposed a figure of 13% instead, whereas the whitepaper “Environmental Protection in China (1995-2005)” took it to be 10%. According to calculations by the China Academy of Science, the cost of environmental damage has already risen to 15% of GDP. If we take 10% of GDP as an estimate, and further estimate that the environmental improvements brought by the Datongdao project will reduce those damages by 1/3, the environmental value of the project will be 3.3% of GDP. If we use China’s 2010 GDP of 40 trillion RMB for the purpose of estimation, the environmental value of the project works out to 1.3 trillion RMB.



Power Generation Benefits




In areas, the project will increase power generation capacity. After water diversion, 100 billion cubic meters of water will be available for hydroelectric stations from Maqu all the way to Lanzhou, including those already built, those under construction, and those yet to come.



In other areas, the project will reduce generation capacity. Power stations already built, under construction, and yet to come on the Nu River and Lancang River will suffer a 35% reduction in capacity, and 20% for those on the Yalong River, Dadu River, and Jinsha River. The total loss in power generation will equal that produced by stations on the main riverway of the Yellow River, below Lanzhou, before water diversion.



With 2030 as a baseline year for completion, 20% of the difference between the increases and decreases, when projected over a 50-year period, will go to increasing national tax revenues (social discount rate of 7%). The 10% of pure profit will go to financial benefits. Of course, if the decreases exceed the increases, then the power generation benefits will turn into power generation losses.



Tourism Benefits




Tourism benefits will mainly come from 2 sources; first will be increased tourism in the Yellow River basin, especially a booming leisure cruise industry, and second will be increased tourism in the great Northwest. Right now, the yearly rate of growth in the Chinese tourism industry is 10%. With 2030 as a baseline year for completion, if the project is not carried out, tourism growth in the 1st 10-year period will be 8%, decreasing by 0.5% each 10 years after that; whereas if the project is carried out, tourism growth in the 1st 10 years will be 14%, decreasing by 1% each 10 years after that. Projecting through a 50-year period, 20% of the difference will go to increasing national tax revenues (7% social discount rate), and 8% pure profit will go to financial benefits.



Exploration of Related Questions




Regarding the citizens displced by the project, either their land can be bought out, new towns can be built for them in other locations, or they can be encouraged to immigrate to other areas, etc. Some can work in the new shipping and tourist industries, can be employed to work on ecological improvement projects along the river, or can share in the ongoing development of the Northwest and the Yellow River basin.



The discharge channels will mostly run along the course of existing rivers, and will take up little land and result in the displacement of only a few people. Resettling those people will not pose a problem. Those employed as farmers can continue working in the agricultural sector, which will experience great growth from the Datongdao project. They will become modern agricultural workers. In the aftermath of the project, rapid economic development will ensue in both the Yellow River basin and the Northwest, opening up plenty of work opportunities for all who work in other industries.



As large quantities of water are diverted into the Tibetan and Qinghai plateau, including the Three Rivers Conservation Area, the Norgay Conservation Area, and the Mount Hengduan Biodiversity Protection Area, the whole area will become much more suitable for human habitation, and will become a good place for displaced citizens to move in to.



The water diversion project involves 3 rivers which cross national borders, namely, the Brahmaputra, the Nu River, and the Lancang River. Development and exploitation of these rivers will raise the question of environmental impact on other countries. Because these rivers experience a heavy flow of water during the wet season, the countries downstream are often struck by floods. And water diversion will be carried out during the wet season. During the dry season, water will not be diverted. This will help to alleviate flooding in the downstream countries during the wet season, and during the dry season, the water available for their use will not be reduced. Actually, with such a great disparity between the wet and dry seasons, exploitation of the rivers for water diversion or for hydroelectric generation will produce very different effects on the downstream nations. If the water flow was even year-round, it would remain even under both water diversion and hydroelectric generation; it’s just that the flow would be less under water diversion. With variable flow, the hydroelectric dams could store water up to a certain point in the wet season, but after that, they would have to open up the watergates and let the water flow past, resulting in floods downstream. Conversely, during the dry season, the dams would have to hold back the water flow to maintain their reservoir level, resulting in a conflict of interest with the people downstream who need that water. In contrast, water diversion does not conflict with the interests of others in any way; when the water levels are high, water will be diverted, evening out the flow downstream, and when water levels are low, water will not be diverted, so if there are droughts downstream, that will have nothing to do with the water diversion project. The greater the variability in water flow, the better water diversion looks. Regarding the downstream countries, often beset by floods, not only will water diversion not cause a loss of water in the dry season, but it will alleviate or even put an end to the damage inflicted on them by floods.



The environmental benefits the project will bring to the Yellow River and other recipients of water, will far outstrip any environmental damage caused to the supply rivers and the Yangze. According to the principle of diminishing marginal utility [13], when the supply of some good increases, the utility derived from its use will also increase, but after a certain level of supply is surpassed, the marginal increase in utility derived from further increases in supply will diminish. If 50 billion cubic meters of water was added to the Yangze, which already possesses 1 trillion, it wouldn’t do much good, or if 50 billion were taken away, it wouldn’t cause any great loss either. In contrast, adding 50 billion cubic meters to the Yellow River, which only had 50 billion cubic meters of flow to start with, will result in huge benefits. Besides, because the water will be drawn in stages, along with other innovative measures designed to reduce the impact on the supply waterways, any damage caused will be very limited. The value of that water to the Yellow River basin, will be orders of magnitude greater than its value in the Yangze River basin.



Join the Conversation


  1. I checked the Yellow River Conservancy Commission’s webpages for the map you showed during your presentation in Delhi (28 March 2014). However, I could not find it even though the YRCC seems to entertain the same webpage twice, but under different URL: the official and .
    It would be very kind if you could send me the link to the map, or if you don’t have it any more, the image file of the map you had in your presentation. If one doesn’t have the exact character’s for the text of the map it is somewhat difficult, at least time-consuming to search for it. The link you have on rukor leads to a page without that map.

    What I also did was to use the search function for the terms “water diversion” and “Yalu Zangbu Jiang” (the Chinese term for the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra). What I found was what I had heard long before: that the Ministry of Water Resources (水利部) said the western water diversion project will NOT divert any water from southwestern rivers other than the Yangtse for the project (南水北调西线工程不取西南地区河水). For your convenience, I cite the URL of the respective news webpage here:
    Already half a year earlier (May 25, 2009), the head of the same ministry was cited saying: “For China, to divert water from the Yalu Tsangpo Jiang is not necessary, not feasible, not scientific” 中国前水利部长:中国从雅鲁藏布江调水“不需要、不可行、不科学”(

    In China, it was made clear that a water diversion from the Brahmaputra and other rivers than the Yangtse to the north is out of question. I heard that the guy who publicized for the scheme was not an official in charge, and that he was not taken seriously. So did I, since we also know in our countries that sometimes people have funny ideas, even if they have received a high-level education. I have read this news several times during the last years, and this news on the YRCC webpage to which you also referred during your presentation, was published as early as May and November 2009 (发布时间:2009年11月25日 责任编辑:徐倩 来源:中新网). This was why I couldn’t understand that people still discuss about the scheme as if it were still planned.
    Google shows 40,700 results for these Chinese news, so it was no secret.

    In 2011, Indian media also reported this, like The Hindu:
    Tibet support groups and sometimes western media, however, managed to keep “the idea alive” – I wonder for what purpose…

  2. A 300 mile canal or pipeline connecting Russia Yenisei River thru Altai mountains to China Irtysh River will help Xingiang,Kazakhstan,and Russia.Further rivers can be connected to this 300 miles of waterline.This could eliminated some diversion of water from the Tibetan Rivers.

  3. The Yellow River could be replenish by 10 billion cubic meters of water from the Dadu River,12 billion cubic meters from the Yalong River and 20 billion cubic meters from the Jinsha River.The power would have to come from the proposed free flowing Tsangpo River at the great bend.

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