China’s completion of the two routes channelling water from the Yangtze far to the north, to water deficit northern China, sets the scene for one of the biggest decisions China will make in the coming year.

The decision facing China’s leaders in 2015 is whether to now go ahead with the planned third canal –through Tibet- from the Yangtze in the south to the Yellow River in the north.

From the outset, the plan was for three canals, one far downriver and now in operation, the second in midriver, now in operation; and the third up in the Tibetan mountains, traversing troubled Ngawa and Kandze prefectures. All along, the plan was that first the two lowland canals would be dug and blasted, then the entire engineering team would be switched to Tibet, starting in the 13th Five-Year Plan period that starts in 2016. That’s the decision that must be made this year, as the next Five-Year Plan is finalised.

If the Ngawa Kandze route goes ahead, it will mean a massive influx of engineers, heavy equipment and a huge workforce, perhaps taking over a decade, certainly more than one Five-Year Plan to complete, as there is a lot of tunnelling through mountains and probably massive pumping stations, as well as the canal itself winding round mountain sides.

Since it has long been exactly those two Tibetan prefectures that have been most troubled, where most of the public suicide protests have occurred, such a massive encroachment will have major impacts.

However, much has happened in China’s domestic politics since this grandiose  Three Canal South-to-North Water Transfer project was first announced.

For starters, users of the Yangtze River, all the way down to Shanghai and the sea, are increasingly protective of their river, and don’t want any more of it diverted, and the downstream provinces carry enormous clout.

Critics in China rightly point to China’s insistent focus on increasing supply, rather than on moderating demand. As northern China is undoubtedly short of water, it remains amazing that rural users pay so little, and squander so much water. Inner Mongolia, largely dryland but with massive coal mines and electricity power stations, is especially hungry for water.[1] The huge coal mines of Inner Mongolia use vast quantities of precious Yellow River water to wash coal and suppress dust. Heavy industry still treats the Yellow River as a sewer for dumping toxics, even though the Environment Protection Ministry is at last getting some teeth. There are many reports showing in detail how demand management instead of increased supply could be a far cheaper way of dealing with the problem.

Another reason against this third canal ever being built is that the water, after flooding the richest wetland meadow pasture in Tibet, at Dzoge, will flow through the upper Yellow River, with water available to upper river provinces such as Gansu and Ningxia, maybe as far downstream as Inner Mongolia. But they will grab all the benefits, there won’t be enough flow for  the more politically powerful provinces further downriver, including the heartland of China’s coal and coal-fired electricity industry, plus Beijing itself.

Until very recently, this seemed to add up to a compelling argument that, for purely domestic reasons, the third canal might quietly fade away.

Now there is a new factor, which is the fast pace of heavy industrialisation of Xinjiang, directly to the north of the Tibetan Plateau, and equally unhappy at Han domination. China’s policy for long-term solving all ethnic unrest is development. That strategy works patchily in Tibet, but in Xinjiang a new wave of industrialisation is gathering pace. Many aluminium smelters are being built, reliant on electricity generated by new coal and gas burning power stations using the abundant fuel supplies of Xinjiang and which China imports, via Xinjiang, from Kazakhstan to the west.

There is only one thing missing in Xinjiang, and that is water. Much of Xinjiang is desert, its towns traditionally clustered around oases. Coal fired power stations need cooling towers that use a lot of water, likewise aluminium smelting and other major heavy industries under construction in Xinjiang will all need lots of water.

This could tip the balance towards the third canal which, if big enough, could divert water not only eastwards to Gansu and further down the Yellow River, but also north and west in Xinjiang.

Another change that has happened since the 3-canal scheme was first announced, is that in today’s China there is and will be a semi-public debate about the various options.[2] We will be able to track it, and if we are skilful, contribute to it. So throughout 2015 we should be alert to this ongoing debate, which is likely to intensify.

China’s hydrologists and engineers have revealed not only the route of the Ngawa/Kandze route but also some alarming basic statistics on the design, most of which suggest it may never be built, despite having been announced over a decade ago as part of a grand package of three south-to-north canals.

In eastern Tibet, the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers look tantalisingly close, much closer than the downstream locations of the two great canals just constructed. But that’s where it stops looking easy. There are few locations where the two rives are reasonably close, and also at roughly the same altitude. Even the chosen location, driven by the lie of the land, actually requires that water be pumped uphill, in fact almost up by half a kilometre, 458 meters up to be precise. Even if the rivers to be dammed have extremely high dam walls (as planned), that is still a lot of pumping, in fact the engineers estimate is 7.1 billion kilowatt hours (KwH) of electricity will be consumed pumping water uphill. That’s approximately the same amount of hydroelectricity generated by the entire province of Henan, or Shaanxi, or Xinjiang, all of them middling provinces on China’s hydro league table.[3] That means a lot of hydro dams to be built as well, in eastern Tibet just to push against gravity. You can seldom use the same dam to divert water away from where it wants to go, and use that water to generate electricity by letting it drop, so that’s many more dams.

Then there is the minor inconvenience of the Bayan Har mountain range that intervenes between the valleys of the Yangtze tributaries to be dammed. That will have to be tunnelled; a long tunnel in a seismically active area where some of the very strongest earthquakes, of magnitude 8 and even 9, are known to occur.

But, for China, the clincher is that, for all that effort, the volume of water that can be diverted to the Yellow River is a maximum of 20 billion cubic meters a year, most of it in the wet summer months. That is just not enough to reach the lower Yellow River, let alone flush it out. The whole attraction of these megahydraulic projects is the idea of recharging the Yellow River all the way to the sea. The more the Yellow River is over-used, the slower and weaker it gets, dropping its load of sediment first picked up in Tibet, dumping it in the lower reaches where the river is already above ground level in many areas, having been built up by labour-intensive embankments over many decades as a flood control measure. A sluggish Yellow River that in some winters fails to reach the sea at all is also a major flood danger in the summer peak flow months, if the bed is raised by extra sediment.

These statistics come from Zhao Hongliang’s 2014 book Centennial Hydraulic Project: South-North Water Diversion,[4] which enthusiastically praises the canals built downriver, but is much more cautious about the western route, and its 300 kms of tunnels. Zhao points out that even if this project does go ahead, it will not be complete until 2040. But if it is to go ahead, the 13th Five-Year Plan period, of 2016 to 2020 is when it will be listed, with funding allocated.

Dynasties throughout Chinese history have risen and fallen, depending on whether they controlled the waters, or were controlled by rising floods, and lost their legitimacy. Zhao Hongliang reminds us China needs to get this right: “Those who are sophisticated in running a country also pay great attention to water control. Success and failure of water control also decides to a great extent the rise and fall of a country or nation, which is true at all times and in all lands.”

In the New York Times David Barboza recently noted that “Such enormous infrastructure projects are a Chinese tradition. From the Great Wall to the Grand Canal and the Three Gorges Dam, this nation for centuries has used colossal public-works projects to showcase its engineering prowess and project its economic might. Now, as doubts emerge about the country’s three-decade boom, China’s leaders are moving even more aggressively, doubling down on mega-infrastructure. ‘China has always had this history of mega-projects,’ said Huang Yukon, an economist and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank based in Washington.’It’s part of the blood, the culture, the nature of its society. To have an impact on the country, they’ve got to be big.’ Whether China really needs this much big infrastructure — or can even afford it — is a contentious issue. The infrastructure plans run counter to Beijing’s commitment to reduce its heavy reliance on government-led investment to fuel growth. And some economists worry that the country might eventually be mired in enormous debt.”

Traditionally, the Yellow River has been called “China’s sorrow” for the frequency of devastating floods, and increasingly frequent droughts. China has time to consider carefully whether the depleted state of this great river becomes the cause of Tibetan sorrow in Ngawa and Kandze.


[1] Troy Sternberg, Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia, Inner Mongolia: Coal heaven, water hell, China Environment Series #12, Woodrow Wilson Center, 2013

[2] Scott Moore, Hydro-politics and inter-jurisdictional relationships in China: the pursuit of localised preferences in a centralised system, China Quarterly #219, 2014, 760-780

[3] China Energy Statistical Yearbook 2011, table 3-10

[4] China Intercontinental Press, Beijing, 2014

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.