Technical difficulties, state relations cited as reasons

A top Chinese Water Resources Ministry official has ruled out any plan to divert the Brahmaputra river's waters to tackle water shortages, even as hydropower industry groups have renewed calls on the government to lift a suspension on dam projects on the river's fast-flowing upper and middle reaches to address a power crisis.

Jiao Yong, Vice Minister of Water Resources, said at a briefing here on Wednesday that China had no plans to divert the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo as it is known in Tibet, considering “technical difficulties, environmental impacts and state relations,” referring to India's concerns. Every year, Mr. Jiao noted, 166.1 billion cubic meters of water from the Brahmaputra flows outside China's borders.

Mr. Jiao's comments come amid calls by some Chinese experts for a rethink on the Western diversion plan to tackle water shortages in China's arid north. In recent months, some Chinese hydro-engineering experts, such as Wang Guangqian of Tsinghua University's State Key Laboratory of Hydroscience and Engineering, have argued that the diversion project was feasible with recent technological advancements.

The Water Resources Ministry has, however, voiced opposition both to diversion plans and proposed hydropower projects to tap the river's ecologically sensitive upper reaches.

Influential State-run hydropower companies have been campaigning for the government to kick-start suspended plans for 28 proposed dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo, leaving the future of the projects uncertain.

The calls for the hydropower dams have grown louder this year, in the wake of a power crisis triggered by the worst drought in five decades that struck the Yangtze river this summer.

Mr. Jiao said on Wednesday China planned to harness more than 5,000 rivers over the next five years, and double its annual spending on water conservation to reach 4 trillion yuan ($ 635 billion) over the next decade.

Zhou Xuewen, chief planner of the Ministry of Water Resources, said most of the spending — 38 per cent — would be used for flood control and disaster reduction water and soil conservation projects, with another 35 per cent invested in water-supply projects. The rest, he said, would be used for farmland irrigation projects.

In June, Zhang Boting, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Society of Hydropower Engineers, told The Hindu in an interview that a power shortage this year meant that China had “to build more hydroelectric dams”.

‘Technology sufficient

He disagreed with the assessment from the Water Resources Ministry that building hydropower projects on the Brahmaputra river's upper reaches posed technical difficulties. The technology, he said, was “sufficient”, except in the “Great Bend” of the river, where the Tsangpo turns towards India — a terrain, he said, where “it is difficult to put in equipment.”

Despite the difficulties, Sinohydro, a major State-owned hydropower company, has put up a proposal on its website for a 38-gigawatt plant at Motuo, near the Great Bend, a project which Mr. Zhang said could save up to 100 million tonnes of coal.

Hydropower projects, he said, unlike diversion plans, would not affect India, although many experts say even large run-of-the-river dams, such as the one proposed at Motuo, could impact downstream flows.

Last November, China began damming the Yarlung Tsangpo for the first major hydropower project on the river, a 510 MW run of the river project at Zangmu, which will come into operation in 2014.

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