Chinese plans to build a major tourism project and national park in a Tibetan county have dealt a blow to hydropower lobby groups who have proposed the construction of massive dam on the Brahmaputra’s ‘Great Bend’, where the river begins its course towards India.

The Chinese government announced on Saturday it had earmarked 400 million yuan ($63.5 million) to develop tourism in Nyingchi prefecture in south-eastern Tibet. The plans include an ambitious proposal to raise two billion yuan ($317.5 million) to build an “international tourism town” in the border prefecture.

The “golden tourism” project in Nyingchi follows the opening of Tibet’s first national park in the same county in December in the Grand Canyon of the Yarlung Zangbo river, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet.

The plans appear to signal the government’s moves to develop the region as a tourism hub, amid rising pressure from hydropower groups to tap the enormous potential of the canyon and the ‘Great Bend’, where the river spectacularly falls over 1,000 metres.

A number of hydropower lobby groups have called on the central government to give the green light for as many as 28 proposed dams on the Yarlung Zangbo. China has, so far, only embarked on one hydropower project, a run-of-the-river dam at Zangmu on the river’s middle reaches which officials say will not impact downstream flows.

Of particular concern to Indian officials was a proposal by Sinohydro, an influential state-owned hydropower company, to build a massive 38-gigawatt project at Motuo near the ‘Great Bend’, a dam that would surpass even the Three Gorges project in scale. Environmental groups have raised concerns about the plan’s impact on both the sensitive ecosystem of the region and on downstream flows.

Wang Songping, deputy chief of Tibet’s regional tourism bureau, was quoted as saying by state media that the national park at the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon would be run by a committee “responsible for environmental protection”, and would “follow an internationally-accepted practice in its management of tourism resources and minimise harm to the plateau ecology.” The park stretches across several counties in Nyingchi and Qamdo prefectures.

The plan for the park has disappointed hydropower groups pushing for the projects. Zhang Boting, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Society of Hydropower Engineers, told The Hindu in an interview last year that a dam on the ‘Great Bend’ could save up to 100 million tonnes of coal. But he did acknowledge there were technical barriers to putting in equipment, with the river falling by over 1,000 metres over steep gorges.

India and China will this month discuss the issue of trans-border rivers in a working group meeting. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during talks last week on the sidelines of the Rio+20 summit that China was willing to strengthen communication with India on the issue, and would share hydrological data.

Chinese officials have in talks sought to address Indian concerns over long-discussed proposals to divert the Brahmaputra’s waters, under the western route of the massive south-to-north water diversion project.

Work on the central and middle routes, which divert water from the Yangtse river to the arid north, is already in progress.

Chinese officials said on June 19, during a working conference on the project, that “construction of the final west route, which is hampered by difficulties of crossing the 3,000-5,000 metre-high Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, is not yet scheduled to begin.”

The Nyingchi tourism project, officials said, also will include 22 “model villages” built over three years at the cost of 100 million yuan ($15.8 million), where residents will provide family hotel services for tourists. Indian officials rejected media reports which claimed the tourism project in the border prefecture would have bearing on the long-running boundary talks, pointing out that the relevant region was not part of the dispute and was a region where India did not hold any territorial claims.

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