Joint IndiaChina development and utilization of waterpower
resources in eastern Tibet could facilitate a mutually beneficial balance of geopolitical
power in the Himalaya. A multi-national macroproject, consisting of one inflatable
bladder dam, a short pressure tunnel and a powerhouse, all harnessing the sharp descent of
the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra River) at a topographic course loop, could supply Earths
two most populous nation-ecosystems a low-cost means of rapidly improving national
standards of living.
Modern-day geopolitical competition between India and China
over parts of Tibet indisputably started on 20 October 1962; since that deadly military
confrontation, both nation-ecosystems have mainly indulged in a lively diplomatic
jousting match. A speculative 25 May 1999 letter to the Editor of Current Science,
Why does river Brahmaputra remain untamed?1, offered a very
expensive, and technically complex, macroproject answer involving
canals, aqueducts, drainage channels, tunnels, river-training embankments most
probably because K. S. Valdiya decided against any
public discussion of a simpler, widely-known, and cheaper internationalized macro-engineered project.
China established a Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965; the TARs
1990 population was ~ 2.2 million persons, native Tibetans then accounting for 8090%
of that estimate. In the TAR region east of Lhasa closest to India, the main river is the
Yarlung Zangbo, which has a drainage basin of ~ 328,300 km2 and an
average annual freshwater discharge of ~ 4,160 m3/s. This river
may have a hydropower potential of 296.8 TWh in Tibet. Since 90% of Chinas coal
deposits are located north of the Yangtze River, which will be tamed by the Three Gorges
Dam early in the 21st century, it may be necessary to harness Tibets abundant
surface water resources. A pumped-storage facility
incorporating a tunnel has been built at
Yangzhuyong Lake located 9.5 km south of the Yarlung Zangbo and
90 km from Lhasa which, since 1997, furnishes Lhasa with its first
reliable electricity supply; it seems likely TARs ongoing industrialization will
further increase the regions base and peak electricity loads. And, China is a major
player in controlling greenhouse gas emission globally2.
Worlds no. 1 hydropower site?
The 1,790 km long Yarlung Zangbo exits the QinghaiTibet
Plateau near the 7,756 m high Namjagbarwa Feng, passing from Miling County at the
entrance to a steeply sloping canyon, thence to the town of Wulang in Medog County, TAR. A
42 km long bored pressure tunnel, with a fall of ~ 2,160 m, could carry the
rivers flow through staged Francis turbines, annually generating
~ 240 TWh; this unique installation would very likely be our land-based
civilizations mightiest renewable electric power-producing facility. An IndiaChina
cooperative TAR macroproject would obviate any need for China alone to pursue an
old-fashion-style (post 20 October 1964) macro-engineering plan involving peaceful nuclear
explosions bruited during the December 1995 Beijing meeting of the Chinese Academy of
Engineering Physics, to excavate a 20 km long canal through an intervening mountain
range north of the Yarlung Zangbo in order to convey irrigation-quality water to the Gobi
Indias astute macro-engineers have relevant practical
experience with Himalayan tunneling. Considering what has already been accomplished in
Switzerlands riddled Alps, as well as the record-setting burrowing achievements of
the Finns in supplying freshwater to their capital4, this proposed macroproject
is doable at a reasonable monetary cost, even without anticipating tunneling technologys
When this TAR-sited macroproject is discussed, too often it is
envisioned as a gigantic concrete or concrete-faced rock-fill dam-pressure tunnel
combination. China has gained construction experience with large concrete gravity dams on
rivers in the most populated provinces of its vast national territory-ecosystem. A
rock-fill dam on the Yarlung Zangbo upstream from Namjagbarwa Feng will naturally have to
be at a discovered site of excellent foundation rock, with cement grouting treatment as
required, and a reasonably high compressive modulus rock-fill. An additional difficulty is
the possibility of reservoir-induced earthquakes in a
seismically-active TAR mega- graben; massive rock slides can be stimulated by
heightened groundwater levels behind dams, as well as by distant strong earth tremors.
China, India or stream-sharing Bangladesh citizens must never have to endure a
catastrophic dam over-topping such as tragically occurred at Italys Vaiont Dam on 9
October 1963; a 19 June 1999 New Scientist (162,
#2191, p. 4) news-flash written by Fred Pearce (Hell and high water) revealed the awful
prospect of a similar catastrophic mega-flooding
disaster afflicting Amudarya River
valley-dwelling peoples located downstream of Tajikistans Sarez Lake when a
dangerously unconsolidated natural rock-fill barrier formed by a 1911 earthquake-induced landslide suddenly crumbles. The
Amudarya River terminates at the disastrously evaporating Aral Sea.
But, what if IndiaChina macro-engineers opt to build a simple
low-rise inflatable dam at the key site (near lat. 29°50¢N, long. 95°10¢E) on the
Yarlung Zangbo in the TAR?
Generalities of persuasion
Instead of installing a large, high and costly concrete or rock-fill
gravity dam, a < 10 m tall nylon-reinforced rubber bladder (when utilized,
filled by either air or water) securely anchored in a rock-locked steel-reinforced
concrete base-plate will induce a shallow freshwater reservoir to quickly accumulate58.
Subsequently, ~ 100% of the rivers flow can be diverted (during
appropriate times or season) directly to the pressure tunnels head-gate. Nearly
abandoned, the steep deep-canyon streams bed may then be transformed into a
topographically descending series of stepped runoff and erosion control
sediment-trapping basins; its appearance then will resemble the 12 June25 November
1969 dewatering of the Niagara Rivers American Falls Channel a
period which encompassed the First Moon Landing and its future
anthropogeomorphological state may be as identically iffy as that which Shailer S.
Philbrick (19081994) projected for an unrestored Niagara Falls landscape region9.
Water flow fluctuation means the pressure tunnel must be very well designed, dug and
defended by a strong impermeable lining. An impoundment with a shallow pool depth ought
not increase significantly the local seismicity and rock-slide hazard. Imagine an
integrated hydropower-generation and super-conducting electric power delivery grid netted
throughout the Himalayas, serving the geopolitical and economic development interests of
India, China and other inter-linked national ecosystems! The more vociferous Greens beg or
bully India and China not to burn their affordable existing coal resources to
delay the onset, or to reduce the final overall impact of, a commonly alleged enhanced
global atmospheric warming the more self-righteous India and China
may become when they do jointly harvest the TARs hydropower for further separate
industrialization; India and China are space-faring UNO members which remain bedeviled
by down-to-earth widespread low human standard of living levels. Cooperation of these two
major players as guides for Tibets future economic development may ensure their own
21st century peace and prosperity!
Tibetans ought to have an important role in this proposed
flood-mitiga-tion and developmental macroprojects planning as well as its
post-construction operation, especially if they can tolerate a small alteration in their
sacred rivers altitude (i.e. its flowing level) or its temporary capture for
industrys use. In Tibet the major environmental impact should occur in the low-flow
river within the valley north, east and south of Namjagbarwa Feng. However, the
inflatable dam can be deflated, or removed forever, at any time! This macroproject
might be undertaken dur-ing 2002, which was declared (on 10 November 1998) by the United
Nations Organization to be the International Year of the Mountains10.
1. Valdiya, K. S., Curr. Sci.,
1999, 76, 13011305.
2. Michaelson, J., Stanford Environ.
1998, 17, 73140.
3. Horgon, J., Sci. Am.,
1996, 274, 1415.
4. Niini, H., Eng. Geol.,
1967, 2, 3945.
5. Tam, P. W. M., ASCE J.
Irrig. Drainage Eng., 1997, 123, 7378.
6. Chanson, H., ASCE J.
Irrig. Drainage Eng., 1998, 124, 181184.
7. Plaut, R. H., Civil Eng.,
1998, 68, 6264.
8. Anon, ENR: Eng.
News-Rec., 1999, 242, 20.
9. Philbrick, S. S., Geol. Soc.
Am. Bull., 1974, 85, 9198.
10. Ives, J. D., Arctic Antarctic
Alpine Res., 1999, 31, 211213.
Richard Brook Cathcart is at GEOGRAPHOS, 1608 East Broadway, Suite #107, Glendale, California 91205-1524,