Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A river runs wild. Make that two. How do you say "dam(n) it" in Chinese?

This is a post that will find fault with the Chinese government, criticize the uber-prioritization of economic growth, and favor the natural environment.  A holy trifecta of a bait for this guy;)

A wild and crazy duo; no, not that kind.
Wild and crazy rivers, that is. 
Two of the continent’s wildest rivers have their sources in Tibet: the Salween and the Brahmaputra.
Are you thinking what I am thinking?  Exactly!
The Salween?
Wikipedia notes that it is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world, at 1,749 miles.  And its name in Chinese translates to "the angry river."  Looks like the Brahmaputra is a tame one compared to the Salween!

Notice the source for these two?  Tibet.  Uh oh!

The occupied Tibet + rivers with untapped potential + need for energy + communist capitalism = yes, that's where that op-ed is going.
Though they are under threat from retreating glaciers, a more immediate concern is Chinese engineering plans. A cascade of five large dams is planned for both the Salween, which now flows freely, and the Brahmaputra, where one dam is already operational.
Now, keep in mind that China's voracious appetite for energy means that it already "has more than 26,000 large dams, more than the rest of the world combined."  More than the rest of the world combined.  Re-read that and take a deep breath.  We've just begun!  What are the issues here?
  • Damming and diverting waters with impacts on the ecosystem
  • Damming and diverting waters affecting countries downstream
  • No benefit to the people of Tibet--energy exported to the east
  • Local Tibetans displaced and the “ecological refugees” are shunted into ghettos."
I have merely summarized the key points.  The details in the op-ed are not pretty.

So, can anything be done at all?
The solution to these complex problems is simple: Since these enormous projects are state-run and state-financed, China’s leaders can cancel them at will.
Fat chance of that ever happening!

I was confident that commentators in India would have written in plenty in this context.  Of the few that I scanned through, I liked this take, which ends thus:
In a letter dated 4 December 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Bertrand Russell: “We do not want to do something which will endanger our planet. I do think, however, that there will be a greater danger of that kind if we surrender to the Chinese and they feel that the policy they have pursued brings them rich dividends”.
More than 50 years later, it is fervently to be hoped that better sense will prevail in China, and the lives of millions of people of the subcontinent will not be endangered by killing the river Brahmaputra. 
I tell ya, we better get on to that energiewende fast.


Ramesh said...

Same as last post.

Yes, building dams is bad. Yes, diverting water is bad, etc etc. Bad Bad Bad.

What is the alternative ?? Coal fired plants ?? Nuclear energy ?? What ? Somebody will write a similar OpEd no matter what the chosen route is.

A more useful OpEd would say how to minimise the harmful effects. How to meet the energy requirements of Asia while harming the environment as less as possible. There will be harm. But perhaps it can be kept to an acceptable minimum. How. Perhaps sacrifice the carp, but allow water allocation to downstream countries. I don't know.

I have no time for one sided OpEds. I wouldn't have read it but for your blog posts. Anything you refer to in your posts, I faithfully read !

Sriram Khé said...

Dear faithful reader ;)

As you are well aware, I have been in favor of transitioning to energy sources away from coal and petroleum. I want us to mindfully work towards making alternatives scalable and inexpensive. It will take quite some effort, yes. But, if we can wage wars and send humans to the moon, then this is a task that is not impossible.

But, there is the time it will take for the transition. Again, as you are aware, I have argued in favor of nuclear energy for the transition. The latest generation of nuclear plants are immensely safer, and should be tapped into as we find our way out of coal, petroleum, NG and, yes, hydro too.

Unfortunately, as you point out, almost always those who oppose carbon-based energy sources and the hydro also oppose nuclear. And those us who favor nuclear for the transition even as we work towards minimizing the impacts on the environment end up being called names that will make even a Victorian male blush.

Given that rational approaches won't ever happen, well, all I can do is blog about them all.

hehehe ;)