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Landslide in Tibet: Both India and China have reasons to worry about
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Claude Arpi | Date:30 Oct , 2018 0 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

Some recent happenings on the Tibetan plateau have serious implications for India; in particular the devastating landslide on the Yarlung Tsangpo, a river which becomes the Siang in Arunachal Pradesh and the Brahmaputra in Assam.

A barrier lake has formed after a landslide hit the Yarlung Tsangpo River in SW China’s Tibet on Wednesday morning. The safe evacuation of local residents is being carried out

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) October 17, 2018

Landslide in Tibet

On October 11, Xinhua reported that a ‘barrier lake’ had formed on a section of another river, the Upper Yangtze (Jinsha River in Chinese); the mishap was due a landslide which had taken place in Jomda county of Chamdo prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Though no casualties were reported, the amount of water in the new lake reached about 100 million cubic metres in a short time.

The Chinese media affirmed: “the scale of the landslide is vast, clogging the main waterway of the Jinsha River, with several bridges, fields and villages affected.”

Was it a coincidence — but the same day, President Xi Jinping chaired an ‘important’ meeting called to improve disaster prevention, which could be triggered by the mega Sichuan-Tibet railway project, planned to cross the same ecologicallyfragile area? If the project is realised, it could undoubtedly result in unthinkable environmental damages.

During the meeting, Xi “called for efforts to improve the country’s ability to safeguard against natural disasters, and fully launch the planning and construction of the Sichuan-Tibet railway”.

The Party’s general secretary promised “to protect people’s lives and property and national security.”
Six days later, Xinhua reported the formation of a new lake on the Yarlung Tsangpo, not far from the Great Bend of the river, north of Arunachal Pradesh.

“A barrier lake has formed after a landslide struck a section of the Brahmaputra Valley near Pe Village of Mainling County,” said The Telegraph.

China’s water resources ministry immediately informed Delhi of the seriousness of the situation; emergency bells rang downstream, particularly in the Upper Siang district.

All this raises serious issues for India …and for China.

The evacuation of more than 10,000 people in SW China’s Tibet Autonomous Region is underway following a landslide that blocked a major river in the region, local authorities said on Thursday.

— People’s Daily,China (@PDChina) October 18, 2018

During the meeting chaired by the Chinese president to discuss the SichuanTibet railway, Xi spoke of “profound significance for the country’s long-term stability and the development of Tibet.”

Three members of the all-powerful Politburo’s Standing Committee were in attendance: Premier Li Keqiang, Wang Huning and Vice-Premier Han Zheng.

Xinhua commented that China was one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. “…But its overall capability to respond to such extreme conditions is still relatively weak, and more should be done.”

It had earlier been rumoured that there was a rift between the Chinese President and his Premier, who in July, had visited Tibet in rather strange circumstances, probably to inspect a section of the projected mega railway line. While Xi seems in favour of going full steam on mega projects, his Premier believes in a more human (and less energy consuming) approach.

Siang river is a very big river & when there are some natural calamities like earthquakes or landslides, it possess danger to people who live downstream: Union Minister Kiren Rijiju on Brahmaputra river blockage caused due to a landslide in Tibet

— ANI (@ANI) October 20, 2018

Cost of mega projects

An article in The Wall Street Journal indicates that a serious debate is raging in the Middle Kingdom and Beijing was trying “to kick its habit of using big-ticket infrastructure spending to fuel the economy, a turning point from a growth model…”.

One of the problems is of course the environmental consequences, especially in ecologically-fragile areas, but the other issue is: who will pay the cost of these pharaonic schemes?

Further, an improvement in the protection of the environment will come at a price; the cost of certain projects like the railway between Sichuan and Tibet may increase many folds.

One of the questions never mentioned in the Chinese press is: can Beijing today afford these mega projects?

What would be the usefulness of a railway line between Sichuan and Lhasa, when excellent highways exist?

The meeting chaired by the Chinese President just said that “it will promote ethnic solidarity, safeguard national unity and consolidate the stability of the frontier, as well as bolster Tibet’s economic and social development.” There is no doubt that in the mind of Xi Jinping, the chairman of the Central Military Commission, the ‘consolidation of the frontiers’, (i.e. the Indian border), is crucial.

Ecological approach

A few months ago, The China Daily provided some details of the project: “A preliminary study on the Kangding-Nyingchi section of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway shows the section will include at least 10 rail tunnels each longer than 10 kilometres.”

The China Daily commented: “Since the new line will have to go through intricate and difficult geological conditions, and its construction will have to overcome frozen earth, landslides and rock slides, experts have dubbed the Sichuan-Tibet Railway China’s most challenging rail project.”

The recent landslides are an example of what could (will) happen to the railway line; the construction in such difficult terrain is bound to create havoc for the Tibetan plateau’s environment.

A more ‘ecological’ approach is bound to drastically increase the cost of the project; it is where Li may not fully agree with the Emperor.

As for India downstream, though the waters have started receding, the happenings on the Yarlung Tsangpo are truly worrisome.

Several years ago, a map of the prospective largest hydropower plant in the world, more than twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam, had circulated.

The departure point was where the landslide has just taken place last week, while the hydropower station was located in Metok, a few kilometres north of Arunachal.

Is this project still on the cards? It would certainly spell disasters in the making for India. Let us hope that wisdom will prevail.


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