'Red Flag River’ Diversion Project
A few weeks ago, I mentioned a new scheme for diverting part of the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) towards the north and northwest of China.
The project was spearheaded by Prof Wang Hua of Tsinghua University.
It appears that many have started raising issues on the feasibility of such mega project.
A scientific paper has come out in The Journal of Natural Resources in China.
It makes interesting points.
It is titled The Query: The Feasibility of the Water Diversion Function of ‘Hongqi River’ and written by Yang Qin-ye and Jing Ke1 of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Science and, Xu Jian-hui of the China Science Daily in Beijing.
A new element
A relatively new element in the debate on the subject is the recent declaration of the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Syed Muazzem Ali.
Responding to a question on China building dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo, Ali said: “On the Brahmaputra basin, we are very concerned about diversion of water and Bangladesh is prepared to join a joint basin management concept where we will discuss the points of water as it flows from the point of origin to the point of exit in the sea.”
He added: “And naturally, we will be very happy to fully cooperate with all regional joint agencies.”
He said that Bangladesh believes in joint river basin management both in the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.
It would be good if India and Bangladesh could align their position on the subjet.
The original Hongqi Project
The Red Flag Canal (‘Hongqi’) is an irrigation canal located 80 km northwest of Anyang in the northern extremity of Henan province.
In China, it is a mythic project because the canal was initiated during the Great Leap Forward and dug entirely by hand labour in the 1960s. The main canal is 71 kilometers long. It begins close to the border of Henan and Shanxi province, diverting water from the Zhang River which flows from Shanxi. A dam is located near the junction of the three provinces. The canal winds around the side of a cliff, through 42 tunnels and along the side of the Taihang Mountains.
The Red Flag Canal was the subject of several movies. It has been used by Chinese propaganda as an example of what workers can achieve under local mass initiative.
The new Hongqi project
According to those who conceived it, the basic objective of the present ‘Hongqi River’ Project (also known as ‘Red Flag River’ Project) is to improve the ecological and environmental conditions of dry areas in the Northwest China.
It could be done, they believe, by transferring water from the following rivers to Xinjiang and other arid areas in Northwest China:
- the Yarlung Zangbo (later Brahmaputra)
- the Salween
- the Mekong
- the Yangtze
- the Yalong
- and the Dadu River
All these rivers flow from the Tibetan plateau.
The objective is to develop some 200 million mu (around 13.33×104 km2) of farmland and an oasis (green corridor) in these desert areas.
The above mentioned paper notes that the ‘Hongqi River’ Project is a grand ‘idea’ of water diversion across river basins, which has attracted wide attention at home and abroad.
This ‘grand idea’ faces multiple severe challenges in the fields of geology, technology, economy, society and ecology, and there is a great uncertainty, admits the scientists.
First issues: can 60 billion m3 of ‘diverted’ water cannot meet the needs of the development of 200 million mu of farmland?
Then, can it meet the needs of the ecological green belt of 15×104 km2?
Some Chinese scientists would like to realize both at the same time.
The authors of the paper do not agree: “From the perspective of physical geography, natural resources and environment and regional development”, the answer is ‘No’, they assert.
How much water will reach Xinjiang?
Another question is how much water can reach the areas to be developed in Xinjiang “when there is strong leakage and evaporation along the river?”
According to those who planned the project, it should be built in 10 years, with investment of 4 trillion yuan (US $ 650 billion). Knowing that the normal investment for farmland irrigation per mu is about 2,00,00 yuan, the cost of ‘diverted’ water per cubic meter will be around 66 yuan.
The paper rightly asked: “Who will pay for the expensive water bill when the project is completed and running?”
The Environmental Impact
Yet another issue is the environmental impact and ecological consequences triggered by the water diversion. There is a great uncertainty; the authors admit that they are highly concerned.
The paper further explains that the water diversion project is not only a complex water conservancy project, but also a very complex ecosystem engineering, and a very complicated social and economic project.
Have the engineers who conceived it studied this in detail?
The list of issues to be tackled is long: “Environmental effects, ecological consequences and socioeconomic effects involve complex geophysical, chemical and biological processes, as well as the complex process of harmonious balance between human and earth relations.”
Interestingly, the paper also notes that that is an international angle to ‘diversion’: “The ‘Hongqi River’ Project involves international rivers. The potential geopolitical risks need to be drawn attention.”
India and Bangladesh and the countries of the Indo-Chinese peninsula have certainly not been informed.
The conclusions of the authors are: “At the existing level of understanding, it is necessary to make a thorough and systematic study of these problems.”
The noted that there are also misunderstandings in the public about the ‘Hongqi River’ project: “there are still several views that are contrary to scientific cognition, such as ‘changing the climate pattern of China’ [by diverting the water], ‘forest causing precipitation’, and breaking the ‘Hu Huanyong Line’.
The paper goes in detail and clarifies some of these misunderstandings.
This paper shows that there is no unanimity among Chinese scientists for the mega project.
Let us hope that sanity will prevail at the end, but a lot of money is involved. It makes many lobbies greedy.