Walker's World: The most dangerous place

MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

FRANKFURT, Germany, May 14 (UPI) -- The most dangerous place on Earth right now may not be in Iraq, nor in the Gaza Strip nor even in some underground nuclear laboratory in Iran or North Korea. It is on the roof of the world, at a place called Namcha Barwa on the eastern plateau of Tibet.

This is the cradle of the headwaters of what the Chinese call the Tsangpo River, and at over 14,000 feet above sea level, it is the world's highest. For India and Bangladesh, this is the Brahmaputra, on which Bangladesh depends for more than half of its fresh water, and its crops need the annual gift of the fertile silt it carries.


For India, according to the Department of Environmental Science at Assam's Gauhati University: "The Brahmaputra basin in India is most generously gifted with a fabulous water wealth that accounts for nearly 30 percent of the total water resources and about 40 percent of the total hydropower potential of the country."

It is at this point in Tibet that China is planning to build the world's largest dam, with 26 turbines, expected to generate 40 million kilowatts per hour of hydroelectricity. Thanks to the steep drop the river makes, this is twice the expected output of the famous Three Gorges Dam over the Yangtse.


Chinese engineers suggest that the dam could provide cheap electricity for India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and that the dam could facilitate flood control in the Brahmaputra-Ganges basin. But they add that the diverted water from the river would irrigate the northwestern part of China's Gobi desert in Xinjiang and Gansu, up to 400 miles away, and refill the dying Yellow River, which now runs dry for much of the year.

"We can certainly accomplish this project with nuclear explosives," claims China's Academy of Engineering Physics, whose chief planner, Professor Chen Chuanyu, proposes driving an 8-mile tunnel through the Himalayas to divert the water.

When India raised concerns about these plans during the last visit to New Delhi of Chinese leader Hu Jintao (himself a water engineer by training), China said no such plans existed. But something is certainly afoot, according to China's own media, who report that a survey of river potential is now under way in Tibet.

"As part of a nationwide environmental protection drive, the campaign will be the longest and most wide-ranging examination of the region's use of water resources," Xinhua news agency quoted the deputy director of the standing committee of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People's Congress, Luosang Toinzhub, as saying in Lhasa.


At the same time, the Chinese government is relocating some 250,000 Tibetans -- almost 10 percent of Tibetans living in the remote Himalayan country -- from scattered settlements in the country to new "socialist villages." The project, which got under way last year, is formally titled the "comfortable housing program," and although the villagers are being moved without their consent and having to build and pay for their own housing, China claims this will give them better access to schools, healthcare and employment. Tibetan sympathizers in the West see it as yet another Chinese drive, following the mass immigration of Han Chinese to the region, to overwhelm traditional Tibetan culture.

Bangladesh, currently run by a weak interim government installed by the military, is now under pressure from some of its own experts to start complaining -- loudly. Mohammad Inamul Haque, former director general of the Bangladesh Harbor and Wetlands Development Board, is calling for an immediate appeal to the United Nations under the U.N. Convention on Non-Navigation Uses of International Watercourses, which forbids barring the natural flow of any international river.

"We should raise voices against the project at home and abroad immediately," says Maminul Haque Sarker of Bangladesh's Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, who claims that the water flow of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna will decline by one-third if the project goes ahead.


Indian officials, already denying claims from local members of Parliament that China has moved up to 10 miles into India and built helipads, are asking China for clarification. China's ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, last year reiterated Beijing's claim to a major portion of India's Arunachal Pradesh province, but diplomats on both sides then downplayed the issue and referred it to the long-stalled talks on border disputes. The Indian military, which suffered a bruising defeat 40 years ago when Chinese troops briefly surged over the border before retreating, are speaking off the record of "deep concern."

But the controversy over the proposed dam is now spreading beyond the region. Professor K.M. Elahi, chairman of the department of environmental science at Stamford University in Bangladesh, is raising the alarm.

"India and Bangladesh would be at the mercy of China for release of adequate amount of water during the dry season and for protection from floods during the rainy season," Elahi wrote in Bangladesh's Daily Star.

"China, in her own interests, could withhold water for power generation and irrigation during the dry season and release water during the rainy season, with catastrophic consequences for the lower-riparian countries. Further, this whole region would be starved of nutrient-rich sediments that enrich the soil, but which would be held up in the reservoir," he added.


"Perhaps the most serious environmental disaster could ensue as this area is located in a highly active earthquake-prone zone where breaching of the dam could cause devastating floods both in China and Indo-Bangladesh," he wrote.

There is no doubt that China needs the water. But so do India and Bangladesh. In this context, water is a matter of life and death, which is why the decision to be made in Beijing whether to go ahead with damming the Brahmaputra makes this tiny corner of Tibet potentially the most dangerous place on Earth.

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