Tibetans proudly sing of their land as "the Land of Snows, the source of great rivers." Indeed, Tibet is widely regarded as “Asia’s Water Tower.” This blog post highlights hydropower projects (HPPs) on three of the major rivers that flow from Tibet: the Yangtze, the Salween and the Mekong. The Yangtze River originates in Tibet as “Drichu” and flows into China, supporting one of the most densely populated watersheds in the world. The Salween River, known as “Gyalmo Ngulchu” in Tibet, supports one of the most biodiverse watersheds of South Asia, mainly in Yunnan Province, Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. And the Mekong River, known as Zachu in Tibet, flows from Tibet through six countries: China, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. What goes on in the sources of these great rivers should concern not only Tibetans but also all citizens of the world.
The map below highlights 81 HPPs on the upper reaches of Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. There are many more, especially smaller projects on the many tributaries of these rivers, which are not included in the map. We have only indicated HPPs that are relatively large, on the main stream and confirmed by two or more reliable sources. Unlike HPPs on the Yellow River and in the eastern edges of the Tibetan Plateau, most of the HPPs on these three rivers have not reached power generation stage yet. The completed projects are mostly smaller HPPs. The larger projects are either under construction (Gangtuo, Boluo, and Lawa) or in the construction ‘pipeline’ as “Under Active Consideration” or “Proposed.” It makes sense to build smaller ones first, which can help supply energy and infrastructure for construction of bigger projects.
Click on image below for enlarged view and download
Why is China building so many dams on these rivers? To answer this question, it is important to ask who makes the decision and benefits, and what are the larger (political, economic and historical) contexts under which these water development projects are being implemented. An important slice of this puzzle concerns China's Water Industrial Complex. Other contextual answers include China’s project of promoting rapid economic development in Tibet under the Go West! or Western Development Campaign. Energy needed for major mining, infra-structure construction and urban development projects under the Western Development Campaign will be supplied by these HPPs. Many of these HPPs will eventually be connected to larger (“Ultra-high voltage”) power transmission lines to supply energy to prosperous Chinese cities in the East.
China also plans to divert Tibet’s rivers. The Western Route of the South to North Water Transfer Project , which is slated to begin construction in 2010, is one such project. A detailed report published by the Ministry of Water Resources in 1995 reveals plans to build at least three very large dams on the upper reaches of Yangtze River. We have indicated one of these three dams, the 302 meter tall Tongjia dam, with a separate color for three reasons: details may have changed since 1995; the dam is not a HPP; and to keep the project under public scrutiny.
Click below to view technical details of HPPs on Drichu (Upper Yangtze)
Click below to view technical details of HPPs on Zachu (Upper Mekong)
Click below to view technical details of HPPs on Gyalmo Ngulchu (Upper Salween)
Since these HPPs are Chinese projects, we have used their Chinese names. Although a lot of work has gone into this map, including feedback from various experts, it is not final. The data shown in the map should be seen as our current knowledge, arrived at after research and consulting others, what the current situation is. We will be improving on this, so we seek your feedback, to produce a better and more formal report publication in the future. Meanwhile, those interested in using this map are free to do so.
Sources and Methods
The information shared in this series of maps on hydropower projects on the Tibetan Plateau has been obtained from a variety of sources. These include: Probe International, International Rivers, HYDROCHINA, news reports from both inside and outside of China, Chinese government and state owned corporation websites, Google Earth, JPRS China technical reports, and a number of scholars and experts who reviewed our maps.
The map is a collaborative project, as have been the others in this series. While I take full responsibility for inaccuracies, the real credit of this amazing work goes to my research assistant and map maker, who must remain anonymous for good reasons. I would also like to thank the many experts who have made valuable contributions to these maps. Your contributions have resulted in a much better map than would have been produced otherwise.
Hydropower Project: Definition and Categories
A Hydropower Project consists of an electrical hydropower station and associated dams, tunnels, ancillary buildings, roads, and modifications to the surrounding environment.
For the purposes of this map, a hydropower project's status has four possible values: Built/Operational, Under Construction, Under Active Consideration, and Proposed. These categories are fuzzy in the sense there is some overlap and each category can cover a wide range of examples.
The term 'Built/Operational' includes HPPs that have started generating power but are not complete, those complete and operational, as well as those that have been operational but are currently non-functional. The first report of a generator becoming operational is sufficient for a project to be assigned this status.
'Under Construction' indicates that work is proceeding on the ground though not necessarily that the river has been blocked or diverted. Ideally we would be able to have a 'Site Preparation' Status which would indicate that preparatory work is occurring at the site, but this is not possible without more detailed information than is typically available to us.
'Under Active Consideration' indicates that according to current data the project is being considered for construction, which may include exploratory work at the site, but is mainly intended to include design and other work not necessarily involving modifications of the site.
'Proposed' includes those HPPs which have been discussed but for which we have no information suggesting that they are currently under consideration.
'On Hold' indicates either that a project is being reviewed by Beijing, or that it has been reviewed and the government has decided not to allow it to go ahead.
Capacity is given in Megawatts. This should be understood to be the planned maximum rated power generation capacity of the generators of a HPP when it is completed. While every effort has been made to assure their accuracy, these figures are often given somewhat different values in different sources.
The positions of the HPPs shown on the map are approximate. A professional map should be used for accurate geographic information.
This map is the third in the series of maps of HPPs on the Tibetan Plateau. See here and in the here for HPPs on northern and eastern parts of the Tibetan Plateau and stay tuned for HPPs on the Brahmaputra River.