Hydropower Projects on Drichu (Yangtze), Zachu (Mekong) and Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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.


Anonymous said...

This is an incredible map which reflects a huge amount of time and effort, thank you very much for making it available.

The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

You're most welcome. It's great to know that people appreciate the work. Thanks to you too.

tidtee said...

Thank you for sharing this! Hopefully, your effort will pay the price of protecting this!

The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

Thanks Tidtee. Here is a latest news report of NGOs in downstream countries making an effort to check on these projects.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tibetan Plateau Blog.

To making such information available is very thankful. You are doing a great job. One thing that I like to ask is: How do you know that the Chinese plans "Hydropower Project" What is your information recourse?
Thank you.

The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

Hello Anonymous, we use a variety of information sources as mentioned above. This sounds straight forward but the process of sieving-through these disparate sources of information is actually complicated and very time consuming. There are Chinese government sources, publications from power/construction/energy industries, then there are scholarly publications, reports from media and "watch dog" groups, and finally online Chinese discussion forums. We look for atleast two or more reliable sources of information to confirm or designate the hydropower projects. Use of Google Earth and feedback from experts are also important ways of ensuring accuracy of our study. I hope this helps. Thanks for your question, and keep visiting. Cheers!

James said...

Thank you again for compiling such a map, this time on the upper Yangtze, Mekong and Salween. It will serve as a basic source on the subject for years to come. I do have several points to comment on the map:

1: According to the plan for hydropower development in the TAR the big dams up in that region will only be considered for construction after the year 2020. The roads and bridges in that region are just too small to make any such large project possible at present or for years to come.

2: I did count 16 projects with an installed capacity of below 200 MW on the list and the map. One (Longqingxia) has even a capacity of only 2.52 MW. My conclusion is that such relatively small power plants are for local or regional use only, and do not include a dam built across the river. A dam across these large rivers costs at least 500 million US dollars and is not built to generate electricity for a village or two. I suggest considering the use of another symbol for such small power stations, and not the symbol of a dam across the river as used on the map at present. The exceptions are dams near the source like Chalong dam near Nagchu, where the Salween is indeed only just a medium sized river which can be crossed on a horseback without getting wet.

Such small power stations are designed to use a small percentage of the water from the river to operate a power station above the river bank. In Tibet small rivers freeze completely during winter and taking water from a big river is the only way to generate hydropower 12 months a year. People there need electric power much more in winter than during summer.

3: Regarding the 302 meter tall Tongjia dam and the South to North water transfer project: Many decisions have been made since 1995, and while occasionally still something may get published in China regarding such projects I suggest to consider the following: Why would China build after 1995 so many dams further downstream and at last divert the water elsewhere? If they do so in the future not only will a large part of the investment further downstream be wasted, but also shipping on the Yangtze and water and electricity supply in central China will be affected as well. The provinces along the Yangtze are far more important and have a better lobby in Beijing than the areas which would benefit from a water transfer out of Tibet to the North. As strange as it is each new dam built in eastern Tibet makes sure the water will not be diverted.

Thinlay said...

Tashi Delek! Truly speaking, your work has disclosed many of the secret projects that has been carried and still carrying out on Tibetan rivers. Congratulations Sir. It will be of great help for many of us (Tibetans)

The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

Dear James,

Thank you for your excellent comments.

#1: Your assessment of published plans make sense especially for HPPs with 1000MW - 3000MW, except those on Drichu projects on the Sichuan-TAR border.

#2: Good points. We thought of this before and did the best we could with our limited resources. The smaller dams are shown on the map because they are refered to in the media and one of the goals of the map is to provide a reference for people reading the media.

# 3: As described above, our goal in showing Tongjia is to alert readers about the existence of the centrally approved project. Your point on downstream projects making the upstream ones less likely to be undertaken seems logical but there are calculations (studies) showing Tonjia having only a smallish effect on downstream dams since the diversion is so close to the source. AND the water would instead go through the Yellow River HPPs so not much power generation potential is lost. And a lot of water actually comes from different tributaries that join the mainstream river. Besides, the final decision may be totally political.

This also reminds me of the studies that falsify Three Gorges Dam justification of controlling floods downstream, esp after the 1998 Yangtze flood. The studies found that much of the flood water of Yangtze come from tributaries downstream of Three Gorges Dam.

Again, thanks for your interest James. Please continue to contribute. I will be posting a new map of HPPs on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) soon.

The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

Dear Thinlay,

I wonder which Thinlay you are, hmm ....

Thank you for your comments. Please continue to visit and share news and stories.


Anonymous said...

I noticed some dams already built on salween. Are those marked dams are the ones suspended in early 2000s due to the declaration of the site as UNESCO world heritage site.

Are dams in area of Chamdo, TAR built on Salween or its tributaries? Can we call a tributary by its main river name when it comes to building a dam?

The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

Notice the star or asterisk signs (*) next to HPPs from Songta South on the Salween River. These are the ones on hold. As far as I know the decision to suspend these projects has little to do with UNESCO world heritage site. In fact I remember critics pointing out that Chinese authorities had carefully demarcated Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site boundary to not include these dam sites. I think the decision to halt these projects had more to do with internal Chinese environmental politics: creative campaigns by civil society leaders, partnering with government agencies (SEPA) and media, and the government's need to listen to the green movement. I think the unprecedented interventions by Premier Wen Jiabao (see here, here and here) were courageous, but I fear construction will continue soon after he leaves his office.

On the map only Jinhe HPP is on a tributary of the Mekong River. It is visible in Google Earth, with tunnels under a mountain, and a power station and water outlet on the Salween.

Anonymous said...

We just returned from SE Asia, where we spent time on the Mekong, I was told it translated as "The Mother of All" We were also told that China intends to dam this river. This was such a very sad and concerning piece of information to receive, as the people water their rice paddies, fish, travel and live on this river. They grow amazing crops on the banks as the river receeds towards the dry season and then harvest before the next rise. How will these people live without this constantly replenishing force for their lives.

Anonymous said...


Can you please use tibetan names too and make it a practice to do so?
The chinese have taken our land...now they are taking our names too

The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

Hello, thank you for your comment. I am acutely aware of your concerns and have always used TIbetan names whenever I can and have always made special effort to find the names. As for these maps, these show Chinese hydropower projects, many of which do not have Tibetan names. Part of my goal is to provide reference and clarification to people researching these projects, so these people must have the Chinese name for consistency and clarity. Notice that traditional Tibetan cities and towns are identified with Tibetan names. In the future, I will update and make improvements on these maps, during which I will also consider providing Tibetan names for these projects.

Anonymous said...

Hi i found this website to be good on Hydro Power


Vaishnaviconsultants said...

Such a great and informative article thanks for sharing. Hydro Consultant.

Vaishnavi C said...

Project of Hydro-power on "the Land of Snows, the source of great rivers"
sounds great. Thanks for sharing the information along with us. Your project shutdown many other secrets projects. Heartiest congratulations to you.

Tashi said...

Thank you all your kind comments and for visiting this site. All the best!