Tapping the Asian Water Tower Remains a Chinese Pipedream

8 November 2017 Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


According to a report in the South China Morning Post, Beijing plans to construct a tunnel, one thousand kilometres in length, to divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo (as the Brahmaputra River is known in China) to Xinjiang province in western China. The diversion, if it is built, would be located in Tibet, known as the water tower of Asia. The Chinese foreign ministry, however, has denied the report and re-iterated a commitment to riparian co-operation. Officially, the Chinese Government maintains that the water transfer scheme is not technically or economically feasible and is pursued only by excitable engineers.


The report has raised Indian concerns, with at least one regional government minister concerned that China could launch a “water bomb”. Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Central Tibetan Administration in Exile, believes it is only a matter of time until China begins groundwork on a project to divert water from Tibet. He claims that only 12 per cent of the Chinese population has access to freshwater and, therefore, Beijing will seek to acquire water from elsewhere.

In September, representatives of Indian and Chinese civil society organisations attended a transboundary planning and management workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal. Even in this relatively innocuous setting, the level of distrust between the two countries was palpable with an Indian participant suggesting that his Chinese counterpart ‘sounds like a government spy’.

There is good reason for India to be cautious about Chinese intentions. India accused China of refusing to share hydrological data during the recent monsoon season and is concerned about Chinese dam construction in Tibet, which it believes could lead to a reduction in the amount of water available to it.

In response to concerns about lower water availability, New Delhi has called for an inter-ministerial meeting with representatives from the governments of Arunanchal Pradesh and Assam, to discuss options to store water from the Brahmaputra. Large dams would help to alleviate rising water stress if water is diverted, but also come with potential risk that is heightened by the region’s unstable geology.

A water diversion tunnel from Tibet to Xinjiang will not be built any time soon, particularly since the requisite technology to accomplish such a feat is not yet available. A tunnel in Yunnan is a “rehearsal” of the new technology, engineering methods and equipment required for the Tibet-Xinjiang tunnel, according to the South China Morning Post. There is every possibility that this project will fail to develop the technology necessary for large-scale tunnel construction. Engineers are adamant, however, that the technology needed to construct the tunnel will have matured within the next five to ten years.

Geological realities are likely to frustrate Chinese water diversion plans. The geology of Tibet and Yunnan is unstable, making tunnel construction exceedingly difficult. A 14.5km-long railway tunnel in Yunnan, for instance, has been plagued by floods and cave-ins, calling into question the appropriateness of this kind of infrastructure in the region. Given that part of Xinjiang province lies atop a large aquifer, which could hold more water than all of the North American Great Lakes combined, it will be more cost-effective and easier for China to develop this water resource than build a technically challenging tunnel through Tibet.

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