Thursday, April 02, 2015

Michael Buckley in the New York Times: "The Price of Damming Tibet’s Rivers"

Here is an opinion piece by Michael Buckley in the New York Times, along with a few of my comments, in italics.  My problem with the piece is that what it leaves out and fails to consider suggests that Buckley's analysis and opinion cannot be trusted.

Michael Buckley is the author of “Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems From the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia.”  Perhaps he is more interested in selling books than in leading an objective discussion.

NEW DELHI — CHINA has more than 26,000 large dams, more than the rest of the world combined. They feed its insatiable demand for energy and supply water for mining, manufacturing and agriculture.
Isn't renewable power generation supposed to be good?  What percentage of potential water power is being exploited?  Perhaps there should be more large dams.

In 2011, when China was already generating more than a fifth of the total hydropower in the world, the leadership announced that it would aim to double the country’s hydropower capacity within a decade, so as to reduce its heavy dependency on coal-fired power plants. Since the waterways of mainland China are already packed with dams, this new hydropower output could come from only one place: the rivers of Tibet.
Isn't reducing dependency on "dirty" coal-fired power plants supposed to be good?  Aren't tradeoffs always involved?  What are the tradeoffs - bad and good?  What is the optimal number of dams?
Rivers gushing through deep canyons at the edges of the Tibetan plateau hold the highest hydropower potential in the world. The headwaters of seven major rivers are in Tibet: They flow into the world’s largest deltas and spread in an arc across Asia.
If the Tibet is the largest and most efficient source of hydropower, why wouldn't it make sense to use it?
Two of the continent’s wildest rivers have their sources in Tibet: the Salween and the Brahmaputra. Though they are under threat from retreating glaciers, a more immediate concern is Chinese engineering plans. A cascade of five large dams is planned for both the Salween, which now flows freely, and the Brahmaputra, where one dam is already operational.

If there is something bad about this - what is it?  Adding dams doesn't cut the average flow of water downstream, so  is the "flowing freely issue irrelevant?  
The damming does not benefit those who live in Tibet. The energy generated is transferred to power-hungry industrial cities farther east. Tibetans are forcibly deprived of their land; protests against hydropower projects are prohibited or violently dispersed.
Presumably, Tibetans use electricity, or will in coming years.  If so, then they do or will benefit from lower electricity prices stemming from more power generation capacity.  Are the Tibetans who are deprived of their land compensated in any way?  Does this differ much from Eminent Domain here in the US?
Even more alarming are projects to divert the waters of Tibet’s rivers for use in mines, factories and other industries. At the eastern edge of Tibet, a planned mega-diversion from south to north would move water from the Yangtze to the Yellow, China’s two greatest rivers. Other plans call for diversion of water from the Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong — all rivers that cross national boundaries. Including China itself, up to two billion people downstream from Tibet depend on these rivers. Damming and diverting them will have a severe impact on their lives and environment, especially when you consider that rice and wheat require water-intensive cultivation.
It is not likely that the current river routes are "optimal".  So, the rearranged river routes may be "better", in the aggregate.   How many people will diverting the rivers help, and to what degree?  How many people will be hurt, and to what degree.  If a cost-benefit analysis favors benefit, isn't it possible to make everyone better off by diverting the rivers and arranging for suitable compensation of one form or another?  Is the problem primarily river rearrangement or the failure to do it "fairly".
Rivers support entire ecosystems. They carry tons of nutrient-rich silt downstream, a cocktail of elements needed for growing plants: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and calcium. Silt is essential for agriculture and for bolstering the deltas against rising sea levels. Dams block silt, and they block fish migration. The Yangtze is China’s biggest freshwater fishery, but since the Three Gorges Dam that spans it was completed in 2012, the downstream population of carp has fallen by 90 percent, according to Guo Qiaoyu of the Nature Conservancy in Beijing.
Will the nutrients disappear or simply be deposited elsewhere, with consequent benefits elsewhere?  Was fewer carp the only impact?  Were there any benefits?  Were the benefits worth the cost?  Are there new fisheries - or could they be created?
Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh heavily depend on rivers sourced in Tibet. More than 60 percent of Cambodia’s annual fish catch derives from Tonle Sap, a lake that is replenished by the annual flooding of the Mekong. Over the last decade, as new Chinese dams have come online on the Mekong, the fish catch has plummeted. The waters rise and fall at the whim of Chinese engineers.
It is unlikely that the Chinese care as much about these three countries as themselves, so there is an issue here.  However, the article considers none of the benefits that might offset the costs, the negotiations among countries that might mitigate the costs, or how these countries might have adapted to the changes.
Then there are the direct human costs of damming and diverting: Whole communities must be relocated from areas flooded by a reservoir. They are often shifted to degraded land, where they live in poverty or have to relocate once again. By some estimates, hydropower projects have forced some 22 million Chinese to migrate since the 1950s.
Once again, no cost-benefit analysis - simply an emotional appeal.  Eminent Domain was created because benefits can exceed costs, resulting in a net benefit.  The argument should be about  whether eminent domain is applied fairly, so that everyone benefits.  If an eminent domain project provides a worthwhile net benefit, it should be possible to compensate "losers" so that even they are winners.

In Tibet, since the 1990s, at least a million nomads and farmers — a sixth of the population — have been relocated from grasslands to make way for mining ventures and hydropower projects. These “ecological refugees” are shunted into ghettos. Moreover, China claims complete sovereignty over Tibet’s rivers, oblivious to protest from Tibetans and from the people downstream.
This is not a "building more dams" issue, it is a political issue about exercising eminent domain fairly.
The United Nations has done too little, too late. In 2014, the Watercourses Convention came into effect, spelling out guidelines for transboundary water sharing, but it is nonbinding. More to the point, China is not a signatory — and neither are most nations of South Asia.
This will end badly for the nations downstream from Tibet, which are competing for scarce water. Damming and water diversion could also end badly for China, by destroying the sources of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.
My prior is that China will not put much weight on the downstream nations' interests in planning its hydropower generation.  However, that is not the same thing as downstream nations having no benefit.  Their electricity cost may be lower, since power transportation is relatively cheap.  In fact, it would be in China's interest to generate more power to the extent it can be sold profitably to downstream nations.
The solution to these complex problems is simple: Since these enormous projects are state-run and state-financed, China’s leaders can cancel them at will. Though campaigns by Chinese environmentalists have stopped some dam projects, the pro-dam lobby, backed by Chinese consortiums, is powerful. There are alternatives to disrupting the rivers: China has made great investments in solar and wind power, but has not significantly deployed them in Tibet.
Note the extreme solution advocated without addressing the benefits adequately.  Also, note the failure to recognize the limitations of solar and wind power, which are unreliable.
China’s leaders need to consider the costs of forging ahead with these projects. The health of these rivers is of vital concern to all of Asia.
Yes, they should - just as the author should have considered the tradeoffs properly.  And when they do, my guess is that there will be a net benefit from going ahead.

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