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Stealing the monsoon and other damming stories

Jonathan Watts, author of When a Billion Chinese Jump, predicts a 'burst of dam building' in Tibet. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: Jul 30, 2010 14:21 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

A Chinese general called Guo Kai once proposed how to smuggle the Indian monsoon into China. In the seventies, Guo calculated that hammering the Himalayas with 200 nuclear warheads could blast a 2-km wide air tunnel to divert moist air from India to thirsty China.

In the new book, When a Billion Chinese Jump, the Guardian's Asia environment correspondent Jonathan Watts tracks the retired general to a teashop. The chat with Guo, described in a chapter on China's dams, has piqued the interest of some Indian strategists.

Guo told Watts that India and Bangladesh are flood-prone anyway, so diverting a third of Tibet's rivers would be good for all concerned. Guo's now an uninfluential pensioner, but a section of Chinese engineers still believe in damming the upper Brahmaputra gushing from Tibet into India and Bangladesh.

At a talk in Beijing this week, Watts predicted a ‘burst of dam building' in Tibet along the Yarlung Tsangpo – the Brahmaputra. Beijing denies the existence of plans to dam and divert the river.

Watts told the Hindustan Times why he thinks the Brahmaputra's potential power would be ‘irresistible' to China's hydro engineers. "China's hunger for energy is prompting the government to tap every conceivable resource," he said. "The completion and expansion of the Beijing-Lhasa railway will make it easier to move engineers and equipment to Tibet for infrastructure projects. The dam building has already begun."

Watts traversed over 100,000 km across China from glaciers to deserts, clean energy labs to coal mines. The interviews with Mao era scientists to today's officials provide useful insight for nations looking for lessons from China's clean-up. Indian scientists have lately toured China to study its clean power technology, river cleaning and afforestation projects. The author found divergent views on the success of these projects from officials and the local people facing the direct impact of environmental damage.

"China's effort to clean-up pollution and restore biodiversity should be studied but not uncritically copied," said Watts. "As in other countries, the official version is not always the final word so it's worthwhile listening to both non-government critics and government cheerleaders."

Latest data for the first half of 2010 indicates that air quality in the world's top polluter fell for the first time since 2005 and 189 cities received acid rain. Over a quarter of China's surface water is now too polluted to drink.

First Published: Jul 30, 2010 14:14 IST