SAT 19 Jun, 2021
Environment/Nature

China to build the world’s biggest dam on sacred Tibetan river

In the foothills of the Himalayas, where the ancient Yarlung civilisation established the first Tibetan Empire, China has plans to build the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam.

In November of last year, China’s state-owned media shared plans for a 60-gigawatt mega-dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo river in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

Now with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, Beijing has redoubled its efforts on its hydropower projects in Tibet, even though the dams have drawn criticism from Tibetan rights groups and environmentalists.

Tenzin Dolmey has never stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau, but she was brought up with the stories of the great rivers and mountains, which form her ancestral home.

“Respect for nature is so deep-rooted,” said Dolmey, who was brought up among Tibetan exiles in India and now teaches Tibetan language and culture in Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city.

“When we would swim in the rivers, we were told to never use it as a bathroom, because there are river gods in the water.”

The Yarlung Tsangpo is of particular significance, as it represents the body of the goddess Dorje Phagmo, one of the highest incarnations in Tibetan culture.

Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, the head of Environment and Development at the Tibetan Policy Institute, says this reverence for the natural world was born from the Tibetan Plateau’s unique landscape and dates back centuries

From its origin in the glaciers of western Tibet, the Yarlung Tsangpo reaches heights of nearly 5,000 metres (16,404 feet) above sea level, making it the highest river in the world as it snakes its way through the Himalayan mountain range.

The river plunges 2,700 metres (8,858 feet) through what is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, forming a gorge more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the United States.

The precipitous fall makes it particularly conducive to collecting hydroelectric power but experts have warned the record-breaking dam is likely to have political and environmental consequences.

According to the Power Construction Corp of China’s chairman, Yan Zhiyong, the mega-dam’s has primarily been constructed to power China’s green future.

While China already has an excess of energy, Brian Eyler, an expert in rivers who is the director of the South East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, says the power generated will probably be used to cover losses as it makes the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy.

The mega-dam could produce as much as three times the hydroelectric power of China’s current largest dam, the Three Gorges, a project which forced the relocation of more than 1.4 million people.

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