Pipe dreams

Developing Xinjiang has become a top priority. Here’s why

Pipe dreams

“While we hold on to India, we are a first-rate power,” Lord Curzon once told his colonial colleagues. “If we lose India, we will decline to a third-rate power.”

Were the former Indian viceroy alive today he might offer China similar advice on Xinjiang – the expansive western province contributes a solid share of China’s continental economy both in land mass and resource terms.

Xinjiang is undeveloped and sparsely populated (relative to the rest of the country). But its central Asian border has been strategically important since the time of the Silk Road, and was drawn into the ‘Great Game’ of strategic rivalry played out between Britain and the Russians for most of the nineteenth century.

More importantly today, its desert and grassland landscapes conceal some of the country’s largest deposits of coal, oil and natural gas.

Xinjiang means ‘new frontier’ in Chinese, a title it acquired during the Qing Dynasty, though it still seems appropriate today. For a start, it is one of the few provinces where a minority group, the Uighurs, makes up the largest single segment of the population. Differences in race, religion and language have been a source of conflict, most recently in riots last July that claimed 197 lives.

It’s no secret that Beijing has been pushing for investment in the region (the ‘China Western Development Strategy’ was crafted a decade ago), but the policymakers’ latest suggestion has taken everyone by surprise. The provincial government hosted a seminar earlier this month to discuss the feasibility of literally delivering the sea to the landlocked region.

The idea sounds far-fetched but the proposal is for a $60 billion scheme to pipe seawater more than 3,000 miles from the Bohai Sea. It’s an indication of just how lucrative Xinjiang’s resources could be – if only there was enough water.

“According to the plan, the abundance of sunshine in the northwestern region will lead to the natural evaporation of the increased supply of seawater,” explains the People’s Daily.

Once filled – and naturally evaporating – artificial lakes are supposed to ‘improve’ Xinjiang’s dry climate, and more importantly, provide much needed water for industry.

To do the job, the pipeline would have to travel from sea level to a height of 1,280 metres – and pass through several mountain ranges. On arrival in Xinjiang, the water would be desalinated for industrial use (and to avoid destroying the local soil).

Unlike other major water control endeavours (the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project), the proposals have been generating withering criticism in the media, and even from other government bodies.

“What if the water freezes [at high altitude]?” asks the Beijing Daily.

“At present, due to the high cost of desalination, the large-scale use of desalinated seawater can be said to be a worldwide problem,” adds a sceptical Xinjiang Administration of Water Resources official. The Beijing News even reported denials from the Liaoning and Inner Mongolian provincial governments that the pipeline was anywhere near being approved.

“It’s such an ambitious idea, I thought we’d gone back to the years of the ‘Great Leap Forward’,” wrote one shocked internet commentator, “the idea is even less reliable than the one to ‘use an explosion to open up the Himalayas’.”

But if the plan is really ‘beyond science fiction’, why hold a seminar to discuss it? It turns out there are some very powerful forces in the region who are in desperate need of water – especially for mining, power and heavy chemicals projects.

“Right now, Shenhua, State Power, Huadian, Yanzhou Coal Mining, Luneng and other domestic energy companies have spent a lot of money in Xinjiang,” the 21CN Business Herald explains. “This means that Xinjiang needs more water.”

Supply is limited in an arid land with less than 6 inches of rainfall a year. “In 2009, the water allocations had already been carved up by major [existing] coal projects,” a local chemical plant manager complained to the newspaper, “so that new coal chemical industry projects in Xinjiang now face a water shortage.”

From the government’s point of view, development in Xinjiang should bring greater prosperity to the local Muslim population, as well as encourage the settlement of more Han Chinese immigrants.

But the thirst for energy is the main driving force behind the push to develop the province. Xinjiang is thought to have almost 2 trillion tonnes of coal deposits – more than 40% of China’s total reserves – but relatively little coal is being exploited. It’s estimated that this year the province will produce 100 million tonnes, a fraction of the 700 million tonnes expected from China’s other major coal producer, Shanxi.

Transport is the other major bottleneck. “To develop the coal industry, Xinjiang should first accelerate the development of its infrastructure and build its railways as soon as possible,” argues Ma Ke, president of the Xinjiang branch of the Shanxi chamber of commerce.

To that end, the construction of a new passenger railway has already begun, and plans are in place for a bullet train (every self-respecting province needs one, it seems) from Urumqi to Beijing.

Government officials talk of a glittering future for the province. “[We will] strive by the end of ‘12th five-year plan’ to build Xinjiang into the country’s most important energy, coal power and coal chemical industry base,” promised Reyihan Wang Sup, a civil servant at the Xinjiang Development and Reform Commission.

And China’s leaders are also encouraging investment from state-owned companies and the country’s wealthy coastal cities.

The Economy and Nation Weekly estimates that other cities and provinces have so far provided around $26 billion in ‘partnership assistance’. The central government claims another $320 billion of investment is earmarked, often through ‘twinning’ schemes. Firms in Shanghai have been investing (and bringing their expertise too) to their Xinjiang ‘twin’, Kashgar, for instance.

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