Tunnel vision

Is China planning on a 1,000km tunnel to turn Xinjiang into California?


Grandiose ambitions: Wang

Since the mid-1800s Chinese scholars have dreamed of bringing water to Xinjiang and making the desert bloom.

The first was Lin Zexu, an imperial official who was banished to the arid western region during the First Opium War; later came Zhu Kezhen, a meteorologist who was studying in the US in the early 1900s when plans to irrigate the deserts of California were gathering pace.

In the post-1949 period, China sent decommissioned soldiers to the area, eventually setting up the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or Bing Tuan, to develop it (see WiC192).

Yet in recent years a plan as audacious as any other has begun to gather support:  a 1,000km tunnel carrying water from the Yarlung River in south Tibet, through the Tangula mountains, to Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia and the deserts of South Xinjiang.

Its chief architect, tunnelling expert Wang Mengshu (see photo), claims the water diversion will create millions of hectares of forest, farm land and pasture.

The project has the ability to “convert negative-value desert” into unlimited amounts of “stable, fertile land”, he wrote last year. “It would completely solve China’s food security problem and make us into an agricultural superpower.”

Wang, who has also suggested building a high-speed train link to North America under the Bering Strait, even presented his plan to the National People’s Congress in March.

Taken in conjunction with work beginning on another pipeline – a 600km water tunnel in the southwestern province of Yunnan – the Tibet-Xinjiang line began to look more plausible.

Academics associated with the so-called Dianzhong project even told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) it was a “rehearsal” for the Xinjiang plan. “It is to show we have the brains, muscle and tools to build super-long tunnels in hazardous terrains, and the cost does not break the bank,” said Zhang Chuanqing, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics.

According to Wang’s version of the Xinjiang vision, the starting point would be the confluence of the Nyang and the Yarlung Rivers near a stretcg of disputed border with India. The water – 80 billion cubic metres a year – would then travel north through a series of tunnels, dams and pumping stations.

The project would be technically challenging, even impossible say some, due to seismic activity on the Tibetan Plateau and the huge changes in altitude as the water flows down into Qinghai.

One of the researchers who helped compile Wang’s report said the steeper sections of the tunnel would have to be fitted with hydro turbines to slow the falling water.

At its highest point the tunnel would be 3,600 metres above sea level – at the other extreme is Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin, a huge depression that, at its lowest point, is 150 metres below sea level.

The SCMP said over a hundred experts had been involved in the drafting of Wang’s report and that it had also been presented to the central government earlier this year.

Yet the project is deeply controversial in China and elsewhere. The Yarlung also passes through India and Bangladesh, where it is known as the Brahmaputra. Hundreds of millions of South Asian farmers rely on its water.

One of the biggest flashpoints in Sino-India relations is water. When the Chinese started building a dam on the Yarlung in 2009, the Indian media soon started talking about war.

Known as the water tank of Asia, the continent’s 10 main river systems, all originate in Tibet. “India will certainly have to take a strong stand as far as this project goes, as it can be disastrous for India and Bangladesh,” Quartz quoted one Delhi-based water expert as saying.

But the day after the SCMP article came out, the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed it as untrue.

The head of the $11 billion Dianzhong project also said that reports that the Yunnan tunnel was a test run for the larger one were “baseless”. Then all the Chinese media articles based on the SCMP story were taken offline and searches for the project were censored.

The odd thing about the tunnel is that the idea refuses to go away. The academic community is divided – with many older, more Soviet-era types viewing it as the sort of nature-taming project they never got to undertake. Weirdly, the project also has its own dedicated fan base – hydrology enthusiasts who chat about it online.

Wang himself is a fascinating character: he was part of the team that built the China South-North Water Transfer Project and advised on the high-speed rail link to Tibet.

In 2015 the 79 year-old  also suggested building a tunnel under Mount Everest to Nepal.

Yet there is also huge opposition to the project from a new wave of scholars who think that the era of colossal, Three Gorges Dam-style projects is over. In August the Global Times quoted Liu Shukun, a professor at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research as saying the mega-tunnel project would lead to dramatic change in the ecology of Tibet and Xinjiang

“We now advocate an ‘ecological civilisation’. Human beings, wildlife and the greater environment are all equal. We shouldn’t seek to satisfy our own interests at the cost of ecological destruction,” he said.

Mei Xinyu, an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, agreed. “The project will likely bring calamity to the country. I firmly oppose it,” he warned.

But its proponents believe it is only a matter of time before work begins. Zhang from the Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics compares it to California’s Central Valley Project (begun in the 1930s) which turned the San Joaquin Valley into the world’s most productive agricultural region. He says “five to 10 years from now, the technology will be ready and the cost affordable, and the temptation of the benefits will be difficult to resist”.

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