China in mid-November embarked upon building the first massive hydropower project in Tibet, a 6 x 85-MW plant straddling the middle reaches of the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo River (Figure 2). According to the Hunan Daily, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, Sinohydro began damming the river in Shannan Prefecture, Tibet, on Nov. 8, kicking off the 7.9 billion yuan ($1.2 billion) “run of the river” project that is estimated to generate electricity for the surrounding region by 2014.

2. River of doubt. Originating in the Himalayas, the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo River (shown here) courses through the Tibetan region of China. It is then known as the Dikrong during its passage through India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh. Farther downstream, as it flows southwest through the Assam Valley, the river widens and becomes the Brahmaputra. Its waters eventually flow through Bangladesh, becoming the Meghna River, before they empty into the Bay of Bengal. Source: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

But for China’s neighbors, the Zangmu Hydropower Station project is highly controversial. Besides protests about the environmental risks of building the dam, concern is mounting that the project could vastly affect water flow downstream—and that it and other massive planned projects to dam the Tsangpo could potentially choke off one of the Indian subcontinent’s largest bodies of water, the Brahmaputra. In an ensuing diplomatic scuffle, India has expressed fears that China will divert water from the Tsangpo to its thirsty northern regions, “thereby impacting India as a middle riparian,” as Indian Minister of State for Environment, JaiRam Ramesh said last May. This charge isn’t the first: Earlier in 2010, Chinese dams were blamed for channeling water away from the upper reaches of the Mekong River, contributing to record low levels of that waterway.

China has denied these allegations. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told Agence France-Presse in November that China “has always had a responsible attitude and places equal emphasis on development and protection.” He added that China took “full consideration of the potential impact on the downstream area.” The idea had been considered, former Water Minister Wang Shucheng admitted to attendees at a water resources seminar in May 2009, but the proposal to divert 200 billion cubic meters annually from the Tsangpo to the Yellow River was thought to be environmentally unsafe: Such volumes would damage dams and embankments along the latter river, he said.

China is facing critical water shortages. According to experts, the country’s water supply will fall 11 billion cubic meters short of demand per year by 2030, despite increased supply capacity. According to the World Bank, mainland China has only a per-capita share of 2,700 cubic meters per year—just a quarter of the world’s average. Construction of a project that involves drawing water from southern rivers and supplying it to the drought-prone north is already under way. The largest project of its kind ever, it has already taken 50 years from conception to commencement and is planned for completion in 2050. When completed, it will divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water annually.

China is also facing debilitating power shortages (for more details, see “China: A World Powerhouse” in POWER’ s July 2010 issue), most caused by soaring coal prices and transportation issues. In November, for example, power shortages in northern China’s Shanxi province—the largest coal-producing province after Inner Mongolia—resulted in a power deficit of as much as 6 GW, a stunning 25% of total demand, reported State Grid News.

But China also is faced with pressure to meet a Copenhagen pledge to generate 15% of its power from nonfossil sources by 2020, and its planned massive nuclear power capacity additions will not suffice. To close the gap, Zhang Guobao, director of the National Energy Administration, has outlined plans for a colossal hydropower growth spurt. Already the world’s leader with more than 200 GW of installed hydropower capacity, the country will now look to put 330 GW online by 2020—an increase of 123 GW over the next 10 years.

The country is fast-tracking projects and recently approved construction of the 2.6-GW Changheba and 2.4-GW Guan’di projects, both in Sichuan province. Those approvals followed green lights for early-stage studies for the 8.7-GW Wudongde and 14-GW Baihetan hydropower projects. Several more are in the pipeline, including four—besides the Zangmu Hydropower Station, whose construction is under way—to harness hydropower from the upper reaches of the Tsangpo.