Wednesday, October 14, 2009

World's Largest Dam on Brahmaputra River

(RealTimeBangladesh Blog Report, October 14, 2009 (c))

Brahmaputra- the mightiest of the rivers of Bangladesh – one of the last untamed major rivers of the world is going to change! Good buy Jamuna and Meghna.

 The Sun is Setting over Brahmaputra 
(a picture taken  by the author on a river trip near Jamuna Bridge, July 2008)

If you are tormented about TipaiMukhi Dam on Surma and Kushiara then brace for more agonizing news.

Entire Bangladesh is now apprehensive as the Tipaimukh Dam rises. None is optimistic how much our big neighbor India is going to care about the concerns of Bangladesh. 

The irony is that Bangladesh's big neighbor is in a similar peril concerning its bigger neighbor China. Indigenous Portal Reports:
“As Bangladesh engaged India to drop construction of Tipaimukh dam, India too is busy raising concerns with Chinese Govt’s efforts to dam Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra)..

The project has been acknowledged by Chinese officials. Mr. Shu Yinbiao, vice president of State Grid Corp. of China opined::
, “An initial study shows the river can accommodate hydropower stations with a total capacity of 70 gigawatts, or about 10 percent of the nation's overall generating capacity”.

But behold! This is not going to be just any ordinary hydro -engineering. 

This will be an gigantic power plant with an astonishing generation capacity of 20-40,000 Mega Watt! Nothing like this exists today. If built- this will be the largest in the world. How large? Sheer three times bigger than the current world’s largest hydroelectric plant- the Three River Gorges Dam. To put it into perspective this one plant can fulfill the entire energy need of Bangladesh five times over. The taming of this mighty river will require nuclear explosives to punch hole in Himalayan mountains!

But, the real concern in the downstream in not on the generation of hydro-electricity. The proposed dam will: 
"divert 200 billion cubic meters of waters to the Yellow River for easing water shortages in cities of Shaanxi, Beijing and Tianjin in Northern China."

How it will impact us ? Profound, massive and unknown.The above article reports:

“The water diversion project at the Great Bend will spell disaster for the Tibetan plateau and the lower riparian countries, India’s North East and Bangladesh.[12] Officially the projects has been termed as the great South-North water diversion project of China. .. India fears Chinese reported plans to use nuclear technology in the project will lead to environmental concerns in the Eastern Himalayas.[13]  Indian experts say the mega scheme could be disastrous for the 185 million people of India’s North East and Bangladesh.
There is also serious concern about the Earthquake disaster:
the region’s regular earthquakes, that can hit 8.0 on the Richter scale, can destroy the proposed Chinese dam and cause devastating floods downstream.”
Brahmaputra itself is one of the most seismically active rivers of the world. Earthquakes have dramatically shaped its course even in close history. About 250 years ago the river inside Bangladesh used to have one flow. A massive earthquake splitted it into its two present flows.  The Brahmaputra reports:

“Due to the colliding Eurasian (Chinese) and Indian tectonic plates, the Brahmaputra valley and its adjoining hill ranges are seismically very unstable. The earthquakes of 1897 and 1950, both of Richter magnitude 8.7, are among the most severe in recorded history. These earthquakes caused extensive landslides and rock falls on hill slopes, subsidence and fissuring in the valley and changes in the course and configuration of several tributary rivers as well as the main course. .. The earthquake of 1950, for example, raised the bed level of the Brahmaputra at Dibrugarh by at least three metres leading to increased flood and erosion hazard potential in the river.”

A sizable part of world population will be affected by this project. Sudha Ramachandran's  AsiaTimesOnline Report reports: 
"..47% of the world's population, are dependent on water rising in the Tibetan plateau. ...With the Yalong Tsangpo's waters being diverted, the amount of water in the Brahmaputra will fall significantly, affecting India's northeast and Bangladesh. It will severely impact agriculture and fishing there as the salinity of water will increase, as will silting in the downstream area.”
 The Tibetan Plateau Blog from UK reports that this is indeed a series of projects and companies have been already signed up:
“A China Daily story yesterday acknowledged that the "Zangmu Water Power Station" is on the main stream of the middle reaches of Brahmaputra, at dZam (རྫམ་) township. Sources tell me that there are five dams planned in this section of the river, and construction has been going on since 2006. .. The installed capacity of 'Zangmu Water Power Station' will be 510 MW. The project is located in Lhokha (Shannan) Prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region, about 140 km southeast from Lhasa.. Huaneng, China's top power company, is backing the financing of the project and, Gezhouba - one of China's biggest dam construction companies, will build the project...China is likely to approve more dam projects on the Brahmaputra this year.”
Indianexpress confirms the story with a satellite image of the site.

Brahmaputra the River Like None Other

The river Brahmaputra has touched all aspect of Bengali life and culture. 

Countless novels, poems, and songs portray the impact of this river on the life of Bengal. The life along the banks of Brahmapurta has remained almost unchanged for eons. The people in its banks continually fight with annual flood, river erosion and frequent earthquake. It symbolizes the unchanged condition of Bengali commoners- represent the menace of common man in the hand of more powerful. It also tells about the heroic determination of the people- the ability to rebuild lives and village even after being crushed by powerful indomitable forces.

Fishing nets on the river of Brahmaputra, India
Bengal "Still Life". For hundred's of years this is how fishermen cast the nets for their livelihood (BBC)

The river has become such an integral part of our life- it often feels invisible like the air we breadth. In Bangladesh we are little aware how special this river is. Indeed, this is one of the most fascinating rivers of the world.

The 2,906-km long Brahmaputra is one of Asia's largest rivers. Like several other great rivers of ours, Brahmaputra originates at sacred Mountain Kailash in the northern Himalaya. 

It then traverse its first stretch of 1,600+ km in China's Tibet region, the next 900+ km in India, another 400+ km in Bangladesh and finally emptying it all into the Bay of Bengal. 

Despite the legends, its identity with the Tibet was only established formally by an exploration in 1884-86. Its upper stretch is the Yarlung Tsangpo river of Tibet.

In Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra splits into two branches: the larger branch is known as the Jomuna and flows into the Padma. The older branch curves towards east as the lower Brahmaputra and flows into the Meghna. Both paths eventually rejoins near Chandpur. However, 250 years ago the actual Brahmaputra river in Bangladesh flowed through current Jamalpur and Mymensingh districts undivided. A serious earthquake split it into present flows.

Bay of Bengal - March 24th, 2009

Rivers of Bangladesh from space.  Padma flows from the left. The largest is the Brahmaputra or Jomuna. See the relative sizes. Imagine the potential impact.

In the plains of Bangladesh the river is so wide that in places the other side of the bank is not visible in a typical day. The average width of Brahmaputra is close to 10 km in plains which is on the widest in the world. The average depth of Brahmaputra is 124 feet (38 m) and maximum depth is 380 feet (120 m). The Brahmaputra along with Ganges creates the largest delta in the world, Sundarban in Bangladesh.

With an average annual discharge of 19,830 cubic meter per second at its mouth, the Brahmaputra ranks fourth among the large rivers of the world. It is second largest river in the world in terms of sediment carriage about 0.4 billion metric ton (Earth’s weight is estimated to be 5000 trillion metric ton!). This is enough to build a 10-15 square mile island in 35 feet deep-ocean every year.
Growing up with the expanse of the river at great confluence of Chandpur. Also look carefully at the horizon where sky meets water-  there is no visible other bank. Chandpur is the largest river confluence in the world. (See more enchanting photos:

However, its charms are not only the numbers- this unique river has mysteries of mythical proportion in recent years which have evoked interest among scientists and explorers of the world like no other.

The Real Sangri-La?

In recent Bangladesh we are familiar with the Story of Shagri-La- less from out Buddhist past but more due to James Hilton's book and film. The word actually comes from Sanskit word Shambhala meaning "place of peace". Shangri-La is an Eden on Earth- an utopia described in Tibetan scripture where people never age, trees grant wishes, and happiness reigns eternally.

According to the Tibetan scriptures there are only seven such places. But, where? According to it- such earthly paradise resides within the lush, subtropical area between two towering Himalayan peaks. A Shangri-La myth is that the river's waterfalls conceal a secret passageway to the spirit world. It is told that in case of great cataclysm life will sustain only in these seven places of the world. So where are those places exactly?

The mysterious river chasm from the ridge top.

The Lure of Brahmaputra
One of the focal points of this interest is the Himalayan stretch. Once this river enters the great Himalayan mountains between Namcha Barwa (25,436 feet) and Gyala Peri (23,891 feet)- each standing only approximately 12 miles apart the river becomes astounding- the world’s wildest, deepest, steepest. It's now known to be the world's deepest gorge (17,758 feet)- three times deep and eight times steeper than Grand Canyon of Arizona! If you have hiked below to the grand chasm of Grand Canyon and felt the lapping sound of Colorado river you can only imagine what it might feel like down there looking up!

To make it further unique- yet another formidable mountain Dorje Bragsen (12,818 feet), stands guard to this entrance thus forming the most protected, elusive, secret and mysterious gorge of all.

Namcha Barwa  to the far left  and Gyala Peri to the far right. The world's deepest gorge lies between. The formidable Dorje Bragsen mountain stands guard (Photo 1998 Gilenwater Expedition).

The area is however sacredly protected by the local people. The 1870’s British explorers noticed the river Tsangpo's disappearance into the gorge of Namcha Barwa foothill and the Brahmaputra’s emergence below. Though, British could not explore the stretch due to fierce resistance by the locals- however the height difference between the two ends inspired a scientific curiosity fueled by the allure of the Himalayan version of the utopia

By the 1870s, a controversy was raging in Royal Geographical Society with unresolved rumors about a waterfall the size of Niagara or Victoria Falls in this uncharted segment. Now it is known that there are several large waterfalls in the area though not visible even from satellite images.
In modern times, National Geographic reports it as one of the last of the lost world on earth. It sent a river expeditions into the area in 1997 and 1998 but the expedition was abandoned due to the death of one of its explorer into its formidable rapids- Douglas Gordon, a PhD student of University of Utah and a member of US national canoing team. Here is the YouTube video that captures the  ultimate lure of  this river and the final moments of Douglas.

In 1998 a land expedition ventured upon the Gorge in search of the fabled and legendary “Hidden Waterfalls of Shangri-La". Readers can read the expedition report in Hidden Waterfalls of Shangri-La .In one place  explorers states:
“Western logic is inadequate to explain certain phenomena that we experienced here … We saw rivers flowing side-by-side but in opposite directions. We would be guided back onto lost trails by Tibetan priests directing us to follow brilliant double rainbows. Local hunters would miraculously appear out of the mists to lead us to our next destination. And when we were running out of food an Asian black bear appeared frozen in a glacier. We then lived on bear meat for a week.”
Still very little is known about the detail-except it is a very large waterfall.

Going into the River of Hell

In 2002 again another group of explorers set out to ride this river. Read Peter Heller’s article Liquid Thunder about this 19th century like expedition story in 2002 where seven of world’s best ten expedition paddlers from seven countries led by Scott Lindgren from California made the first ever descent into the gorge:
“It's the cradle of Shangri-la, and one of the deepest river gorges on earth. It's a fortress guarding sacred waterfalls, and a cauldron of savage whitewater and unrunnable rapids. In the chill of the Himalayan winter, seven world-class kayakers led a massive expedition into the shadowy realm of Tibet's Tsangpo River , and launched their boats down its roaring throat. They were either going to die—or emerge transformed.”
“The gorge was a Himalayan chasm so shrouded in mystery and danger that a legendary waterfall in its depths, sought by explorers for more than a hundred years, was never even photographed until late in the 20th century. And it was a place, like Everest, that shimmered with mythic lore and menacing superlatives. By some measures, it is the deepest river gorge in the world—three times deeper, with the river tilted eight times steeper, than the Grand Canyon.”

If you have rafted the class III-IV rated rapids, watch here some unbelievable video of this first descent of Upper Tsangpo Kayaking. You are sure to get some adrenalin rush watching the ride and the rapids which are beyond rating:

This is the upper river only. The lower Tsangpo is still unconquered.  The team simply gave up!

The Lost World of Unknown Species?

Not unexpectedly, the area now has become the latest treasure trove for world's biologist.  Bio-diversity wise- some of the areas fed by this river is now considered one of the top  two (or perhaps the top) bio-diverse ares of the world - The rate of new species discoveries here now is at per with Borneo. Read the The World Worldlife Fund's (WWF) report: The Eastern Himalayas – Where Worlds Collide detailing discoveries made by scientists between 1998 and 2008. Among the finding of many strange animals it also reports the finding of a blue flower which changes color with day:
"the rare plant can grow as tall as 60cm and flowers all year round. The many flowers are dramatic in both colour and form and, extraordinarily, the colour seems to change with temperature and exposure. They sometimes appear truly blue when in a cool climate and change to purple when temperatures rises".
Here is a picture of the flower.

Its is also turning the pages of science. The oldest known gecko species found in fossil is known to be 100 million years old. Scientists discovered a living sample of this creature in the region.

This shoal mach (fish) with purple and orange spots found from the tributaries of  Himalayan Brahmaputra in 2000 found is listed as a new species. 

International Co-operation: Dialogue of the Deafs?

Bangladesh is concerned.

The irony is that Bangladesh's big neighbor is in a similar state to its bigger neighbor China on the issue of even a bigger dam the dam of Brahmaputra.

However, while Indian’s are concerned about China over the Brahmaputra dam, China is not alone in the frenzy of exploiting hydroelectricity from Brahma Putra. India has its own plan on it too. The study Brahmaputra by Indian scientists reports: 
“The Ministry of Power, government of India, has identified 226 potential sites for large multi-purpose dams on the rivers of northeast India, most of them being in the Brahmaputra basin. Further the ministry is contemplating the generation of a colossal 99,256 MW of hydropower from the rivers of the region in the next fifty years (Brahmaputra Board, 2000), much in excess of what will be actually required for the region (see figure on pg. 14). Several mega-dam projects such as the Upper Subansiri (2,500 MW), Upper Siang (11,000 MW), Middle Siang (750 MW), Lower Siang (1,700 MW), Kameng  (600 MW), Tipaimukh (1,500 MW) and Ranganadi (450 MW) are presently at various stages of planning and development.”

Sudha Ramachandran's  AsiaTimesOnline Report reports:
 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is reported during his recent Beijing visit to have raised the issue of international rivers flowing out of Tibet. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has said that water scarcity threatened the very "survival of the Chinese nation".

The projects has been part of  the official great South-North water diversion project of China . The initial idea was laid out by Mao Zedong himself in 1950's. But due to enormous cost of such colossus projects it took the affluence of 21st century's China to embark on real start.

Atleast until some time ago, there were also concerns within Chinese experts about the water diversion part of the project. A 2006, article published in ChinaDaily reported that then- no one else but the water resources minister of China himself - Mr. Wang Shucheng, also a hydraulic engineer (read his book on the topic) opposed it as unscientific:
"There is no need for such dramatic and unscientific projects.. For example, we must keep an eye on possible floods when the Yellow River has 58 billion cubic metres of water. If another 50 billion cubic metres, not to mention 200 billion [from Brahmaputra], is poured in, I am sure all the dams and protection embankments will be destroyed immediately."

The river is about to pour serious  fuel to the geopolitical conflict. Journalist  Claude Arpi writes:
If Beijing goes ahead with the Tsangpo project it would practically mean a declaration of war against South Asia."
The FrontierPost from Pakistan voices the peril of Bangladesh and writes and article with title: "Water Grabber and Nuclear War".

It is important to know that the area has always been sacredly guarded by the local people. They resisted and stopped the British exploration.

The energy crisis, the limitless apatite for  power to fuel the growth of consumptive lifestyle has  put all of us into  this new situation. The world will change faster around us as we follow the false prophet of progress.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

News From Around

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tens of Thousands Dhaka Apartments Built with Toxic Dump?

(RealTimeBangladesh Blog Report, October 4, 2009 (c))

Last weeks we blogged about apartments- if the recent houses built in this decade of apartment mania can withstand the big jolts?

[Villagers in the Dominican Republic claim children have been born without limbs and organs. And, they are blaming the abnormalities on rock ash dumped by a Virginia coal company. ]

You are feeling lucky? No earthquake in Bangladesh in last few days?  Well if your apartment or house is recently built you may have more reasons to be shaken.

An alternate title for this report might have been Radioactive Apartments of Bangladesh!  Read on..