BANGKOK—Canadian documentary maker Michael Buckley’s undercover bid to investigate the Tibet-China railway line was sidetracked when he discovered Tibet’s river systems were being strangled by large scale dam construction.
“I have been back and forth to Tibet a number of times and I never noticed the dams were there—but they are hidden, they are down gorges that you cannot see from the road,” Buckley told press after the screening his documentary film “Meltdown in Tibet,” in Bangkok.
Having teamed up with a group of tourists kayaking through Tibetan rivers in 2005, Buckley came across newly constructed dams built to divert water and hydro energy to China.
“So the only people [Westerners] who know about them are kayakers because they have come across them—they go down the river and all of a sudden there is a huge dam,” he said.
“If you want to kill a river, building dams is the best way to do it,” said Buckley.
Among the rivers originating from Tibet that he investigated for his 40 minute documentary was the Salween River, which also flows through China, Burma, and Thailand and empties into the Andaman Sea.
“The river is known as Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan— roughly translating as “The Queen of Silver Water,” explained the film’s narration.
“Despite widespread protest from within China and from neighboring countries in Asia, Chinese engineers are forging ahead with plans for a cascade of 13 large dams on the Salween. Several dams are already under construction—one the height of a 60-story building.”
Buckley also investigated a river known to the Tibetans as the Dri Chu, or Yak River, which becomes the Yangtze—one of China’s most famous rivers—a river which, along with the Yellow River, now fails to reach the sea.
“In the upper reaches of the Yangtze River—at the edges of the Tibetan plateau—there are three more large dams under construction, and five more in the planning stages,” said his film.
Altogether his research found that 31 large dams are scheduled to be built in the Three Parallel Rivers region, which includes the Upper Yangtze, Upper Mekong, and Salween rivers.
Buckley made the point that 60 percent of the Chinese communist leadership (including current head Hu Jintao) have an engineering background and many have vested interests in damming companies and the financing of international damming projects.
While China is the world’s most prolific dam builder, he said, the communist authorities do very little in the way of environmental impact assessments in their planning.
“In the 1950s, Mao’s dictum was that humans can conquer nature and he did some very bizarre projects, which tried to prove that you could take on nature and win and in a lot of cases they lost,” Buckley said.
“The Mao dictum is still around today—that the Chinese can take on nature and win. That has been permeating the Chinese mentality for the last 50 years.”
China’s own river system, he said, has been so devastated by uncontrolled industrialization that it has resulted in 70 percent of the nation’s water supply being undrinkable and unable to support aquatic life.
“The rivers are dead. … They are not trying to fix their rivers. Their solutions are ‘Let’s take the water from Tibet’,” he said. The diversion of water from the Tibetan highlands to parts of northern China, Mr Buckley said, is in planning stages and will be done via a vast network of concrete conduits.
“China’s grand pipe-dream is to divert abundant water from the Tibetan highlands to reach water-starved cities of the north and west of China, which have around 300 million people,” stated his film. “A diversion project of this scale enters a realm beyond anything ever attempted in water engineering.”
The electricity produced via the hydro dams in Tibet he added is not for Tibetans but for Chinese industry.
The Dza Chu, or Mekong River, begins its life in the mountains of Tibet and it becomes, as his film describes, “a roaring torrent as it swirls through deep gorges, dropping an astonishing 4,500 meters [14,800 feet] in elevation through Tibet and China, over a distance of 1,800 km [1,118 miles]—before turning tamer in Laos.”
Chinese damming efforts on the Upper Mekong, Buckley said have dramatically altered the flow of the river affecting those nations further downstream—Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.