In Tibet, a 'Holy' Lake Is Site of Hydro Project

Critics say China's turbines will harm environment

Small waves lap against the barren, rocky shore here at pristine Yamdrok Lake. Sitting at nearly 15,000 feet in the Himalayas, the vast lake is a holy site to Tibetan Buddhists.

Along the shore, pilgrims have created intricate monuments of small, carved rocks. Prayer flags flutter in the constant wind. For centuries the lake has remained undamaged by humans.

Now, however, the Chinese government is building a highly controversial hydroelectric project at the lake.

Critics charge that the Yamdrok Tso hydroelectric station will pollute the lake and lower its water level.

Chinese officials say they are using the latest Western technology to guarantee the lake's ecology. "We made a thorough survey of all the environmental needs," says Liu Hong Ping, chief of Tibet's Environmental Bureau. "We found there would be no harm to the environment."

This reporter was the first foreign journalist allowed to visit the project, now under construction 75 miles southwest of Lhasa.

After the hydroelectric plant goes on line, water will drain from the lake into a pipeline, drop 2,755 feet, pass by turbines to generate electricity and then flow into the Yarlung Tsampo river.

Elin, an Austrian company, and Voith Hydro Inc. of the United States are contractors at the site. Voith has supplied equipment for 177 similar pump-storage hydro facilities worldwide.

System for peak demand

Pump storage means that after peak electrical usage times, turbines shut down and electricity from another source pumps the water back up the same pipeline into the lake. The water at Yamdrok Tso will be pumped up three times a day, according to officials, and the lake will face no decrease in water levels.

Slightly more energy is expended pumping the water back up than is generated at the turbines. But pump storage plants are practical because they provide energy at critical times of peak use.

"It makes sense financially because the power [to return the water uphill] is less expensive at non-peak times," says Voith spokeswoman Diane Lear.

If the project functions as planned, it will provide up to 112,500 kilowatts of electricity to the Lhasa area, power needed to alleviate nightly blackouts in parts of the capital and to build up industry.

Critics question the environmental impact of a pump storage plant in Tibet's fragile environment. Pumping silty water up from the river below will "definitely pollute the lake," says Rinchen Dharlo, an American aide to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's religious leader. "It is one of our most beautiful lakes."

Col. Ling Zheng He, in charge of the project's construction brigade - part of the Chinese Army's Armed Police Force - says the plant's advanced technology will protect the lake.

"The river water is very clean," Colonel Ling says. "Furthermore, we have a filtration system to make sure the water is not polluted when we pump it back."

A long controversy

The Yamdrok Tso hydroelectric project has generated controversy since its early planning stages in 1984. Some Tibetan officials initially opposed the project on environmental grounds. In 1991, American supporters of Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso started a campaign to stop construction of the project.

Then last year Chinese Vice Premier Wu Bangguo attended a ceremony at the site to inaugurate the start-up of the first turbine.

But the electricity didn't work. Construction chief Ling says that ceremony was never intended as an inauguration, but rather as a way to "test the equipment" and demonstrate "water coming down the pipeline."

Austrian technicians on the project said the tunnel leading from the lake to the pipeline collapsed last year, delaying the project for months. Now Chinese officials, for the first time, have confirmed that there have been problems with the tunnel.

"That's mainly because of the complex geological conditions and the mountain climate," Ling says. But he insists the overall project is on schedule.

The first of the five turbines will begin operation next spring, he says, and the project should be fully operational by the end of 1997.

Yet controversy will likely continue for some time because the project is closely tied to overall Chinese policy in Tibet.

"These large electrical plants are built to benefit the Chinese" living in Tibet, not the local inhabitants, says John Ackerly, director of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington. "There's not enough rural electrification in areas where there are all Tibetans and no Chinese."

Government officials counter that they have increased electrification programs throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region, with electricity output in backward and mountainous regions having grown an average of 10.2 percent from 1990 to 1995.

The Yamdrok Tso project will "provide much-needed electricity to the Lhasa area," Ling says. "That will benefit everybody."

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