China has broken ground on a controversial hydroelectric power project on Tibet's Yarlung Tsangpo River, known in India and Bangladesh as the Brahmaputra.
Construction began earlier this month on the 510 MW Zangmu power station, which will include the first-ever dam on the river, amid environmental concerns in China and in neighboring India, official media revealed this week.
Billed by the Chinese government as a landmark hydropower generation project for Tibet’s development, the U.S. $1.2 billion project is scheduled to begin operation in 2014.
Chinese media reports have hailed the Zangmu dam as “a landmark project,” the first major dam in Tibet, and “a project of priority in the Eleventh Five Year Plan.”
The central regions of Tibet would see an upgraded power capacity and less strain on power resources as a result, they said.
He Xingdou, economics professor at the Beijing Science and Technology University, called on the Chinese government to ensure that environmental impact assessments for the project were impartial and scientific.
"Right now, the people who are researching this have vested interests in the project," Hu said. "Either that, or they are under political pressure of various kinds to agree with their leaders' opinions."
"Often, they won't carry out an assessment until the leaders have already decided to go ahead with the project, so this will result in a positive assessment."
Yang Xin, head of the environmental group Green Rivers, based in the southwestern city of Chengdu, said the building of so many hydroelectric power stations in China is a double-edged sword.
"China has some of the richest resources in the world when it comes to hydroelectric power," Yang said.
"But there is always an impact on the local ecosystems, for example, that of whirlpooling on fish species."
"There is also the drowning of entire forests ... there can also be an impact from geological disasters," he said.
Yang said there is a need for much broader environmental impact assessments associated with dams, which tend to go ahead with scant regard for the local ecology.
"They really must get it clear what we are dealing with here," Yang said. "There need to be some clear and feasible guidelines for environmental protection."
"This needs to be thought about from the point of view of the plant life and the animal life, and in terms of geological disasters," he added.
Indian officials raised concerns about the downstream impact of the dam in talks with Beijing officials earlier this year, and received assurance that China wouldn't be diverting water away from the downstream populations who depend on it.
However, Beijing has shared little in the way of concrete information with India about the Zangmu project, meaning that Indian officials are still left largely in the dark.
Reported by Gao Shan in Mandarin. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.