Chinese draw their power from Tibet's sacred lake: A hydro-electric project on the Yamdrok Tso threatens ecological disaster next century, a correspondent writes in Lhasa

SHAPED like a giant scorpion with its claws outstretched, Yamdrok Tso is one of Tibet's largest freshwater lakes to the north of the Himalayan divide, twisting around mountain ranges high above the valley that leads to the capital, Lhasa.

A few villages hug its rocky shores, multi-coloured prayer flags fluttering from rooftops. Yaks and goats graze the slopes, migrating birds arrive in the summer months and an abundance of fish swim in its waters - as does a mythical dragon.

But for the past four years, a 1,500-strong detachment of the Chinese 'People's Armed Police', supported by regular troops, have been drilling and blasting their way down through the mountains from the lake to the Yarlung River below. Their task is to bore four large tunnels for nearly 4 miles through the Gambala mountains to the river where a hydro-electric power station is being built.

To the Tibetans who make offerings by its pure, turquoise waters, Yamdrok Tso is a sacred 'life-power lake', but for the Chinese it represents an abundant supply of hydro-electric power. 'Despite the cold and lack of oxygen at high altitudes, and despite a shortage of construction equipment and inefficient logistical support,' China's Xinhua news agency said, 'the detachment's officers and men pitched tents, slept on the ground, and exhibited a spirit of working in unity and dedicating oneself selflessly.'

Water will pour down the tunnels, with a vertical drop of 2,600ft to the powerhouse, driving four to six turbines and generating about 90 megawatts at peak times, enough to supply all of the Lhasa area and more. At off-peak periods, stored electricity will be used to pump water back through the reversible turbines from the Yarlung River to replenish the lake. This technology is known as a 'pump-storage' hydro-electric station.

Environmentalists fear this giant pounds 80.5m project will create one of China's worst ecological disasters of the 21st century. At best, this watershed covering more than 200 square miles at a height of 22,000ft will have its snow-fed waters replaced by the muddy flows of the valley river, destroying its delicate ecosystem. At worst it will drain away in 50 years.

Even the official magazine China's Tibet acknowledged these fears, saying that construction began in 1985 but was suspended in July 1986 'due to concerns expressed by some high- level Tibetans that the station would damage the local ecosystem'. But senior Tibetan officials say privately that after the death in January 1989 of the Panchen Lama, a spiritual leader who vehemently opposed the project, work began again.

Local people complain the project is shrouded in secrecy, but a group of foreigners recently evaded the security cordons in the area and made their way to one of the giant lakeside tunnels.

Railroad tracks disappear into the gloom. Soldiers man an electric winch, which hauls wagons to the surface, laden with black slag. As they reach the surface, a soldier crouches behind each one and pushes it along the track to a pier jutting into the lake. A lever is pulled and the tailings clatter into the waters below, fusing with a giant inky stain that spreads towards the far shore.

Above the hole in the mountain a slogan declares 'Number One Tunnel', and next to it 'Gloriously develop Tibet'. A soldier from faraway Hubei province said they had tunnelled 2km. By 1995 they should break through the mountain.

Tibetans living by the site were helplessly uncomprehending. Yes, they would welcome the convenience of electricity but did not know what was happening to their lake or why the army was desecrating their land by boring into the mountains. 'Our fields have been taken and we never received any compensation,' said one villager, who like many Tibetans feared recriminations for speaking to foreigners.

Su Yi, a Chinese official, is typical of those who believe that the Tibetans' 'development' is held back by primitive religious beliefs. 'I see Tibet like California,' said Mr Su. 'It needs New World settlers to develop the Old World people.' But the Tibetans, who believe that mining is sacrilegious, fear from past experience that the electricity generated by their sacred lake will power mines and heavy industry between Lhasa and Tibet's second city, Shigatse. Like the forests that have been plundered by China, they know they will see few of the benefits.

The environmental group Greenpeace and the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet have appealed for China to halt the project and for Western firms not to participate. This has been echoed by the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, led by the Dalai Lama, but in vain. Several European engineering companies have tendered to supply the technology and equipment to build the power station, and contracts were awarded to two Austrian firms, J M Voith AG and Elin.

A spokeswoman for Elin in Austria said building work would begin this summer and should take two years. She rejected concerns that the project would damage the environment. 'Hydro-electric power is very environmentally friendly and pump-storage is too,' she said. Voith company officials declined to talk about the environmental impact on Yamdrok Lake.

'The constant turbulence caused by the daily drawdown and replenishment cycle would affect the fragile ecology of the lake. Water turbidity would increase, affecting the survival of fish and other aquatic species,' the International Campaign for Tibet commented. 'The long-term viability of pastures and the survival of wildlife do not appear to have been addressed at all.' The London-based Tibet Information Network said the project would pollute the area and swell the large numbers of Chinese migrants flocking to Tibet.

The Tibet government-in-exile has asked all donors to halt funding for the Yamdrok Project pending an environmental and benefit-cost assessment. 'Further damage to the area around Lake Yamdrok must be stopped,' it said in a 1992 report which expressed concern at reports - denied by China - that Tibet was being used as a dumping ground for nuclear and toxic waste. The Dalai Lama has accused China of committing 'cultural genocide' in Tibet.

Despite international pressure, China shows every readiness to crack down on dissent in Tibet. Before a delegation of European Community ambassadors arrived in May, possible opponents were rounded up in Lhasa. Demonstrations in late May against price rises that turned into pro-independence protests were broken up by police firing tear-gas.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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