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Russian River turning to China

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Why did the Ministry of Agriculture proposes to transfer water to the East?

Russian River turning to China

Khabarovsk Bridge over Amur river after its reconstruction in 1999.

Written by Andrey Polunin; Originally appeared at SvPressa, translated by Theo N. Kaufman exclusively for SouthFront

Russia is ready to transfer fresh water from its territory to China. Recall, that on Tuesday, 3 May, the Minister of Agriculture of the Russian Federation Alexander Tkachev, mentioned this at a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Han Changfu.

“We are ready to propose a project for the transfer of water from the Altai region of Russia through the Republic of Kazakhstan to the arid Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China”. In the near future we will hold consultations with colleagues from Kazakhstan on this issue,” TASS quoted the Russian Minister.

First of all, we are talking about an annual transfer of about 70 million cubic meters of floodwater. As stated by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation, it is the amount of the excess amount of the spring, which is now without practical application and is just discharged into the sea. But, according to the Office, it is possible to increase the “volume of water supply” to China to 1 billion, cubic meters per year, “without endangering the ecological status of the water ecology”. To do this, we set up “a joint venture with China’s development of the existing engineering infrastructure of the two hydraulic systems – in Gilevskogo’s reservoir and Alei’s irrigation system, and restarted a chunk from the Ob reservoir which is located in the Kulundinskoye trunk”.

In theory, this aqua partnership will benefit both countries.

On the one hand, Russia has the world’s largest fresh surface water reserves, the Northern Dvina, Ob, Irtysh, Yenisei, Lena and Amur which carry water north into the desert areas, where no one is actually using it. Therefore, the discussion on the transfer of the Siberian rivers to Central Asia took place in the XIX century, and in 1960 we restarted serious research on this topic. It was assumed that the first phase of the Irtysh-Aral connection will transmit about 25 billion cubic meters of water per year, to the south. However, the project was not implemented.

In addition, for Russia this water, currently is, unnecessary. Thus, according to the federal target program “Reclamation” in 2015, our country will have 4.26 million hectares of irrigated lands in the agricultural, in reality this was actually only used on 3.27 million hectares, and real irrigation took place on only 1,35 mln. ha.

On the other hand, China is suffering from acute water shortages, and it is making great efforts in trying to solve this problem. Two years ago, it completed the foundation of the central route of fresh water diversion from the south to the north of China. This gave Beijing, Tianjin, and more than a hundred other cities in the arid north of China an surplus water capacity of 9.5 billion cubic meters of water per year. But this is not enough water for China. According to forecasts, by 2030 China will need 818 billion cubic meters of water per year, while the water level will be at around 619 billion.

In theory, everything looks good, but practice shows that the Chinese – are difficult partners. For example, Russia borders China with the two river basins – Ob and Amur – and in both cases, China is implementing different projects of diversion of the rivers flow, without regard to the Russian interests. In addition, the Chinese territories are located in the upper Irtysh, and Chinese water intake directly affects the provision of the Omsk region.

What can China offer in return for our fresh water?

Preparation of the project for the transfer of water from the Altai region in China – will not be done in a hasty manner – said Head of Laboratory of the Institute of Water Problems of RAS, Professor, Doctor of Technical Sciences Vladimir Debol’skii. “I’m not saying that the transfer of water will require the construction of reservoirs system so that the water could be collected and sent to China if necessary.”

In principle, the water in Russia is really a back up plan, and the Altai water will still be needed in the future. But in order to clearly answer whether Altai needs its water, it is necessary – in addition to the water transfer project – to develop a project of further and prospective development of the Altai Territory.

Take and carefully evaluate the environmental risks of the project. Changes in the nature of the region, and more importantly, the construction of the canal will inevitable, affect this nature.

All this requires a tremendous amount of work. Meanwhile, – I can say as a person who is engaged in the development of similar projects for the past 50 years – no payment for the transferring of water from the Altai has been done in Russia. On the whole, the water resources of the Altai Territory are poorly studied. But a detailed calculation of such projects are extremely important. To give just one example.

In recent years, the Russian government has periodically discussed the question of whether a low-head hydroelectric dam is needed on the Irtysh River in the Omsk region. Plotinus even began to build it, but then abandoned it: Kuzbass, said that he does not need electricity Omsk HPP – enough energy coal CHP, which is a good enough coal. In fact, the project has been stalled because of the lack of a coherent preliminary calculations, how to use the stored water dam. Repeat of this experience in the Chinese version, was obviously useless.

The main question is whether for the Chinese, this project is economically viable. The last point is particularly important, since its implementation costs several billion dollars.

It is possible that China will pay for the project development and construction – money from Beijing is available. But we would like to stress that it is very important to the development that the Russian side is engaged. In this case, we will be much clearer to understand that we obtain the output.

“SP”: Does associate the transfer of the water project to China since the restructuring of the Siberian rivers project by the Soviet Union?

– The Soviet project was bigger. Its aim was a change the direction of the flow of the Irtysh, Ob, Tobol, Ishim in the regions of the country, in dire need of fresh water. The project, remember, was developed by the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Resources of the USSR (MWR). At the same time they were preparing to build a grand canal system and reservoirs, which would throw the water of the rivers of northern part of the West Siberian Plain in the Aral Sea.

In my opinion, by the way, the rivers direction change project was very good. Contrary to popular belief, it was only “hacked” because of political differences. Construction of the project has been well established, but there was no clear understanding, for what purpose to use the water in Central Asia. Everyone understood that the region is very bad with fresh water: the only Central Asian republic, that has no shortage, was Kyrgyzstan. But we need not to rely on rough estimations, for the waste of water resources, but accurate calculations.

The same picture is in the case of China. Yes, in Siberia, at first sight, even though the water is drown. On the other hand, it is much because there are no long-term plans to use these water. Suffice it to say that the Siberian water would be useful in the European part of Russia, which is already having some shortage of fresh water.

“SP”: As far as our offer is it interesting for China?

– Xinjiang is really very arid. Moreover, if Beijing did the construction of the channel from Russia, it would give jobs to the population of the Autonomous Region in agriculture, and to significantly reduce the social and economic tensions in it.

Of course, from the standpoint of the Chinese, the excess water will not be exact. Moreover, China is well aware of what constitutes our water resources. I recall that it was the Soviet Union that greatly helped China in the field of land reclamation development. At the end of 1940 about 15% of the students of Moscow universities, who specialized in the water sector, were Chinese. Moreover, almost all the hydraulic system, which was built in the coming years in China, were built under the Soviet project.

“SP”: Do we need a diversion project ourselves?

– In my opinion, this is still needed. Control over water has a political significance. If the Soviet Union carried out a project of Siberian rivers to Central Asia, it is now the entire region that would be under the control of Russia. From Crane to the “pipe” water would be in the hands of Moscow, and in the manifestation of an unfriendly policy of any Central Asian republic we could respond quickly.

Channel from the Altai region in China would put in a tangible dependence on us by Xinjiang. From the point of view of geopolitics – it’s very good.

But again, the water transfer project in China needs to be worked out in details. While the proposal of Tkachev – is no more than a political statement…

– In theory, China, along with India, is a country that is the most urgent in need of drinking water, recalls the director of China’s Center for Strategic Studies of the Russian Peoples’ Friendship University (University), Head of the Department of Oriental Studies, Higher School of Economics Alexei Maslov. But the practice is that Beijing is actively cooperating on water supplies from South-East Asian countries. Therefore, we can not say that it is Russia’s water – from the point of view of Chinese – that lights a converged wedge.

I would look at the initiative of Alexander Tkachev differently. Apparently, Russia is trying to diversify a bit of its relationship with China and is looking for new ways to shake up the Russian-Chinese trade.

But the question, as it so often happens, depends on money. The problem is that the cost of the project for the transfer of water from the Altai region will be enormous. In addition, since the water can be supplied only through the territory of Kazakhstan, we get more of a transit prices. As a result, it is possible that the cost of shipping from China to Russia waters will be higher than the cost of delivery of Russian oil.

There is another important point. In my opinion, the statement of Tkachev, from the standpoint of the Chinese, does not worked. Meanwhile, China – the country where the project is necessary to be received carefully works out at the level of ministries, and to make public statements only when Beijing will be ready to go to any agreement. It was built as the eastern business culture: first agree, then declare. Tkachev, unfortunately, did exactly the opposite.

“SP”: In other words, it will not come to the project?

– I think not. But this has its advantages. The implementation of such projects is often to the detriment of Russia. An example of this – the main gas pipeline “Power of Siberia”, a joint Chinese and “Gazprom” project to supply gas from Yakutia in the Primorsky Territory and the Asia-Pacific region. Today, in terms of economy, this project is unprofitable, but we do not fold it because of the political component. That is why I believe that we should not conceive another large-scale project – for the transfer of water in China – with an implicit economic benefits…

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Picapau amarelo

I hope common sense prevails and in the end this idea will be shelved. This kind of massive water transfers has always led to ecological disaster in the past, and Russia (and other countries too) should have learnt from the mistakes the USSR made in the XX century, which led to desertification of vast swathes of land in the past and the destruction of the Aral sea. I have no doubt that China will benefit enormously with this water transfer for which they would pay a comparative small amount of money, but surely it will not bring any real profits to the Russian people, who will bear the environmental costs for centuries to come.

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