The Californian dream is heading east as China unveils plans to build the world’s longest tunnel, bringing 10-15 billion tonnes of water each year from Tibet to the arid lands of Xinjiang province.
In a report by South China Morning Post, a geotechnical engineer described the 1,000 km tunnel project as a way to breathe life into the currently barren north-western region of Xinjiang, carrying water down from ‘the world’s highest plateau’ via several waterfalls with the hope to ‘turn Xinjiang into California’.
The project, which has been a Chinese pipedream since the Qing dynasty of the early 19th century, is akin to the Central Valley Project in 1933 that diverted water from Northern California to the rest of the region, turning it into the successful agricultural zone it is today. Currently, the Xinjiang province is largely uninhabitable desert land due to the Tibetan plateau preventing Indian Ocean monsoon water from entering the area.
Until now the gigantic costs – a reported $15 billion per kilometre – as well as the environmental concerns, logistical difficulties and counter-arguments from neighbouring countries such as India, whose own water supply will be affected by the involvement of the Brahmaputra river, have waylaid the project. But as the technology and plans have evolved, China is now ready to start building the tunnel.
According to Zhang Chuanqing, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics and one of the key figures in this mammoth project, this “is to show we have the brains, muscle, and tools to build super-long tunnels in hazardous terrains, and the cost does not break the bank.” To test the feasibility of the tunnel, the Chinese government are currently building a similar structure of 600km in the Yunnan province.
While China has shown promising steps in the global environmental movement, questions have been raised regarding the potential for environmental damage resulting from the tunnel; speaking to Quartz, Lobsang Yangtso of the International Tibet Network warned that the effects of climate change have been witnessed in Xinjiang province in recent years, explaining that “the region is also earthquake-prone and it could lead to a huge natural disaster.”