The cost estimate is more than $37 billion, and Chinese officials say work could begin as early as 2010.
Environmentalists say the project would not benefit Tibet, even if it does boost the exhausted "mother river" of China.
Essential To China
The head of the Yellow River Conservancy Committee, Li Guoying, told journalists at a Beijing press conference on August 1 that he considers the project essential. That's because the Yellow River has on many occasions during the last 30 years dried up altogether in certain sections, as demand for its waters grew.
Li said the extra water is necessary for continued social and economic development of China's northwest.
Liu Changming, a hydrologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is an adviser to the Chinese government on the project. He says the so-called western route is no longer "just an abstract plan, [but] will go ahead."
Liu said the route of the diversion is not particularly lengthy, at some 300 kilometers. But he described it as "technologically challenging," with engineering and environmental problems to be solved.
It will form part of the bigger North-South transfer project, in which water is also being diverted from the Yangtze River to the dry north of China. The gigantic Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze is the most controversial part of the whole project so far. Critics deplore the destruction of river communities, and what they see as its unpredictable ecological consequences.
Deprivation For Tibet
The California-based Tibet Justice Center is a private organization that seeks to defend Tibetans' rights. It says that since the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1949, the Tibetan plateau has suffered widespread environmental degradation.
It says the headwaters of Asia's major river systems are now threatened by an increasing number of water-control projects, all designed to meet China's thirst for water and energy.
Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan expert on natural resources at Canada's University of British Columbia, says the project is "definitely not meant to develop Tibet." Tsering says that essentially there are no benefits for the local people from areas where the water is being diverted.
"One proof of this is simply the fact that until recently, most of the studies that were done on the water-diversion project were done on the recipient side, the preliminary studies -- you know, 'How much water they will get?' [or] 'How much it will cost?' and, 'What will be the impact?'" Tsering notes.
These questions were asked much later on the Tibetan side, and Tsering says it is very clear where the power dynamics lie. But he says it is not necessary to view this issue as a China verses Tibet contest.
"It has been the pattern of the Chinese government, wherever there are large-scale water diversion projects, that the local people who are affected are not really addressed," he says.
Bureaucracy's Endless Appetite
Tsering says the water project mirrors a pattern of exploitation of Tibetan natural assets. And he says the gigantic water bureaucracy constantly needs to find new work to do, and is now turning its attention to Tibet.
"They look up to Tibet for water supplies, which is perfect for these huge water-construction bureaucracies, and businesses basically who are looking to see where else they can build dams and water-diversion projects, because they have already diverted and dammed all the rivers in China," Tsering says.
He says the Chinese official media is constantly referring to Tibet as an inexhaustible source of water. But he says this is basically untrue, because Tibet is an arid area with very little rainfall. Studies, including Chinese studies, note that the glaciers that are the real source of much of the water are melting fast as the climate warms. At the current rate of glacial retreat, they suggest, much of Tibet's waters will be lost in a matter of a few decades.
Tsering says the consequences of the project have not been sufficiently thought through.
Another organization, the Inventory for Conflict and Environment, foresees troubles in another direction. It notes that, since 1959, the Chinese have cut down Tibetan timber worth some $50 billion, sometimes by clear-cutting.
This has exposed the typically steep Tibetan hillsides to erosion, with silt flowing into the rivers. It has also brought problems of siltation and poor water quality upstream, as well as downstream.
Increasing Dialogue May Help
Bjorn Guterstam, a water expert with the Stockholm-based private organization Global Water Partnership, argues that China is moving in the direction of increased dialogue with affected parties in big building projects.
The Global World Partnership's aim in China -- as elsewhere -- is to facilitate dialogue between provincial water authorities, and local groups with a stake in developments. That way, Guterstam says, actions are taken by consensus, if possible.
"This is a general problem -- how to make a country like China fit into a Western approach using democratic consultations," he says.
"It's a long-term process to get them on board, but there is definitely a political will to get stakeholders on board to discuss [issues]," Guterstam adds. "It's just a matter of how they can do it, and how they can find mechanisms to do that, because they have no experience in these kinds of democratic processes."
Guterstam, who has met personally with senior Chinese water-management officials, says Global Water Partnership has not yet been involved in the diversion plan dealing with Tibetan water.
BEIJING ON THE RISE: The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States prompted Washington to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At the time, many predicted the United States would gain a new foothold in Central Asia: new U.S. military bases appeared in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, U.S. foreign aid increased, and much U.S. attention was lavished on the region. Russia and China looked on warily. But the pendulum may be swinging back in Moscow’s and Beijing’s favor. China, especially, has expended great effort at winning friends in Central Asia and is becoming a force to be reckoned with....(more)
ARCHIVE To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of China, click here.
SUBSCRIBE For weekly news and analysis on all five Central Asian countries by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Central Asia Report."