The Tsangpo/Yarlung Gorge and Transboundary Waters

Art Bernstein, MA (Gold Hill, OR), writer and naturalist. “China, India and the world’s deepest canyon and highest river.”

The Tsangpo River (also called the Yarlung), is the world’s longest river with an elevation mostly above 10,000 feet. This transboundary river flows through Tibet, in China for a thousand miles, does a sharp U-turn at the Tsangpo Gorge and then enters India, where it becomes the Bramhaputra River. It empties into the Indian Ocean at the Ganges Delta.

The Tsangpo is the main river of Tibet and is not badly polluted since this is a sparsely populated region. The river carries a tremendous amount of water into India (all in Aruncal Pradesh Province – which is disputed territory between the China and India). The Indians have plenty of water but lack a water distribution infrastructure (dams, pumping stations, pipes, plumbing). Their culture also promotes river pollution (they can’t keep the cows out). Flooding on the Ganges Delta is a huge problem.

At the U-turn, the river runs between two 20,000 feet peaks and drops 10,000 feet onto the Ganges Plain. The Tsangpo Grand Canyon is by far the world’s deepest canyon. The deepest spot is 15,000 feet – three times the Grand Canyon). It is extremely rugged terrain with no trails. The river is impossible to run, with 20 times the flow of the Colorado. It’s also very cold.

The Chinese have proposed a dam on the Tibet side that would generate more electrical power than the Three Gorges Dam. India opposes it because it would impound some of their water (but it would also prevent floods). And the Tibetans oppose it because it would enable development, which means more Chinese would move to Tibet.

Look up “Tsangpo Gorge” on YouTube. The upper gorge was run for the first time by a group of American kayakers in 2003 but the lower gorge has never been run.

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