Tibet and Water Crisis in Asia

Dr Arvind Kumar*President, India Water Foundation, New Delhi.

The recent drought in southern China, the worst drought in past five decades, has dried up farmers’ fields and left tens of millions of people short of water. But the drought has also created a major public relations problem for the Chinese government in neighboring countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, all sharing Mekong River. Mekong River originates from Tibet and flows into South China Sea.

According to a recent report published in New York Times, farmers and fishermen in countries sharing the Mekong River with China have lashed out at China over four dams that span the Chinese portion of the 3,000-mile river. China has reportedly launched a campaign to try to counter the perception that its dams are hijacking the Mekong’s water as the river runs from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea. This has once again focused attention on Tibet wherefrom many rivers originating supply crucial water support to most of the countries of South and Southeast Asia.

Tibet lies north of India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar, west of China, and south of East Turkistan. Tibet is acclaimed as the highest and largest plateau on Earth. It stretches some 2,400 kilometers from east to west, and 1,448 kilometers north to south. The Himalayas form much of its southern boundary, and Tibet’s average altitude is about 11,000 feet above sea level.

Tibet is endowed with the world’s greatest river systems. Its river waters are a lifeline to the world’s two most-populous countries — China and India — as well as to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries comprise 47 percent of the world population. Almost half of the world’s population lives in the watersheds of the rivers whose sources lie on the Tibetan Plateau. There are more than 1000 lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, including the world’s highest salt lake — Namtso (Nam Co). Both sourced in the Tibetan Plateau, the Yangtze (Chang Jiang) River and the Yellow River serve roughly 520 million people in China. The Yangtze River is the third-longest in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile.

In recent years, water has emerged as a key issue that can impact on mutually beneficial cooperation or deleterious interstate competition. China, which controls the Tibetan plateau — the source of most major rivers of Asia, is placed in a strategic position to influence the direction of water. Viewed in a broad spectrum, Asia is a water-deficient continent. Asia is inhabited by more than half of the global population, but has less fresh water — 3,920 cubic meters per person.

The rapid proliferation of irrigated farming, water-intensive industries and widespread use of high water-consuming comforts like washing machines and dishwashers etc., have contributed to the growing struggle over water resources in Asia. Household water consumption in Asia is also rising rapidly. The adverse impact of climate change and environmental degradation in the form of shrinking forests and swamps, which foster a cycle of chronic flooding and droughts through the depletion of nature’s water storage and absorption cover has added to water woes. The Himalayan snow cover that feeds Asia’s great rivers is melting at a fast pace under the impact of global warming.

The mounting water deficit in Asia has led to intrastate water-sharing disputes in some Asian countries — from India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China. However, China’s ambitious plans to build dams or redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan plateau, where major rivers originate, including the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Karnali and the Sutlej, is a matter of serious concern for Asian countries dependent on rivers originating from Tibet.

Faced with water deficit, China has increasingly focused its attention on the plentiful water reserves that are available in Tibet. Beijing is working on ambitious plans that include production of hydropower, channeling waters for irrigation and other purposes etc. China is also reportedly working on massive inter-basin and inter-river water-transfer projects.

According to media reports, after having built two dams upstream, China is engaged in building at least three more on the Mekong, to the consternation of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Some of Chinese projects in west-central Tibet can adversely affect river-water flows into India. However, China is maintaining studied silence on these projects.

In the wake of flash floods in India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state, however, China agreed in 2005 to supply New Delhi data on any abnormal rise or fall in the upstream level of the Sutlej River, on which it has built a barrage. India is holding parleys with China to persuade it to share flood-control data during the monsoon season on two Brahmaputra tributaries, Lohit and Yarlongng Tsangpo, as it has done since 2002 on the Brahmaputra River, which it has dammed at several places upstream.

Having an area of 2.5 million-square-km, Tibet comprises approximately one-fourth of China’s land mass today. The 10 major watersheds formed by the Himalayas and Tibetan highlands spread out river waters far and wide in Asia. Control over the Tibetan plateau gives China tremendous leverage, besides access to vast natural resources. China’s ambitious plans and rapid industrialization now threatens the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia.

China has built 1,100 kilometer railroad across the world’s highest plateau opened from central China to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. According to some experts, China will implement its long-standing strategy to exploit Tibet’s vast reserves of copper, iron, lead, zinc, and other minerals. .

The traditional Tibet has a distinct cultural entity of its own. The future of Tibet’s water reserves is tied to ecological conservation. China is bent upon exploiting Tibet’s resources without caring for its adverse impact on ecological balance and the neighbouring countries.

Large hydro projects and reckless exploitation of mineral resources already threaten Tibet’s fragile ecosystems, with ore tailings beginning to pollute water sources. China is building a 108-km paved road to Mount Everest, located along the Tibet-Nepal frontier.

Broadly speaking, the Tibetan Plateau is an oxygen-scarce landscape of enormous glaciers, huge alpine lakes, and mighty waterfalls – a storehouse of freshwater so bountiful that the region serves as the headwaters for many of Asia’s largest rivers. Some recent studies have documented a host of serious environmental challenges to the quantity and quality of Tibet’s freshwater reserves, most of them caused by industrial activities. Deforestation has led to large-scale erosion and siltation. Mining, manufacturing, and other human activities are producing record levels of air and water pollution in Tibet. Together, these factors portend future water scarcity that could add to the region’s volatility.

The region’s warming climate is causing glaciers to recede at a rate faster than anywhere else in the world. Some experts feel that Tibet’s water resources have become an increasingly crucial politico-strategic and cultural element. More than a quarter of China’s land is classified as desert. It is one of the planet’s most arid regions. Chinese rivers are either too polluted or too filled with silt to provide all of China’s population with adequate supplies of freshwater.
China is intent upon exploiting Tibet’s water resources without caring for its adverse impact. They have proposed building dams for hydropower and spending billions of dollars to build a system of canals to tap water from the snowmelt and glaciers and transport it hundreds of miles north and east to the country’s farm and industrial regions.
By one recent count, there are more than 80 hydropower projects in various stages of preparation and construction for the Mekong and its tributaries. Discussions among the countries that share the Mekong are more complicated. A common approach toward planning the river’s future means accommodating Thailand’s lively and freewheeling society, the military dictatorship in Myanmar, the authoritarian democracy in Cambodia and the Communist-ruled systems of Laos and Vietnam.

Some conservationists have attributed the low river levels partly to the construction of China’s fourth dam on the Mekong, at Xiaowan. The dam began filling its reservoir in July 2009, during the rainy season, Chinese officials say, a process that was stopped with the arrival of the dry season.

According to Jeremy Bird, the chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission, an advisory body set up in 1995 by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, as water shortages became acute and navigation at some points of the Mekong became impossible, China released water from its dams, raising the water level, China and Myanmar are not members but have some agreements to share information.

In view of the global warming, the question arises as to how long the frozen Himalayan glaciers’ reservoir will last is in doubt. In attempting to solve its own water crisis, China could potentially create widespread water shortages among its neighbors. According to Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California” “While the political issues swirling around Tibet and China are complex, there is no denying that water plays a role in China’s interest in the region. The water of Tibet may prove to be one of its most important resources in the long run – for China, and for much of southern Asia. Figuring out how to sustainably manage that water will be a key to reducing political conflicts and tensions in the region.”

The Tibetan Government in Exile, based in India since 1959, has consistently identified Tibet’s water as a strategic resource and criticized China’s management of it. In one of its report, the exile government said China’s water development plans, as well as global climate change, should cause concern across Asia, because it would “seriously decrease [the] water supplies of India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma, as well as the Yangtze River Basin as far as Shanghai, especially in drought years. Meanwhile, rural Tibetans continue to suffer high rates of hepatitis, water-borne infections, and back pain due to inadequate village water supplies.”

Some recent studies undertaken in China acknowledge the changing condition of Tibet’s water supply. The Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, a unit of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, recently reported that the area and mass of the region’s glaciers had decreased 7 percent since the late 1960s. The Chinese scientists reported that the melting phenomenon was widespread, though it was not known how many of China’s 46,298 glaciers were affected.

Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a recent interview that it’s not surprising that China is circumspect about the strategic consequences of the Tibetan Plateau’s freshwater supplies. She further said: “Talking about this, or introducing it into any of their conversation about Tibet, just doesn’t serve their purpose.”

According to Elizabeth Economy, control of water resources in the Tibetan Plateau might be an issue internally, but externally, it is not. “China wants to minimize the range of issues it needs to negotiate. Once this issue of water resources comes up, and it seems inevitable at this point that it will, it also raises emerging conflicts with India and Southeast Asia. They also receive their water from the Tibetan Plateau.”

According to Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.: “Water is seen as a strategic asset for China wherever it occurs in China,” said “Because so much of the water for China and the region originates in Tibet, it adds an additional level of importance and political sensitivity and context that does not get the attention it deserves. Nearly two billion people are dependent on water originating on the Tibetan Plateau. By definition, that makes it high politics and critically important in a politically strategic sense.”

According to a report released in early February this year Tibet is heating up and temperatures in Tibet soared in 2009 to the highest level since records began. It was reported in China Daily that the average temperature in Tibet in 2009 was 5.9 C, 1.5 degrees higher than ‘normal.’

Zhang Hezhen, a Lhasa resident and specialist at the regional weather bureau told the British newspaper Guardian on 5 February 2010: “Average temperatures recorded at 29 observatories reached record highs. It’s high time for all of us to take global warming seriously and think about what we can do to save the earth.” A monitoring station at the foot of Mt Everest also recorded a new record high temperature of 25.8 degrees, which was 0.7C warmer than the previous peak.

Tibet is the water tower of Asia. It calls for more attention and close cooperation between China and the countries dependent on rivers originating from Tibet with regard to safeguard of water resources in Tibet and judicious use of water by the main stakeholders.

Article Published in Third Concept/May 2010/Vol.24/No.279/P.No.7/

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  1. Anonymous

    Dear Dr Arvind
    Thank you very much for sharing the article which portrait the grim situation of water shortage in the region. The issue of recurrent droughts in the region could be seen as resultant of global warming. Further study on it would help in establishing linkages.
    With best regards

    S C Jain
    Programme Coordinator
    AFPRO (Action for Food Production)
    25/1A, Institutional Area, D – Block
    Janakpuri, New Delhi – 110058
    Sent: Sunday, May 09, 2010 1:46 PM

  2. Anonymous

    Dear Dr. Kumar,
    I am grateful for the article.
    Professor Shem O. Wandiga
    Managing Trustee
    Centre for Science and Technology Innovations
    Utalii House, 8th Floor, Room 802
    P.O. Box 42792-00100, Nairobi
    May 9, 2010


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