China, Tibet, and the strategic power of water

As reported by Circle of Blue, a number of experts say that control and management of an even more vital resource – the Tibetan Plateau’s vast supply of freshwater – is also emerging at the center of the increasingly tense political and cultural strife between China and Tibet. As the article notes:

“…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, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Sutlej, among others.

However, recent studies – including several by the Chinese Academy of Sciences – 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.

…Most important, the region’s warming climate is causing glaciers to recede at a rate faster than anywhere else in the world, and …Tibet’s water resources have become an increasingly crucial strategic political and cultural element that the Chinese are intent on managing and controlling.

“At least 500 million people in Asia and 250 million people in China are at risk from declining glacial flows on the Tibetan Plateau,” said Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, in an interview with Circle of Blue. “This is one of the great concerns – a staggering number of people will be affected in the near future. There aren’t too many researchers who have looked at this water situation and its far-reaching impacts.”

The Tibetan Plateau

… Chinese authorities have long had their eyes on Tibet’s water resources. They have proposed building dams for hydropower and spending billions of dollars to build a system of canals to tap water from the Himalayan snowmelt and glaciers and transport it hundreds of miles north and east to the country’s farm and industrial regions.

But how long that frozen reservoir will last is in doubt. In attempting to solve its own water crisis, China could potentially create widespread water shortages among its neighbors. The IPCC warned a year ago that the glaciers in the world’s highest mountain range could vanish within three decades. “Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the earth keeps getting warmer at the current rate,” the report said.

“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,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California and one of the world’s foremost authorities on water. “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, which settled in India in 1959 following the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet, in recent years has consistently identified the plateau’s water as a strategic resource and criticized China’s management of it. In a report earlier this decade, 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. …According to 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,” Economy said.

“…Water is seen as a strategic asset for China wherever it occurs in China,” said Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “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.”

Summing up the volatile situation, Dabelko added, “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.”

This entry was posted on Friday, May 23rd, 2008 at 2:28 pm and is filed under China, India, Tibet, Tibetan Plateau.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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