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Waters of Tibet

Waters of Tibet

Author: PK Vasudeva
Publication: The Statesman
Date: November 27, 2011
URL: http://thestatesman.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=391491&catid=38

China And Its Damaging Dams

WARS in future are likely to be fought over the shortage of water for ecological reasons. In recent times, the world has witnessed a major surge in regional unrest precisely because of this problem. Tension builds up between two or more countries when an effort is made by any upper riparian nation to control the waterways of trans-boundary rivers. Factors such an increase in population, industrialization and other development activities compel a country to control its waterways. It becomes a point of friction when such activities affect the livelihood, ecology and growth of the lower riparian states.

As in other parts of the world, tension is brewing in South Asia and South-east Asia because of China's unilateral decision to construct dams and river diversion projects in Tibet. Since 1989, Chinese engineers have been planning the construction of dams and the south-north water diversion projects. Beijing is driven partly by internal economic compulsions and partly by the desire to acquire a dominant external position.

The Tibetan plateau happens to be the world's largest water tank. All the ten major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong originate in the Tibetan plateau. The rivers flowing from Tibet constitute the lifeline of the world's 6.92 billion people. This includes two billion (29 per cent) in South Asia from Afghanistan to the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin.

According to media reports, China has already built a barrage on the Sutlej river. Since November 2010, it has started construction work for "damming" and diverting the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) in Tibet. It is also planning to construct 15 dams along the Lancang (Mekong) river.

China's state-owned power companies have already signed contracts with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) government for the development of hydropower in the rivers of Tibet. It wants to develop hydropower to reduce the development gap between its eastern and western provinces. Further, it wants to sell the electricity generated to neighbours and thus promote cross-border integration of economies. The energy produced in Tibet might also be used to tap the region's rich mineral reserves including uranium, borax, lithium, copper, zinc and iron.

These activities of China might affect Nepal as well. The latter's major rivers originate in Tibet before merging with the Ganga. Karnali, which flows through 507 km, is Nepal's longest river. Tibet is also the origin of some parts of the Kali Gandaki river, the Budhi Gandaki and the larger part of Trishuli. Similarly, the major tributaries of the Kosi, such as the Sun Kosi/Bhote Kosi, the Tama Kosi and Arun originate in Tibet. Nepal would be affected if dams and diversion projects were built in upper riparian Tibet.

Any diversion of water from the rivers of Nepal, that originate in Tibet, would affect the flow of the Ganga, which desperately needs fresh water from its tributaries. Nepal alone accounts for 46 per cent of the flow in the Ganga and its contribution grows to 71 per cent during the lean season. If dams and diversion projects are built on rivers flowing from Tibet into Nepal, it will have a damaging impact on the Ganga.

The building of dams and diversion projects in Tibet by China is a matter of serious concern for the lower riparian states. But the Chinese government downplays the issue by claiming that the projects are in the conceptual stage. On 24 April 2011 a report in the People's Daily conceded that China would undertake certain measures to ensure strategic water reserves, diversion of water and recharging ground water.

It would be useful to recall what George Ginsburg once wrote ~ "China could dominate the Himalayan piedmont by virtue of holding Tibet and by doing so it could even threaten the Indian subcontinent and thereby further threaten the entire South-east Asia and so to say all of Asia". This is why China has not signed any bilateral treaty in regard to the utilization of water resources with any of its neighbours.

The volume of water in many of the rivers flowing from Tibet to South Asia and South-east Asia is on the decline. This is partly attributed to the decline in the formation of glaciers in Tibet and in the Himalayas. Industries and construction activities in Tibet are polluting the quality of water.

Unfortunately, Beijing is reluctant to share hydrological data with the lower riparian countries. It has not signed the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Waterways. It did not notify the lower riparian countries when it started constructing three dams on the Mekong river. It started work on the Brahmaputra in November 2010 without sharing information about it with the lower riparian countries. Can China accept a delegation from India, Nepal, Bangladesh or Vietnam to inspect the sites of projects that it is developing on the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra or Mekong?

Of late, China has incurred the opposition of 263 international non-governmental organizations for its effort to construct dams on the Mekong. These NGOs feel that China has been using the water resources in Tibet as a political tool. As such, they want a moratorium on the lower Mekong dams for at least 10 years.
China's decision to dam all the major rivers originating on the Tibetan plateau has provoked strong reactions in various Asian capitals from Islamabad to Hanoi. Indeed, it has been using its river water as a weapon. Some analysts have predicted wars or war-like situations of high intensity in the region resulting from China's damming and diversion of Tibetan river waters.

Tibetan land is delicate and it cannot absorb the damming, river water diversion projects, mining and transportation, industrial and other related activities. Many fear that such activities would lead to receding glaciers in Tibet and in the Himalayas. Some of these activities might even lead to an ecological disaster. The water resources of Tibet should be accepted as a global commodity. Any distortion in the ecology of Tibet and its delicate river system is likely to affect the environment.

The lower riparian countries should persuade China not to construct dams and diversion projects on Tibetan rivers at the cost of environmental degradation and the livelihood of nearly two billion people in Afghanistan, the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin and the Mekong basin countries including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Jawaharlal Nehru committed a Himalayan blunder by giving away Tibet. He ought to have studied geography as sharply he did history and relied less on legal positions of treaties and agreements.

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