Global Policy Forum

Tibetan Waters: A Source of Cooperation or Conflict?

The control of natural resources remains a source of conflict between states. China has decided to build dams and river diversion projects in Tibet. These initiatives will divert all the major rivers originating on the Tibetan plateau and will directly affect lower riparian states. These different projects may have negative environmental consequences for two billion of people living in the entire zone and trigger an eco-disaster while pushing population to migrate. The Chinese government’s unwillingness to engage in a dialogue on water with its neighbors contributes to tensions in the region.

By Hari Bansh Jha

September 30, 2011

In recent times, the world has witnessed a major surge in regional unrests caused primarily by the shortage of water. Tension builds up between two or more countries when an effort is made by any upper riparian country to control the waterways of transboundary rivers. Factors like population surge, industrialization and other development activities compel a country to control waterways. When such activities begin to affect the livelihood, ecology and growth of the lower riparian countries, they become a source of dispute.

As in other parts of the world, tension has also been growing both in South Asia and Southeast Asia due to China’s unilateral decision to construct dams and river diversion projects in Tibet. Since 1989, Chinese engineers have been thinking of constructing dams and developing south-north water diversion projects partly driven by internal economic compulsions and partly by the desire to acquire a dominant external position.

As is well known, the Tibetan plateau happens to be the largest water tank in the world. All the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong originate in the Tibetan plateau. Of the world’s 6.92 billion people, for nearly 2 billion (29 per cent) living in South Asia from Afghanistan to the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin and in Southeast Asia the rivers flowing from Tibet constitute the lifeline.

According to media reports, China has already built a barrage on the Sutlej river. Since November 2010, it has started construction work for damming/diversion of the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) in Tibet. The detailed planning for the Tsangpo project was approved by the State Council in 2006 and has the support of both Chen Chuanyu, its main architect, and Hu Jintao. Apart from the diversion project on the Brahmaputra river, China also plans to construct 15 dams along the Lancang (Mekong) river. In addition, China plans to tap the waters of most of the big rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau.

There are also reports that China’s state owned electric power companies have already contracted with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) government for the development of hydropower in different rivers of Tibet. China is also working towards developing road connectivity with Nepal and other South Asian countries. It wants to develop hydropower partly to reduce the development gap between its eastern and western provinces but also 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.

Some of these Chinese activities might affect Nepal as well. Some of Nepal’s major rivers originate in Tibet before finally merging into the Ganga in India. Of them, the most important is Karnali (507 km), Nepal’s longest river. Tibet is also the origin of some parts of Kali Gandaki River, Budhi Gandaki River and the larger part of Trishuli River, which are the major tributaries of the Gandaki River system in Nepal. Similarly, the major tributaries of the Koshi river such as the Sun Koshi/Bhote Koshi, the Tama Koshi and Arun originate in Tibet. Nepal would be affected seriously if dams and diversion projects are built in upper riparian Tibet on such rivers as the Karnali in the west, Gandaki in the central and Kosi in the eastern part of the country.

Any diversion of waters from Nepalese rivers originating in Tibet would directly affect the flow of water of the Ganga, the soul of the people living in the Indian sub-continent including in Nepal. As is well known, the Ganga 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. What will happen to the Ganga if dams and diversion projects are built on rivers flowing from Tibet into Nepal?

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 stating that the projects are in the conceptual stage. When the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei was asked about this issue on April 19, 2011, he said that China would not do anything that would harm the interests of the lower riparian states. However, an April 24, 2011 report in the People’s Daily conceded that China would undertake certain measures to ensure strategic water reserves, diversion of water, recharging ground water, etc.

Perhaps, China well understands what George Ginsburg wrote: that it 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. Is this why China has so far not signed any bilateral treaty in regard to the utilization of water resources with any of its neighbours?

There are already reports that the quantity 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. Besides, the industrial, nuclear and other construction activities in Tibet have been polluting the quality of water, which ultimately affects the lives sustained by the river waters flowing from Tibet – be it through the Indus, Sutlej, Karnali, Gandaki, Koshi, Brahmaputra, Mekong or any other river.

Unfortunately, Beijing is not transparent and is reluctant to share hydrological data with the lower riparian countries. It has not yet 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. In the same way, it started work on the Brahmaputra river in November 2010 without sharing any 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 drawn strong opposition from 263 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for its effort to construct dams on the Mekong river. 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 invited strong reactions in various Asian capitals from Islamabad to Hanoi. In fact, China has been using its river water as a weapon. Some analysts have predicted even wars or war like situations of various 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. There are also reports that the Tibetan nomads are gradually being made to shift from their traditional grassland and resettle in bleak villages. Unfortunately, some of these activities might invite eco-disaster. This might aggravate the meltdown of Himalayan glaciers, further resulting in the drying of rivers. Therefore, the Tibet water resources should be accepted as a global commons. Any distortion in the ecology of Tibet and its delicate river system is likely to affect the global environment.

Under the existing situation, what should the lower riparian countries do? The best strategy appears to be one of engaging China in a dialogue process and persuading it not to construct dams and diversion projects on Tibetan rivers at the cost of environmental degradation and the livelihood of nearly 2 billion people living in Afghanistan, the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana basin and the Mekong basin countries including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Such a dialogue could be initiated bilaterally or multilaterally by the lower riparian countries that are likely to be affected by China’s construction of dams and river diversion projects in Tibet.


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