The Geopolitics Of The Tibetan Plateau

Rohit P. Singh

When one of the deadliest clashes in the region’s history occurred between Chinese police and Tibetan protestors in March 2008, experts averred that the cause of the violence was China’s long-standing strategy to open Tibet’s vast reserves of copper, iron, zinc, and other minerals. But it turns out that China wants to gain control over a much more vital resource: Tibet’s vast supply of freshwater. In Asia, the availability of water has become a key issue that could determine whether the region is characterized by cooperation or interstate and international conflict in the years to come.

Undoubtedly, China holds the key to the above question as it controls the Tibetan plateau. The plateau is home to enormous glaciers and the world’s greatest river systems. These rivers act as a ridge-rope for the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, and also to Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, which combined are home to 47 percent of the global population.

However, recent studies have corroborated serious environmental threats to Tibet’s freshwater reserves, largely due to deforestation, mining, manufacturing and other industrial activities. According to a 2007 report by IPCC, glaciers in the region are melting at a rate faster than anywhere else in the world. This decline in the freshwater content has raised concerns in both the scientific and diplomatic communities. Tibet’s water resources have become an increasingly important strategic political and cultural element that the Chinese are intent on managing and controlling.

In the recent past, concerns about interstate conflict have arisen from China’s attempts to dam or redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan plateau, where several major rivers originate, including the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Karnali and the Sutlej. China is among the driest nations on earth with more than one-fourth of its land classified as desert. Rivers there are either too polluted or too filled with silt to provide all of the country’s 1.3 billion people with adequate supplies of freshwater. In its attempts to solve its water crisis, China has become a potentially dangerous nation to its neighbors. After building two dams upstream, China now has plans to divert the fast-flowing Brahmaputra northward to feed the arid areas of its heartland, and to build three more dams on the Mekong, which has amplified rages in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. In sum, as China has exhausted its own resources, it is now threatening the ecological viability of nations in South and Southeast Asia.

The countries that would be most gravely affected by China’s plans are India and Bangladesh. China seems to be intent on pursuing its water projects, and the idea of a great “south-north water transfer” project that diverts river waters descending from the Tibetan highlands has been backed by President Hu Jintao. Under the “south-north water transfer” project, water will first be drawn from the Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu rivers, on the eastern rim of the Tibetan plateau, by building 300 kilometers of tunnels and channels. In the second phase, water will be directed northward from the Shuomatan Point, or the “Great Bend”, which is found just before the water enters India and from whence it is known as the Brahmaputra. This second phase will begin when any water shortage becomes acute in China, and could provoke a water war with India and Bangladesh as these countries try to protect their riparian regions.

A shortage of water in the Ganges has already affected the lives of millions of people in Bangladesh and has driven them to illegally migrate to India. This migration has resulted in a marked demographic change in India’s Northeastern states (especially Assam) and has been the cause of several social and cultural conflicts in the region. If Bangladesh faces a shortage of water in the Brahmaputra due to China’s upstream diversion plans, this migration will likely increase to dangerous levels and threaten the lives of thousands in Assam and other states.

So we see that water is becoming a highly political issue in South Asia. Managing water resources in Tibet is a challenge for China as well as for all the other countries affected by it. The total number of people who would be affected, if China succeeds with its projects, is around 1.7 billion. It is only through dialogue that these people will be able to decide how to make the best use of Tibet’s resources and avoid a war over water.


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