(September 9, 2010) Writing in Forbes, Steven Solomon says China’s control of Tibet gives it almost complete control over Asia’s water supply.
By 2020 Chinese control of Tibet gives Beijing a commanding position in an increasingly thirsty Asia.
The remote alpine lake and glacier grasslands of the 11,000-foot-high Tibetan plateau north of the Himalayas may seem to be one of the unlikeliest hot spots of 2020. But this vast land of Buddhist monks and nomadic herders stores abundant wealth of an indispensable resource that is in increasingly contested supply across the region–fresh water.
The Tibetan Plateau is also known as the “water towers of Asia.” The headwaters of the mighty rivers Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej, among others, all originate in its mountain snow packs and glaciers. More than 1.5 billion people downstream depend upon its waters. In the next decade they’re going to need every drop they can get. Heavily populated nations from Pakistan and India to China and Cambodia face mounting, grave threats from a widespread crisis of fresh-water scarcity.
Through its political control of Tibet it is China that lords over the commanding heights of Asia’s water towers. It is now moving aggressively–and unilaterally–to exploit them for its own ends.
Driven by its unquenchable thirst for power to sustain its economic juggernaut while weaning itself off dirty coal energy, China has launched an ambitious new program of hydropower expansion. Its goal is to raise its exploitation of national hydropower potential from one-third to 60% by 2020. The best hydropower locations are almost all in the Tibetan plateau.
Scores of huge Chinese dams are being developed upriver on the Yangtze beyond Three Gorges, on the heretofore lightly dammed upper Mekong that downstream becomes the fishery and agricultural wellspring of Indochina, and on the upper Brahmaputra, which runs through Tibet before feeding eastern India and Bangladesh. China is also eyeing the upper Salween, Myanmar’s lifeline.
How China builds and manages its dams, and exerts it power, will have a major impact on the seasonal river flows, water quality and ecosystems in the lower reaches–and on the food security, energy production, and political stability of the nations there.
Earlier this year Mekong nations in the throes of the worst drought in 50 years blamed–unfairly–China’s dams on the upper Mekong for the record plunges in the river. Tensions are likely to worsen by 2015 as Lower Mekong nations erect their own main stream dams–compelling traditionally secretive China to fully join, and gradually lead, the cooperative Mekong River Commission.
India is warily watching China build giant hydropower dams on the Brahmaputra and worrying–despite vigorous dismissals by China–that China might divert the river to supplement its gigantic South to North Water Diversion Project designed to alleviate China’s severe national water shortages. China has one-fifth as much water per person as the U.S., and crippling shortages in its parched north.
Within 10 years expect China’s opening of the world’s largest hydropower dam at the Brahmaputra’s great bend to feed headlines about China and India’s contentious south Tibetan border disputes. Geostrategic balances are likely to tilt in China’s favor, especially as international support for Tibetan independence wanes after the aging Dalai Lama eventually dies.
Cooperation can offer positive sum benefits like providing cheap, renewable regional hydroelectric power and evening out the wide, monsoonal variations in river flows. China wants to be viewed as cooperative. It is moving in the right direction by sharing data and other gestures. But far and fast enough?
And looming over the Tibetan plateau is the ominous cloud of climate change: More extreme monsoons and the thinning of some plateau glaciers are warnings about how little we know about the effects of global warming on the rivers that rise there. If the water towers start to go empty, everyone is in trouble.
Steven Solomon is author of WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (HarperCollins 2010) and blogs regularly at The Water Blog.
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