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River Runs Through It

The Times of India
August 17, 2010

From 1911 to 1950, Tibet was an independent nation possessing all the attributes of statehood. StrategistMao Zedong had repeatedly stated his objective about that territory: "There are two winds in the world, the east wind and west wind...I think the characteristic of the current situation is that the east wind prevails over the west wind; that is, the strength of socialism exceeds the strength of imperialism."

These words were pronounced in 1957, but by 1950 there had been no question that China would not allow the west wind prevail as China's People's Liberation Army set out to 'liberate' the roof of the world. Mao knew that he who holds Tibet dominates the Himalayan piedmont and, thereby, the Asian water towers. The government of India, having inherited past treaties signed by the British with Tibet, should have gained an advantage over control of these water towers. But India failed to do so and gave no serious thought to the consequences.

The Indians were not only shocked at China's unprovoked military action in Tibet, they were also offended by how the Chinese government had disregarded its explicit assurances to India that Tibet would be left alone. In a sharp note to the Chinese government, the Indian foreign ministry expressed deep regret and surprise at the decision to send troops into Tibet just after the Tibetans had initiated negotiations with China's ambassador in New Delhi. The US and British governments expressed their support for the Indian position, and the US state department informed New Delhi of its desire to help Tibet by whatever means possible.

The Americans recognised that, in view of geographic and historical factors, India's cooperation was needed in any attempt to effectively help Tibet. But India's foreign ministry dissuaded the US from supplying military aid to Tibet. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru even requested that Washington refrain from publicly condemning China. India's attitude of washing its hand of Tibet deeply hurt and humiliated the Tibetan people and put India at a permanent disadvantage.

Tibet's strategic position has become obvious in recent years: scientists and policymakers have begun to recognise how climate change has the potential to reduce snowpack and glacier mass in the Tibetan plateau, altering one of the world's most crucial hydrological systems. Thanks to its control over Tibet, China can claim sovereign right to control the world's largest freshwater resources outside the polar regions. These water resources, vulnerable to global and regional warming, are critical for sustaining South Asia's food and water security. Should China be the lone arbiter of the fate of Tibet's waters? What happens to downstream nations that depend heavily on these rivers?

China possesses a robust glaciological programme and knows fairly well how long Tibet's snow and ice resources will last. It has embarked on integrated water resource management of all rivers emanating from Tibetan plateau. And it has completed dam construction and water diversion projects on the Salween and Mekong rivers, despite regional and global criticism that these will be socially and economically devastating downstream.

China plans to build 59 reservoirs on rivers flowing out of the Tibetan plateau to save glacier run-off. Construction is in full swing at Zangmu for a 540 MW run of the river power project and feasibility studies have been completed for five more such projects further upstream on the Yarlung Tsangpo. Tapping the power of the river Tsangpo (Brahmaputra for Indians) as it bends and plunges down towards Indian and Bangladeshi floodplains has long been a dream of Chinese politicians and hydro-engineers. Metog will be the site of the mega project at the huge bend inside a giant canyon approximately 3.1 miles deep and 198 miles long. This will involve construction of a series of tunnels, pipes, reservoirs and turbines that will generate 40,000 MW of power and exploit the spectacular 2,000-metre fall of the river as it winds down towards India.

This water diversion project an essential part of China's 10th five-year plan will cost $62 billion. The entire staff responsible for constructing the Lhasa-Beijing railway line has been assigned to executing this mega project quickly. The project is ominous for millions of Indians and Bangladeshis. Chinese conservationists have admitted that the canyon is home to more than 60 per cent of the Tibetan plateau's biological resources and many indigenous communities. Yet China officially denies it is constructing any reservoirs or dams on the Brahmaputra. Surprisingly, India accepts these official denials (an attitude much like Nehru's in 1950 prior to Tibet's annexation).

China has emerged as the world's second largest economy and a formidable military and nuclear power. Accordingly, the world's great powers treat it with respect and caution. Control over Tibet's water resources in a world that is warming has provided it with strategic edge over its neighbours. India should recalibrate its Tibet policy and start negotiating a legally binding international treaty on the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers. As of now, both countries have no legal and policy architecture in place to deal with a looming water dispute. They only have a couple of MoUs in sharing flood-season hydrological data on these rivers. This, despite the fact China has already started exploiting Tibetan rivers for their strategic advantage.

The writer is senior visiting fellow, Stimson Centre, Washington DC.

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