Tibet and it’s river, Asia’s lifeline: impact on India and the Brahmaputra.
“When drinking water, think about the source.”
An age-old Tibetan proverb signifying the importance of where water originates, consequently if the source is affected the effect will follow suit.
To understand the water crisis in Asia at present and in the future, it is imperative to understand the unique ecology, fresh water availability and the geopolitics that arises due to the geographical distribution of water. The unique ecology of Asia governed by various environmental factors, which gives rise to an extremely diverse and varied ecosystem throughout the continent (from extremely arid to tropical rain forest) and severe seasonal variation where a minor change in the climatic influence can have drastic effect on the ecosystem (from flooding to droughts). And in terms of fresh water availability in Asia, according to UNESCAP (UN economic and social commission for Asia and the Pacific) Asia has less fresh water available per capita (fresh water available per person) than any other continent except Antarctica and other organization like FAO (food and agriculture organization) puts Asia’s water availability even lower. Even though Asia is in great peril when it comes to water, there is still a glimmer of hope if the conservation and proper utilization of fresh water in Asia Is being formulated and followed but then the geopolitical problem of geographical water distribution comes forward where China enjoys majority of the water sources due to its ironclad strong hold on Tibet and the fact that almost half of the world population lives near the watersheds of the river that has sources in Tibet. Adding to china’s dominance on water in Asia because of Tibet; the geopolitical tension with the riparian countries (countries along the rivers that flows from Tibet) arises due to its reluctance in water sharing policy with the other riparian countries and complete disregard to the aquatic environment and its surrounding ecosystem.
In Asia, Tibet plays a unique triple role of water provider, a storage facility for water and in making rain. It provides water through the intricate system of rivers small and big, which flows in all direction to so many countries including India and is the source of almost all of the mighty rivers in Asia. Similarly, the third greatest deposits of glacial ice after the Antarctic and the Arctic is in the Tibetan plateau along with a number of great lakes and permafrost (below ground layer of ice) acting as the storage facility of water. And the most significant phenomenon govern by the Tibetan plateau is its influence on the seasonal monsoon throughout South and East Asia due to its high altitude and varying temperature gradient. In India, it affects the summer monsoon of the north and northeast and also the winter monsoon of the south which the Indian subcontinent is greatly depended on.
“If I tell you my dream, you might forget it. If I act on my dream, perhaps you will remember it, but if I involve you, it becomes your dream too”. Another age-old Tibetan saying insinuating us to make our Indian friends realize the importance of the Tibetan plateau and its rivers to those who don’t know and to remind who have forgotten. For India in particular, the importance of the Tibetan plateau stems from the fact that the economy of the majority of the people depended on agriculture and which the summer and winter monsoon control. And the monsoon is governed by the climatic changes that occur in the Tibetan plateau, a strong monsoon lead to flooding and a weak monsoon onset drought, exacting heavy economic and human costs. Likewise, India enjoys few of its major rivers that have its sources in Tibet such as the Indus, Sutlej and the mighty Brahmaputra and even Ganga the holiest and the soul of the Indian subcontinent, has many of its tributaries originating from Tibet. So, if something is to happen to the Tibetan plateau and its rivers (which are happening in full swing) due to human induced degradation and engineering activities, what effects it will have on India and the other lower riparian countries?
The Tibet’s river that flows into India is not how it used to be; there have been changes occurring to its physical, biological and chemical features due to building dams and barrages, deforestation and pollution respectively. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Asian mega deltas such as Kolkata have become “much more vulnerable” to the effects of global warming and sea-level rise because of deforestation in Tibet’s upstream catchment areas and the over-damming of the rivers. And the quantity and quality of water that the rivers in Tibet possess is in serious environmental threat caused by industrial activities, whereas deforestation and human activities such as mining and nuclear testing led to large-scale erosion and siltation and water pollution respectively, documents recent studies-including several by the Chinese Academy of sciences. And it is just frightening to even think about the environmental challenges that the Chinese government led activities in the Tibetan plateau might have and especially to India where Tibet plays such an important role.
More importantly, the greatest threat the human activities in the Tibetan plateau and its river will be on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung tsangpo) where it has majority of its river inside Tibet flowing across southern Tibet through the Himalayas and into India. So, the drastic changes that are happening to yarlung tsangpo in Tibet will have a direct and detrimental effect on the Brahmaputra from pollution to changes in the flow of the river itself. The already built dams like the Zangmu hydropower station and the so called proposed ones raised serious concerns for India while the problem of pollution of the river, deforestation along the river and permafrost degradation adds to the ever growing worry that India faces in terms of Brahmaputra. Environmental problems that will arise from the Chinese plans to divert the Brahmaputra River’s water, including by building the worlds biggest dam right at the border of Tibet and India is just unfathomable for the scientific and political community of India to assess. The ecological and economical effects that the dams and the barrages that are already being build and those that are in process or are being proposed will completely change the face of the mightiest river of Asia and will not only affect the northeastern states of India but the country as a whole and the other lower riparian countries that depends on it.
The reality of the Chinese government claims on building a “cooperative inter-riparian country relation” with the countries that depends on the rivers that flows from Tibet is not exactly what it seems, the fact that china rejected the 1997 U.N Watercourse convention (which sets rules on shared water resources to establish an international water law) and it stands out for not having a single water sharing arrangement or cooperation treaty with any co-riparian state tells the whole story about where china stands. The century old “Harmon doctrine” of the United States, which states that the U.S owed no obligation to share water resources but was discredited and U.S. went on to sign a water-sharing agreement with Mexico. Despite the “Harmon Doctrine” being discredited in the country of its origin, the doctrine of “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters in its international boundary even if the lower riparian country depends on it is still alive in China. And India should be careful in not being fooled by the ‘MoU’ (memorandum of understanding) that has been signed between the two countries over the past few years. Because so far the Chinese Government has agreed upon is the “understanding that the two sides recognize the Trans-border Rivers and related natural resources are of immense value” and “to provide hydrological data and information (water level, discharge and rainfall) in respect of three stations, namely, Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia located on river Yarlung zangbu/Brahmaputra from 1st June to 15th October every year” for a specific period of time. And there is no mentioning of any agreement on information about the dams and river projects that they are planning to build or lower riparian countries and its right. So it is of utmost importance that the Indian government should be vary of the Chinese policy specifically in terms of the rivers that flow from Tibet.
Finally, there was never a dispute between India and Tibet and especially when it comes to the rivers before china’s invasion moreover India didn’t had to even think and worry about the ever increasing problems that they are encountering now. And the problems that will follow if nothing is done about the human induced degradation of the Tibetan plateau and the human activities on the river system will increase manifold. It is of utmost importance, that world comes to understand the uniqueness and the significance that the Tibetan plateau plays in the global environment and especially India need to be proactive in its foreign policy push to safe guard Tibet’s fragile environment and come up with comprehensive shared river water policy. Any delay will not only cause the destruction of the ever-degrading Tibetan ecosystem but will have adverse effect on the ecology, economy, habitat and the biodiversity of India and other lower riparian countries and will influence the global environment as a whole. And not only India, but also the whole of Asia and the world needs to pressure China into coming in terms with the environmental destruction that it is causing in the Tibetan plateau. 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 neighbors?
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)