The Tibetan Plateau has become a party to an insidious water game and some of the countries in the region remain blissfully unaware of the sinister moves afoot. The Tibetan plateau’s glaciers and altitude makes Tibet the world’s third largest freshwater repository. This is why it is occasionally termed the “third pole”. It is also the source of Asia’s ten main rivers, with almost 1.4 billion people downstream in its watershed. The major rivers gushing from the Tibetan Plateau include the Yellow River, Yangtze, Mekong, Sutlej and the Brahmaputra. China’s fresh water scarcity is aggravated by a skewered distribution pattern as the Northern river basins possess almost 20 percent of the country’s total water and is where predominantly the majority of China’s agriculture and coal processing industry is located.
The narrative of the approaching Asian century will be heavily influenced by dynamics such as water and food security- accompanied by a significant increase in military expenditure.China has not inked any water sharing treaty with the lower riparian countries, apart from a hydrological measurement memorandum, yet China is involved in major inter basin and inter river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau,endangering the flow of international rivers toco-riparian states. China and Russia however, have entered into water bilateral agreements. The moot point to consider is that a country can use its economic might to avoid entering into a water sharing agreement with co-riparian countries rather than rushing headlong into any agreement.
India has more arable land than China, 160 million hectares matched with 137 million hectares and Tibet is the source and catchment area of major Indian rivers.China is recognized as an arid country as almost one fourth of its area consists of deserts and most Chinese rivers are polluted or silted. The Yangtze flows eastwards, fuelling China’s biggest economic zone. China is already reeling on the edge of a food scarcity crisis.Bearing in mind that the country has already ceded about 6percent of its farmland between 1997 and 2008 while witnessing a population surge of almost 100 million, desertification is the emerging threat to food security. The Gobi desert in Northern China is the fastest growing desert in the world, annually transforming nearly 2,250 miles of grassland into inhospitable wasteland.
As per a World Bank report, China’s per capita water availability is about a third of average global water availability. To cater to its rapid growth and industrialization,China is attempting to physically divert trillions of gallons of water from the south, which is well endowed with water resources,to the parched north in three phases.By the time it has completed,upto 10 percent of the country’s main rivers’ water flow will have been diverted and the estimated cost of the project is $62 billion. Especially after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, which boasts of China’s prowess in hydropower development.
India has more arable land than China, 160 million hectares matched with 137 million hectares, but Tibet is the source and catchment area of major Indian rivers
In China the National Development Reforms Commission, the apex planning body, has initiated a project to divert water from the Yarlung River in southern Tibet, which turns into the Brahmaputra once it enters India, to the Taklimakan desert in Xinjiang. China’s co riparian countries are apprehensive that the Yangtze deviation could unfavourably impact on water flow in their major rivers with headwaters in the mountains of western China. India’s Brahmaputra River and the Mekong rolling through Burma, Thailand and Cambodia both derive their waters from the Tibetan Plateau as does the catchment area for Diamer Basha in Pakistan to some extent. Any attempt to reroute northwards of the Brahmaputra River to join the fast drying Yellow River with the construction of three dams in the Great Bend may spell the end of the recent romance between China and India. While China enjoys the biggest spatial share of the river basin at over 50 percent, it generates around 25 percent of the total basin discharge whereas the Indian section of the river basin embracing almost 34 percent of the basin area accounts for 39 percent of the total discharge. Bhutan is responsible for 6.7 percent of the total basin area yet generates around 21 percent of the system output. Around 14 percent of the flow of the river Brahmaputra originates in China and the rest rises from India. Perhaps emboldened by these figures China is proceeding with its water re-routing plans in spite of rumblings and apprehensions of the countries downstream.
In order to transfer fresh water from the Tibetan Plateau in the country’s west to its industrial and populated corners in its North and East China embarked upon a spree of building dams and water diversion projects and built more dams in the last fifty years than the rest of the world together. Electricity originating from these dams in the Tibetan Plateau finds its way to China’s large ports and metropolises of Shanghai and Guangzhou. Presently almost 70 percent of Beijing’s water needs are being met by the South North Water Diversion Project.
Other co-riparian countries surrounding the Tibetan Plateau are scrambling to construct dams but being upper riparian the construction of dams by China on rivers originating in the Tibetan Plateau may significantly interfere with the water supply to downstream countries and at some stage China would have to enter into water sharing agreements with the co riparian countries to minimise the risk of conflict which would be detrimental to the economic growth of South Asia. The Chinese economic success is not without internal environmental cost and externally it can be argued that the regional countries are now feeling the brunt of the rapid pace of industrialisation underway in China. The international multilateral lending agencies are reluctant to finance the Diamer Basha Dam project till such a time that the co-riparian countries extend consent. This time around, learning from the experience of the Indus Water Basin Treaty, Pakistan needs to proceed cautiously and safeguard its water interests for the future. It is the sovereign right of Pakistan as one of the aforementioned co-riparian countries to initiate and enter into water sharing agreements not only to exploit its rightful and legitimate water rights,but also to prevent wastage of precious water.
The author Razeen Ahmed has done his Bachelor of Science in Business and Management from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is involved in research in the areas of finance, energy and sustainable development. Nadir Mumtaz reviewed the article.
Published in Daily Times, May 12th 2018.