There is no resource on the planet more precious than water. Everything, literally, depends on it. And no region’s water has as many people dependent on it than Tibet, the world’s third pole, where, right now, massive changes are taking place.
“We call it the third pole because it has the largest store of freshwater outside the north and south pole, but there is a very little understanding of the region and what’s being done is being done [there],” said Beth Walker, editor of The Third Pole and an expert on Water Scarcity in the Himalayas.
That’s because Tibet has been the focal point of Chinese development around its most valuable resource. But this development is seriously impacting both water quantity, and quality, putting the livelihoods of millions living in downstream countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar in serious jeopardy. Add in anthropogenic climate change and you have the ingredients for a huge environmental catastrophe.
Dams, Mining and Climate Change
Until 1950, Tibet was an independent nation, with strict restrictions that protected its environment. Then exploitation was not even considered, because with a population of just six million spread out over an area larger than Spain and France combined, Tibetans were not placing much stress on its resources, nor its water.
The first domino fell with the invasion and annexation of the country by the newly enthroned Communist Government of China, and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. Over the next few decades, development, owned and operated by Chinese, not Tibetans, began to transform the once pristine environment. But Tibet’s topography kept mass-scale development at bay – it was hard to transport goods to and from the plateau, where the average elevation is 13,000 feet.
That changed in 2006, when China finished construction of one of its greatest engineering feats, the Golmud-Lhasa railroad. The railroad made the transportation of equipment into Tibet, and resources out of Tibet, much easier. That is when, according to Michael Buckley, author of Meltdown in Tibet, things began to really change, fast.
“The railway was the first mega-project in Tibet, and it opened the door to a host of other engineering megaprojects,” said Buckley. “It has made possible a huge influx of Chinese settlers, migrant workers, and enabled large-scale destruction of Tibet’s resources.”
It was also around then that the impacts of another human caused phenomenon became to become more certain. Climate change.
“On the Tibetan Plateau, temperatures are warming three times faster than the global average, and scientists are predicting a 4.6 degree Celsius rise by the end of the century,” said Walker. “The climate change impacts, you can see them when you’re there: widespread desertification, glacial retreat.”
High altitude climates are fragile, and none more so than Tibet. It holds vast freshwater resources in its thousands of glaciers and alpine lakes. Unlike the Arctic and Antarctic, Tibet’s waters are the lifeblood of the most populous continent on the planet, Asia. Hundreds of millions depend, at least part of the year, on water flowing from Tibet, where one can find the source of the Mekong, Brahmaputra, and Indus rivers. Glacial melt will make these source flows less reliable, and reduced silt will negatively impact the silting of densely populated, downstream deltas.
Adding to this stress is a dam-building rush. While America is slowly dismantling its environmentally damaging dams, in Asia, hundreds are in various stages of construction. Building them along rivers’ sources could have serious negative impacts on their downstream flows.
While much has been made about China’s energy and environment commitments along with its shift away from coal, Buckley has not yet seen any noticeable change in Tibet, where damming, mining and desertification are continuing unabated.
“Everything is getting worse, not better,” said Buckley, pointing to a new mega dam near the source of the Mekong, and the building of the largest copper mine near sensitive water sources in Tibet.
Adding to the stress is another industry, as Chinese companies are now bottling Tibet’s water – including glacial melt – and selling it in densely populated Western China, and abroad. With water stress already so high, adding a new industry that will further deplete Tibet’s fragile water resources is incredibly dangerous and shortsighted.
“Tibet’s water is not an infinitely renewable resource and thanks to melting glaciers and China paving Tibet’s mountains with dams, now is the worst possible time to turn it into a consumer product,” said Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren.
The key to environmental protection is empowering communities to protect it. And that is the key problem in Tibet, where locals have no power. In fact, what is happening in Tibet reads like a story from the 19th century: A larger, foreign power exploiting a country for its natural resources and profiting at the expense of locals. It was what the Dutch did in Indonesia, for sugar and spices, or the Belgians did in the Congo, for rubber. Then, the environment suffered. What’s different now is the massive scale of modern, 21st century development, and the fact that, if Tibet’s waters fail, millions downstream will suffer.
To Alistair Currie with Free Tibet, as long as China controls Tibet, things are unlikely to improve.
“Beijing wants to get some revenue from Tibet and Tibet’s natural resources are key to that,” said Currie. “The protection of Tibet’s landscape and environment is far lower down the agenda than it inevitably would be if Tibetans were in control.”
The consequences could be far greater than just Tibet. If things don’t change, Buckley foresees a literal human catastrophe.
“One result of China’s water grabbing will be tens of millions of refugees – not only in [China] but also downstream,” said Buckley. “Who will take these refugees? This promises to be a humanitarian crisis on a scale never seen before.”
One reason that this looming water crisis is not being discussed enough is that is it still being seen through the lens of national borders, rather than the fact that water issues connect – and impact – us all.
“At the moment, I think it is perceived as a regional problem rather than the global problem it will become,” said Currie. “It isn’t something that’s entered the public consciousness as of yet.”
We know that water scarcity can aggravate conflict, as evidenced in both Syria and Venezuela, which suffered historic droughts before breaking into civil strife. If Tibet’s glaciers fail, or its rivers dry, the impact would be many magnitudes greater. It’s time for us to pay attention to what is happening on the rooftop of the world. If things don’t change soon, we won’t be able to ignore the human and environmental tragedy taking place in Tibet as it comes downstream, impacting us all.