Tibet has been part of India’s collective consciousness since ancient times. Hindus believe that Lord Shiva resides in Mount Kailash in Tibet. Savants and sages from India continue to ascend the high Himalayas in search of nirvana. The Mansorovar Lake in Tibet, which is venerated by Hindus, at one level symbolises the importance of the waters of Tibet for India.
Most major rivers of northern India and south and southeast Asia originate in the cold high-altitude Tibetan Plateau and are fed by the glaciers there. This geostrategic positioning of Tibet introduces the potential for either tension, or display of a high order of statesmanship by China and the lower riparian nations. The English word for ‘rivalry’, derived from the Latin term meaning ‘one who uses the same stream as another’, is apt as tinkering with the Tibetan Plateau’s environment affects the entire region. The unprecedented cloudburst and flash floods in Leh recently were a vivid demonstration.
The glaciers and annual snowfall of the Tibetan Plateau feed rivers catering to the needs of almost 47 per cent of mankind. Four of the world’s ten major rivers, the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo), Yangtze, Mekong and Huang Ho (Yellow River) have their headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau. Other major rivers originating in Tibet are the Salween, Irrawaddi, Arun, Karnali, Sutlej and Indus. Ninety per cent of their runoff flows downstream to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. For India, the Indus-Sutlej river system and Brahmaputra originate in Tibet and are fed by the glaciers there. What happens in Tibet, therefore, impacts India directly and the 40 crore people residing in the plains fed by the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river systems. Disturbingly, the headwaters area of these rivers has been generally getting warmer and drier in recent decades.
The Himalayas have the world’s third largest glacier reserve of 1 trillion cubic metres in an area of 11,000 square kilometres. As glaciers melt because of rising temperatures, all countries of the region will be adversely impacted. China’s Meteorological Administration has revealed that 82 per cent of glacial surfaces on the plateau have retreated, and the glacier area has decreased by 4.5 per cent in the past 20 years. The plateau has also lost 10 per cent of its permafrost layer in the past decade. This can potentially create water shortages that could affect more than 1 billion people.
Human and construction activity has contributed to warming of the Tibetan Plateau. In Tibet, China has focussed on mining and construction projects and building modern all-weather road networks. Construction of the Qinghai-Lhasa railway further contributed to warming of the high-altitude plateau and damaged the permafrost layer. Future plans envision construction of 59 modern airports in and around Tibet. Aircraft release large quantities of nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Airports also contribute to warming and underground water pollution. After the 9/11 terror strike, when all aircraft throughout the country were grounded for three days, scientists confirmed that the difference in daytime and night time temperature had expanded by an entire one degree centigrade. Also, the ill-effects of radiation around Xihai township in Tibet, where China tested its first atomic bomb in the 1960s, continue to linger.
Warming of the Tibetan Plateau and resultant acceleration in glacial melt, will impact food production. For each degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, farmers can expect a 10 per cent decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields. Coupled with a decline in flow of rivers in the Indo-Gangetic basin, India’s national food production will be severely affected.
Since ‘liberation’ China’s leaders have accorded importance to food security, but efforts have been hampered by perennial water scarcity. The north and northwest, where approximately 400 million people, or 30 per cent of the population, reside has more than half the country’s arable land but only 7 per cent of its surface water. Mao Zedong, possibly encouraged by the 1,200-mile Grand Canal completed in 610 AD, first proposed the idea of South-North water diversion in 1952. His intention was to ease water shortages in Beijing, Tianjin and the northern provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong. One possibility was to divert waters from the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo, north of the McMahon Line, by building a mega structure. The scheme received fresh impetus with the appointment of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, both hydraulic engineers, as China’s president and premier and was formally approved in August 2002. It got a boost in November 2005, with the publication of the book Save China Through Water From Tibet. High level military support was evident in the foreword of the book, written by Zhao Nanqi, chief of the PLA’s General Logistics Department.
Of the three routes in the $65 billion project intended to transport 44 billion cubic metres of water across China, the Western Route directly affects India. This will take water mainly from the Brahmaputra across the Tibetan Plateau into the Yellow River and to north China. Work began this year with completion scheduled for 2050. Plans provide for a hydropower plant (38,000 MW) at Motuo or Daduqia, both near the border with India. Though Chinese President Hu Jintao officially denied plans to divert the Brahmaputra while meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi in 2006, there is evidence that construction of dams at various places has started. China has completed 10 dams on the Brahmaputra, three are under construction, seven are under active consideration and eight more are proposed. Five large dams are proposed on the Bumchu (Arun river) and one large dam on the Loro Chu (Subansiri river).
International law is ambiguous on the subject of the rights of lower riparian states. China’s domestic imperatives and its leadership’s determination will frustrate attempts at international arbitration. The lower riparian nations have little option other than to raise this issue, which has global dimensions and to them is an existential threat, with Beijing. Hints are available of China’s willingness to acknowledge these concerns. A mechanism could be proposed whereby China and the affected nations together tackle China’s water related concerns and the issue of warming of the Tibetan Plateau, while safeguarding the interests of lower riparian nations.
Meanwhile, India and the other lower riparian states should fast-track their own projects for harnessing, augmenting and conserving domestic water resources and boosting agriculture production
About the author:
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India