While Tibet raises a number of controversial questions, one dimension will assume increasing political significance: its water resources. The Tibetan Plateau, known to many as the «Third Pole,» is an enormous storehouse of freshwater, believed by some to be the world’s largest. It is the headwaters of many of Asia’s mighty rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej. These vast water resources are of course vulnerable to environmental challenges, including climate change, but they are subject to an array of political issues as well.
Should China be the lone stakeholder to the fate of the waters in Tibet? What happens in the downstream nations that depend heavily on these rivers? China has exploited all but two rivers from the Tibetan Plateau; an exception is the Nujiang River, which flows through Yunnan province and enters Burma, where it is known as the Salween. China’s north-south diversion plans on the Yarlung Zangbo (known in India as Brahamaputra), the other untouched river, are bound to worry India, a downstream state.
China’s rise in recent years has been displayed in military capability, economic pace and, now, water diversions. By 2030, China is expected to fall short of its water demands by 25 percent. Its increasingly aggressive hydrobehavior is intended to secure its massive water requirements in its northern and western regions. But control over such a valuable natural resource gives Beijing enormous strategic latitude with its neighbors; when one of those countries is a rival, such as India, it becomes an effective bargaining tool and potential weapon.
Chinese nationalism is based on its aspiration of great-power status and its historic territorial claims. Such claims, for example, over Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeast India, are being driven by China’s water needs. Mao Zedong observed in 1952, «The south has a lot of water, the north little. . . . If possible, it is ok to lend a little water.» China is looking to exploit the water resources of Tibet and its hardening position on Arunachal — Beijing considers the northeast Indian state part of its territory and made frequent military forays there this year — is not merely rhetoric. In laying claims to Arunachal, it is claiming almost 200 million cubic feet per second of water resources in the state.
China, well-accustomed to brinkmanship, is likely to maintain a strategic silence on its river diversion plans, to keep downstream states guessing. (China denies any activity on the Yarlung Zangbo, but publicly reported satellite imagery shows otherwise.) And with no legally binding international treaty on such water-sharing, there is nothing to stop China from manipulating river flows and increasing downstream dependency.
More than 2 billion people in South and Southeast Asia depend on the waters flowing out of Tibet. Building a lower riparian coalition of, say, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam would help cement recognition of Tibet’s water as a common resource. India has a diplomatic opportunity here and, given its downriver position, needs to take the initiative. One plus is that India has experience dealing with river treaties. But Tibet’s unresolved political status will affect any proposals on how to sustainably manage its water resources and ensure its rivers’ natural flow are not disturbed by Chinese diversion plans.
China’s moves to encroach on Tibet’s water need to be countered by downriver solidarity that includes agreement on multipurpose beneficial use of these resources. Downriver states need to work through legal norms of equitable utilization, «no-harm» policies and restricted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. This pressure and international attention to defining such vital resources as common would go a long way toward preserving and sharing the waters of Tibet. While such redefinition is politically sensitive, as it clashes with national jurisdiction, it merits attention now given the current and future water requirements of South and Southeast Asia. Collective political and diplomatic pressure over a sustained period will be needed to draw in China to regional arrangements on «reasonable share of water» and frame treaties accordingly.
The concerned downstream states need to raise the issue internationally while also supporting local Tibetans and Chinese environmental lobbies’ efforts to highlight the rampant ecological destruction of Tibet brought by dams and artificial diversion plans. A larger debate on basin resource management is needed; it is increasingly clear that rivers are not merely for water provisions but also have ecological functions. One need only look at China’s Yangtze and Yellow rivers, both unfit for human use, to understand how important it is to follow the laws of nature regarding Tibet’s waters rather than force economic development.
Uttam Kumar Sinha, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.