Rarely does one read a book of great importance, a book that opens our eyes to a problem of global significance and that too in an arena we all think we know. This article is about such a book. It is a book of scholarship, a book that must be on the desk of every reader interested in global issues that will impact peace, economic development and possible war.
We cannot do adequate justice to this book. It has to be read in its entirety. We shall only provide a glimpse of the book by reviewing a couple of chapters in detail. But even a glimpse needs a long article.
The cover of the book reads:
- “The battles of yesterday were fought over land. Those of today are over energy. But the battles of tomorrow may be over water. Nowhere is that danger greater than in water-distressed Asia.”
We all know Tibet. We romanticize it for the legendary Shangri-La. Today most people know it or think about it because of the fame of the Dalai Lama. Tomorrow we might know it because if its central role in water-related conflicts across Asia.
Because Tibet is the World’s Most Unique Water Repository according to the new book Water – Asia’s New Battleground by Brahma Chellany, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. The quotes* used below are entirely from the book, while the emphasis is ours.
The chapter on Tibet opens with:
- The status of the Plateau of Tibet is unique. No other area in the world is a water repository of such size, serving as a lifeline for large parts of a continent. Indeed, the plateau plays a triple role. It is Asia’s main fresh water repository, largest water supplier, and principal rainmaker. But Tibet is rich is more than just water; it also holds other resources if immense strategic value. It is a treasury-trove of minerals, including precious metals and the so-called rare earth elements. It is the world’s No. 1 lithium producer and has China’s biggest reserves of ten different metals. It is the largest supplier of timber, wool, and cashmere to mainland China and boasts newly discovered energy resources.
It is also home to soft resources, soft because of their popularity around the world. We speak of the Giant Panda, those lovable animals that China sends to zoos around the world. Yes, the Panda, both Giant and Real, are native to southwestern Tibet and not to mainland China, according to the author.
The “Third Pole”
Why the Third Pole? The book explains:
- The Tibetan Plateau is called the “Third Pole” because it has the largest perennial ice mass on the planet after the Arctic and Antarctica. With its snowfields and glaciers feeding virtually every major river system of Asia – from the Indus in the west to the Yellow in the east – the plateau holds more freshwater than any place in earth, other than the North and South poles. But whereas the water in the polar icecaps is all locked up, much of the water in Tibet is accessible.
How is the rest of Asia affected by Tibet?
- The ten watersheds formed by the Himalayas and the Tibetan highlands spread out river waters far and wide in Asia. …Tibetan rivers indeed are the lifeblood of the world’s two most populous nations-China and India- and the other countries that stretch from Afghanistan to Vietnam in a contiguous arc. They include Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand. Together these countries make up 46.3% of the global population and contain four-fifths of the people in the larger Asia that extends up to the Bosphorus.
Civilizations have flourished along the downstream banks of these Tibetan rivers:
- These rivers have formed eleven megadeltas which are home to megacities like Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok, Kolkata, Dhaka and Karachi….In China, the megadeltas make up a substantial proportion of that fast-rising country’s total gross domestic product.
What about India?
- The three great river systems of the Indian subcontinent- the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra- alone support half a billion people who are dependent on their waters for agricultural and other economic practices as well as daily personal needs. However, in terms of a single basin, the Yangtze basin supports the largest concentration of population in Asia, whereas the Ganga basin boasts the highest population density.
What about Central Asia?
- The western rim of the larger Himalayan region is the starting place of two key Central Asian rivers whose flows also heavily rely on melting snow and ice – the Amu Darya and the Tarim.
The above quotes are best illustrated from the maps below from Wikipedia. These maps tell the author’s story of how Tibet and its rivers affect the broad arc of Asia.
(Mekong River Path – SE Asia – src Wikipedia) (Amu Darya Path – Central Asia – src Wikipedia)
(Indus River Path – South Asia – src Wikipedia)
(Ganga-Brahmaputra Basin – Tibet, India, Bangladesh – src Wikipedia)
The Saudi Arabia of Water
Frankly, we did not know the sheer size of
- The Tibetan Plateau lies in the center of Asia and at the crossroads on major civilizations. It is not an area the size of Brunei, Bhutan or Switzerland, but rather a large region almost two-thirds the size of the entire European continent.
What did annexation of Tibet give China?
- Political control over the 2.5 million square kilometer Tibetan Plateau has armed China with tremendous leverage, besides giving it access to Tibet’s vast natural resources. Three-fifths of Han China remains water poor. But the present-day People’s Republic of China is extraordinarily water rich, thanks to the forcible absorption of the Land of Snows. Control over the “blue gold” wealth of the Tibetan Plateau makes China a potential water power in the way Saudi Arabia is an oil power. In fact, through its control over Tibet, China controls the ecological viability of several major river systems that are the lifelines for the nations of southern and southeastern Asia.
China’s hold on Tibet
The author argues:
- One obvious reason for China’s determination to hold onto Tibet is that the region is very rich in the water, mineral wealth, and energy resources so desperately needed in mainland China. At a time when China has aggressively sought to secure supplies of energy, metals and strategic minerals from overseas, it has viewed recrudescence of overt separatism in resource-rich Tibet with political alarm. This explains why China continues to employ brute force to enforce its writ in Tibet.
But is Tibet Chinese?
- The incontrovertible fact is that the only occasions in history when Tibet was clearly part of China was under non-Han dynasties — that is, when China itself had been occupied by outsiders: the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, from 1271 to 1368; and the latter half of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.
The author elaborates:
- In fact, among the Mongols’ conquests, Tibet was administered separately from China during the Mongol rule. The Mongols imbibed Tibetan religions and cultural values and patronized Tibetan Buddhism. The Mongol-Tibetan relationship was “an expression of a racial, cultural and, above all, religious affinity between the two peoples — an affinity that neither shared with the Chinese.
What about the ethnic Han dynasty?
- During the period of the ethnic-Han Ming Dynasty (1369-1644), Tibet was independent; it was ruled by the Phagmodru, Rinpung, and Tsangpa Tibetan dynasties in succession…. Today’s China, however, is three times as large as it was under the last Han dynasty, the Ming, with its borders having extended far west and southwest of the Great Wall. Territorially, Han power is at its zenith, symbolized by the fact that the ancient city of Kashgar, in Chinese-ruled Xinjiang, is closer to Baghdad (yes, Baghdad in Iraq) than to Beijing, and that Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, is almost twice as far from the Chinese capital as from New Delhi.
How and when did China annex Tibet?
- However, it was not until after the Communists came to power in China in 1949 that Tibet, for the first time in history, came under Han rule. In October 1950, with global attention focused on the Korean War, Mao’s government swiftly captured eastern Tibet, a success that emboldened Mao to enter the Korean War days later. By 1951, Communist China had annexed the entire Tibetan Plateau.
This is why we term the annexation of Tibet as the Greatest Acquisition of the 20th Century. But what does the acquisition mean for the rest of Asia in the 21st Century?
Water MegaProjects by China on the Tibetan Plateau
Tibet was neutral ground for Asia for centuries and the international rivers originating in Tibet flowed unconstrained into Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam. This is on the verge of changing and changing in a massive way. As the author writes:
- The growing number of Chinese megaprojects on international rivers on the plateau is contributing to making water a divisive issue in interstate relations in Asia.
Due to the rampant growth in mainland China, water demand has skyrocketed and so the Tibetan water supply is being used to China’s benefit at the expense of the rest of Asia.
- China has dammed every major river on the Tibetan Plateau–including the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Indus, the Sutlej, the Shweli and the Karnali. China has unveiled plans to dam the rivers that still remain free flowing, such as the Arun (near the Tibet-Nepal frontier) and the Subansiri (which enters India’s Arunachal Pradesh to drain into the Brahmaputra).
In the tradition of classic colonialists, China has moved with utter single mindedness of purpose while the rest of Asia remained complacent.
- ..before the countries in the lower Mekong basin could realize the larger implications, China quietly went ahead and completed the 1,500-megawatt Manwan dam on the Mekong in 1996 with little publicity. Manwan is located 100 kilometers south of Dali in Yunnan. More dams followed in quick succession: the 1,350-megawatt Dachaosan…the 750-megawatt Gongguoqiao; and the 1,750-megawatt Jinghong,.., about 300 kilometers north of Chiang Rai, Thailand–all completed in the first decade of the 21st century.
- This was followed by the construction of another series of dams on the upper Mekong, including the giant 4,200-megawatt Xiaowan and 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu.
The result of this frenetic dam building? According to the author, a Reduction of the lower Mekong’s flow to a fifty-year low in 2010 – a development also linked to a severe drought. This has inflamed passions downstream in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Tha
China’s new focus on the Brahmaputra – Impact on Bangladesh & India
To meet its insatiable appetite of water, China has moved on to the Brahmaputra. It plans to build the world’s largest dam and hydropower station on the Brahmaputra at Metog (“Motuo” in Chinese) just before the river enters India.
- The dam, by impounding water on a gargantuan scale, will generate…38 gigawatts of power, or more than twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam, which came with a price tag of $30 billion….Such is the proposed scale of the Motuo Dam…that the project will by itself produce the equivalent of three-quarters of the total capacity Australia had in 2010 to generate electricity from all energy sources.
The author discusses China’s interest in rerouting a sizable chunk of the Brahmaputra waters northward at the Great Bend, the point where the river makes a sharp turn to enter India. The Great Bend holds one of the greatest concentrations of river energy on Earth.
- In fact, Motuo is not the only megadam planned at the Great Bend. The map of planned dams released by HydroChina Corporation in 2010 also cited Daduqai–almost on the disputed border with India–as the site of a giant dam, which is to produce electrical power by exploiting the river’s mighty 2,000-meter fall as it hurtles down to India.
This Chinese project is so huge, its scope is so vast that the author calls it “A Grand Larceny in the making“. It needs an exclusive and elaborate discussion of its own. We end this article with a quote from an analyst quoted by the author about the Brahmaputra diversion plans:
- the deliberate cold-blooded intent to steal water to support uncontrolled and unsustainable development in northwestern China…is reckless in the extreme and poses the real possibility of China being held responsible for plunging Asia into the unthinkable–the first major international water war.
This article is just a taste of the information and analysis this book provides. Get this book and read it.
Editor’s PS: The author uses the Anglicized term Ganges in his book. The real name is Ganga. This is the only change we have made to the quotes from the book.
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