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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Struggle For Asia's Water Begins

September 11, 2010

Steven Solomon,
September 9, 2010

By 2020 Chinese control of Tibet gives Beijing a
commanding position in an increasingly thirsty Asia.

The remote alpine lake and glacier grasslands of
the 11,000-foot-high Tibetan plateau north of the
Himalayas may seem to be one of the unlikeliest
hot spots of 2020. But this vast land of Buddhist
monks and nomadic herders stores abundant wealth
of an indispensable resource that is in
increasingly contested supply across the region--fresh water.

The Tibetan Plateau is also known as the "water
towers of Asia." The headwaters of the mighty
rivers Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween,
Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej, among others, all
originate in its mountain snow packs and
glaciers. More than 1.5 billion people downstream
depend upon its waters. In the next decade
they're going to need every drop they can get.
Heavily populated nations from Pakistan and India
to China and Cambodia face mounting, grave
threats from a widespread crisis of fresh-water scarcity.

Through its political control of Tibet it is
China that lords over the commanding heights of
Asia's water towers. It is now moving
aggressively--and unilaterally--to exploit them for its own ends.

Driven by its unquenchable thirst for power to
sustain its economic juggernaut while weaning
itself off dirty coal energy, China has launched
an ambitious new program of hydropower expansion.
Its goal is to raise its exploitation of national
hydropower potential from one-third to 60% by
2020. The best hydropower locations are almost all in the Tibetan plateau.

Scores of huge Chinese dams are being developed
upriver on the Yangtze beyond Three Gorges, on
the heretofore lightly dammed upper Mekong that
downstream becomes the fishery and agricultural
wellspring of Indochina, and on the upper
Brahmaputra, which runs through Tibet before
feeding eastern India and Bangladesh. China is
also eyeing the upper Salween, Myanmar's lifeline.

How China builds and manages its dams, and exerts
it power, will have a major impact on the
seasonal river flows, water quality and
ecosystems in the lower reaches--and on the food
security, energy production, and political stability of the nations there.

We can extract water from the air, land, or
Ocean. We can easily clean water with a slowsand
filter or simply use a solar still. I predict
water farms will spring up in the most arid areas. This is

Earlier this year Mekong nations in the throes of
the worst drought in 50 years
blamed--unfairly--China's dams on the upper
Mekong for the record plunges in the river.
Tensions are likely to worsen by 2015 as Lower
Mekong nations erect their own main stream
dams--compelling traditionally secretive China to
fully join, and gradually lead, the cooperative Mekong River Commission.

India is warily watching China build giant
hydropower dams on the Brahmaputra and
worrying--despite vigorous dismissals by
China--that China might divert the river to
supplement its gigantic South to North Water
Diversion Project designed to alleviate China's
severe national water shortages. China has
one-fifth as much water per person as the U.S.,
and crippling shortages in its parched north.

Within 10 years expect China's opening of the
world's largest hydropower dam at the
Brahmaputra's great bend to feed headlines about
China and India's contentious south Tibetan
border disputes. Geostrategic balances are likely
to tilt in China's favor, especially as
international support for Tibetan independence
wanes after the aging Dalai Lama eventually dies.

Cooperation can offer positive sum benefits like
providing cheap, renewable regional hydroelectric
power and evening out the wide, monsoonal
variations in river flows. China wants to be
viewed as cooperative. It is moving in the right
direction by sharing data and other gestures. But far and fast enough?

And looming over the Tibetan plateau is the
ominous cloud of climate change: More extreme
monsoons and the thinning of some plateau
glaciers are warnings about how little we know
about the effects of global warming on the rivers
that rise there. If the water towers start to go empty, everyone is in trouble.
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