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Water: Tibet, China, and Asia

September 26, 2010

Wang Weiluo
The Epoch Times
September 23, 2010

"If the wars of this century were fought over
oil, the wars of the next century will be fought
over water,” warned Dr. Ismail Serageldin, former
Vice-President for Environmentally and Socially
Sustainable Development at the World Bank, in 1995.

European countries being relatively smaller, a
river often runs through several of them. Over
one hundred agreements have been signed among
those countries to regulate the usage of water resources.

In Asia, however, few international agreements
have been reached and countries are already
finding themselves in the struggles Dr.
Serageldin foresaw. Disputes over water resources
have been factor in the unrest between Israel and
its Arab neighbours; and between India and Pakistan.

A Once Abundant Flow from Tibet

The Tibetan plateau, often referred to as "the
water tower for Asia," has in it the source of
the Yellow river, the Brahmaputra, the Ganges,
the Lancang, the Nujian, the Yaluzangbu, and the
Yangtze. Among these, but for the Yellow river
and the Yangtze, all are trans-boundary,
supporting millions of lives downstream.

These rivers provide an abundant and relatively
stable flow, their water source being not just
precipitation along the river basin, but the
glacial snow on the Tibetan plateau.

Since rain in most parts of Asia is largely
concentrated to a few months every year, nearly
10 countries downstream depend on the flow from the Tibetan plateau.

In the past few decades, and more so in the past
few years, an unbridled exploitation of resources
in Tibet by China, and the resultant devastation
of the environment, has resulted in its precious
water resource being adversely impacted.

During the severe draught that recently hit
southwest China, the exit flow volume of Lancang
River (the upper stream of Mekong River) was only
60 percent of the previously recorded lowest in
history. This caused strong dissatisfaction in
nations downstream, such as Thailand, who
demanded the Chinese regime release water resource information.

De-Tibetizing the Plateau

Greed for quick economic growth has led to severe
damage of the ecosystem in the Tibetan plateau.
This damage continues to be inflicted on the
plateau and its water bodies under the banner of "economic development."

Those in power in Tibet are usually Han communist
cadres from the inland, assigned to Tibet.
Usually, their term of office is two to three
years, after which they are transferred back
inland and promoted according to their achievements.

These cadres, eager to achieve economic
development, often immediately set about mining
local resources such as gold and jade, harvesting
Chinese medicine and native flora, and building hydraulic power stations.

The preamble to these development projects is
forcing the local Tibetan herdsmen to settle
their herds in one place—into a way of life alien
to them and their land. A land lease system,
designed for Han people living in inland China, is imposed on them.

Traditionally, when the herds had grazed on the
grass sprouts, the herdsmen would move to fresh
pastures; returning when a pasture is verdant
again. Settling in one place forces the animals
to feed on the roots as well, rendering the lands barren.

Like the land lease system imposed on the
herdsmen, the Chinese regime’s policies for Tibet
target immediate economic growth, while ignoring
the local ecology, environment, and traditions.
The consequence has been grassland degradation,
disappearance of swamps and wetlands, glaciers
retracting and the snowline drawing away.

Two years ago, reports said that where the
Yangtze springs, the glaciers had retracted 300
meters, and reports this year say the glaciers
have drawn back another 1,000 metres.

Early this year, a friend working in the Thai
consulate, Germany, told me that the water levels
in the Mekong River had decreased dramatically,
ships were stranded, and sailing on the Mekong
River was suspended. People living along the
river, the Thailand media as well as Thailand
NGOs, all believe this is related to the dams
built on Lancang River in China. At the time,
there had not been any report about a draught in southwest China.

The Thailand government, however, being
economically dependent on China, did not dare
offend the regime, particularly during the
economic recession. Besides, the Thailand
government was in a vulnerable situation because
of Thailand’s unstable domestic politics.

According to mainland Chinese media Spring City
Evening News (Chuncheng Wanbao), in February the
exit flow rate of Lancang River dropped to 240
cubic meters per second. Data collected at the
Yunjin hydrological station, the last check point
on Lancang River inside China, say the average
exit flow rate is 2,180 cubic metres per second,
the maximum recorded being 12,800 cubic metres
per second, and the previous lowest being 395 cubic metres per second.

Dams and Destruction

Between April 2 and 5, the first Mekong River
Commission Summit was held in Thailand. Besides
representatives from the member countries of
Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam, China
and Burma sent their representatives as dialogue
partner countries. The focus of the meeting was
the impact of Chinese dams on the water level of Mekong River.

A day before the summit, Chinese ambassador in
Thailand, Mr. Guan Mu, met with Thailand’s
Minister of Natural Resources and Environment,
Mr. Suwit Khunkitti. Guan stressed that the
hydraulic power station built on Lancang River in
China does not impact the flow as it does not
have the ability to regulate the pondage (level
of water held in a reservoir), that the volume of
water entering and exiting the reservoir are the
same, and that the loss from evaporation is
negligible as the opening area of the reservoir is small.

Later, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Mr Song Tao
repeated similar arguments at the summit.

Official statements aside, the situation could
well be arising from China’s cascade of hydraulic
power station projects underway on the Lancang
River. Eight dams have been planned, with, to
date, four completed: the Man Wan, the
Dachaoshan, the Jinhong and the Xiaowan. The
Xiaowan, in particular, is a massive project
second only to the Three Gorges Dam.

A hydraulic power station, by itself, consumes no
water, but its presence mean that the flow will
no longer be regulated by natural factors or
downstream water requirements. When water is not
needed downstream, as during a flood season, the
dam needs to discharge to ensure its safety; when
the downstream regions need water, as during a
draught, the dam needs to save water to maintain
the water level needed to keep the power station operating.

Beside the dams on Lancang River proper, an
additional 35 dams are planned for its branches.

The official claim that the evaporation of water
in the reservoir is "negligible" cannot hold for
a large reservoir, and even less so for a river
that has a cascade of large dams.

In the Aswan reservoir in Egypt, for instance,
the official stance has been that only 12 percent
water loss occurs through evaporation. Mr. Fred
Pearce, a journalist and writer who specializes
in global environmental issues, unveils in his
book "When the Rivers Run Dry," that the actual
evaporation loss accounts a quarter of the entry
volume of the reservoir, and the figure could
touch 40 percent in a dry year—an amount which
equals water from the running taps of England, for a whole year.

In China, after the communist regime took
control, they immediately built the Guanting
reservoir on Yongding River to provide water
supply to Beijing. Then the annual flow volume of
Yongding River was 1.9 billion cubic meters. Now
the river is almost dry, with a yearly flow of about 300 million cubic meters.

With 528 dams on the Yongding River, the river
runs dry as each reservoir evaporates a little.

Now the massive South-North Water Transfer
Project plans to divert water from the upper,
middle, and lower reaches of the Yangtze River to
meet the development requirements of northwest
and northern China. Upon finishing, it will
provide Beijing about 1 billion cubic meters of
water every year. If the 1.6 billion cubic meters
of flow, lost to short-sighted engineering, could
be brought back to the Yongding River, there
would be no need for the south-to-north water diversion project.

The regime’s former Minister of Water Resource
Qing Zhengyin admits that it was
"over-development" that lead to this year’s
severe draught in southwest China. The regime,
however, sticks to its official stance that the
problem was but "caused by nature."

There are four reservoirs on Lancang River
already, and a dozen on its tributaries. No
doubt, the accumulated evaporation from these
reservoirs has a large negative impact on the exit volume of Lancang River.

China’s multiple reservoirs on the Lancang mean
that the low exit volume of the water can no
longer be attributed to natural factors but are
largely the outcome of dam cascades, and the
decisions of the managers of the dams. The
decrease of the flow is a direct consequence of human factors.

The argument about the water resource on the
Mekong River could be a precursor to grave unrest
in Asia, over water that once flowed abundantly from the high Tibetan plateaus.

* Dr. Wang Weiluo is a Chinese engineer who
participated in the Three Gorges project
feasibility study in the 1980s. He holds a PhD in
land use planning and currently works for an engineering firm in Germany.
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