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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet's watershed challenge

June 15, 2010

By Uttam Kumar Sinha
The Washington Post
June 14, 2010

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.

The writer is a research fellow at the
nonpartisan Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
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