Ecology & the mighty rivers of Tibet: India’s water security

The Tibetan Plateau is environmentally one of the most vulnerable places on earth. It is rich and varied with abundant plant and wildlife diversity, water resources, glaciers and grasslands all of which play a vital role in maintaining the world’s environment balance.

The Tibetan Plateau is called ‘The Water Tower of Asia, or the ‘Third Pole’  the Earth’s third largest storehouse of ice outside the two poles, is home to more than 46.000 glaciers covering an area of 105.000 sq.km. The Plateau holds the Hindu Kush Himalayan Ice Sheet, considered to be the largest ice mass outside the two poles.

Tibet is the starting point for many of India’s and much of Asia’s most important rivers and therefore it is also referred to as ‘The Water Tower of Asia.’ These rivers play an important role in the lives of the Indian people as the river system provides irrigation, portable water, transportation, electricity as well as livelihood opportunities. These glacier-fed rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau make up the largest river run-off from any single location in the world and are the life-source for millions of people including those in India. Tibet’s river waters are a lifeline to the world’s two most-populous states — China and India — as well as to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries make up 47 percent of the global population. Approximately 1.3 billion people living in more than 5.6 million sq.km. of drainage basin are dependent on the health of the major rivers that originate in Tibet.

Water is a shared resource and belongs to humanity as a whole. Its availability and usage has not been constrained by political boundaries in the past. However due to different factors such as rapid development and global warming, water scarcity is steadily increasing all over the world. If all reserves of lakes, rivers, aquifers are added up, Asia has less than one tenth of the waters of South America, Australia and New Zealand. The Asian figure is not even one fourth of North America and almost one third of Europe and moderately less than Africa per habitant. The driest continent in the world is Asia where the availability of fresh water is not even half the global annual average of 6,380 cubic meters per inhabitant. It is clear that the water situation will only exacerbate, leading to serious implications for rapid economic growth and inter-riparian relations.

The major rivers that originate on the Tibetan Plateau and which flow into India are:

  • Yarlung Tsangpo: originates near the holy mountain of Kailash in west Tibet. In India, it is known as the Brahmaputra River.
  • Indus, Karnali and the Sutlej are the other rivers that originate in Tibet and which flow into India making them the four transboundary rivers between Tibet/China and India.

  • The Tibetan Plateau is therefore of strategic global significance in regulating and maintaining climate. Global warming however poses a grave threat to the Plateau’s ecological system. Climate change has wrought changes in the region and accelerated the melting of Tibet’s glaciers. This will have effects that resonate far beyond Tibet and China and impact on the water sources of billions of people in South and Southeast Asia. The preservation and management of the glaciers and the rivers they sustain is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, particularly as the population growth and industrial development in the regions of Asia dependent on these glaciers and rivers is projected to double within 50 years.

  • The Southeast Asian monsoon that recharges most of the rivers downstream has become more variable, and presence of soot on the ice and snow cover of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas is theorised to be one of the reasons. The monsoon contributes over 70 per cent of the annual rainfall in mainland South Asia, so its importance cannot be overstated.

  • Under the PRC’s 12th Five-Year Plan, the Chinese government plans to build 120 gigawatts of new hydropower plants on the Nu/Salween, Lancang/Upper Mekong, Jinsha/Upper Yangtze, and the Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes the Brahmaputra). This equals more than one new Three Gorges Dam every year for the next five years, and is more than any other country has built in its entire history.

  • China is in the process of diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra to north China. There is a Western Route Transfer Project, a South-North Water Diversion Project and a West-East Power Transfer Project, a barrage near Tsamda Gorge could disturb the Sutlej flow and enable China to control and regulate the flow of water into India. This could also take place on the Lohit (Zayul Chu), Subansiri and Indus, amongst others. The diversion of the Brahmaputra have been made and as China’s water scarcity and food grain shortages mount, the demand compelling diversion will increase.