The Third Pole and the Power of Water

The Tibetan Plateau region serves as a natural storehouse of fresh water. It is so bountiful that it provides half of the world’s population with water. This bounty is due to the fact that Tibetan glaciers supply water to South Asia’s largest rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Tsangpo, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Indus, Salween, Sutlej, Ganges and Irrawaddy River. However, recent studies have revealed the many serious environmental challenges to the quantity and quality of Tibet’s freshwater reserves. Most of these challenges have been caused by human industrial activities. Mining, deforestation, manufacturing, wildlife decimation, great population transfer, hydroelectric projects and the dumping of nuclear waste are producing record levels of air and water pollution in Tibet. These factors contribute to the threat of water scarcity for Tibet, China, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bangladesh, as well as adding to the region’s fragility.

An even greater threat to the Tibetan Plateau is the region’s warming climate, which is causing glaciers to recede at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. In some regions of Tibet, the glaciers are receding at a rate of three feet per year. This is a serious concern, since Tibet has the world’s third-largest capacity to store fresh water, ranking after the North and South Poles. A staggering number of people may soon be affected by the loss of this fresh water reservoir.

Tibet is currently under the control of the People’s Republic of China, which invaded the country in 1949. The Tibetan government-in-exile has consistently identified the Tibetan Plateau’s water as a strategic resource and criticized China’s management of it. The exiled government has said that China’s water development plans, in addition to global warming in general, should cause concern across Asia.

At 3,920 cubic meters per person, Asia has less available fresh water than any other continent except Antarctica. Almost two-thirds of global population growth is in Asia. In November of 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council mentioned Asian water scarcity in its Global Trends 2025 report: “With water becoming more scarce in Asia and the Middle East, cooperation to manage changing water resources is likely to become more difficult within and between states.”

In 2005, the Chinese ministry of water resources published “Tibet’s Water Will Save China,” a book which was distributed across government ranks to highlight the strategic importance of Tibet. The harnessing of Tibetan waters is clearly a priority for China, as a country currently facing water scarcity issues. The South-North Water Transfer Project is an ambitious attempt to build dams, canals and waterways to bring Himalayan water to Chinese cities. This effort will raise concerns among all the affected countries in South Asia.

In spite of these indications that China is encroaching on Tibet’s already-threatened water source, there has been little progress on the international and regional levels. Countries must cooperate and develop adaptive strategies before it is too late. The issue of water is an issue that will affect every country. If Americans can come together to work out solutions to the U.S. economic crisis, all nations can surely do the same for our most precious and life-giving resource.