Uttam Kumar Sinha: Tibet’s Watershed Challenge

Uttam Kumar Sinha, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, writes in the Washington Post:

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.

Read more about China’s water crisis and the Nu River via CDT.

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