Fujisan's Kyareng

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Tibet: The water tower of Asia



Towards A Global Common Good

 By Dr. Tsewang Gyalpo Arya*

 Abstract: Tibet, a country situated on the world`s highest plateau with an average height of 4000 meters from sea level, is known to the world as the Roof of the World. But for the environment and climate scientists, it is popularly known as the Third Pole and for the Southeast countries as the Water Tower of Asia. The ecology of Tibet is said to be very important in the context of global climate change and as the source of fresh water for the Southeast Asian nations. However, the plateau is suffering great damage due to the increased Chinese militarization, damming, and mining activities. In this paper, we shall study how Tibet is the water tower of Asia and why the protection of the Tibetan plateau is incumbent on all of us.

 Keywords: Tibet, Tibetan plateau, Roof of the World, Third Pole, Water Tower of Asia, Damming of Tibet, Tibet Ecology

Why Tibet's environment and ecosystem is important?

What is happening to Tibet's ecology does not forebode well for Tibet, Asia, and the world. Tibet has suffered great ecological disturbance and environmental damage since the 1950s under the Chinese colonial policy of excessive mining, deforestation, damming, and militarization of the plateau. Environmentalists and scientists have realized that this continued damage to the Tibetan environment will mean rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers and permafrost affecting the livelihood of more than 1.5 billion people down the stream and further triggering global warming.

 Tibet, comprising the three traditional provinces of U-Tsang, Amdo, and Kham, has an area of 2.5 million square kilometers, five times the size of Thailand and six times the size of Japan. It has an elevation of more than 4000 meters and holds the largest number of glaciers next to the North and the South pole, therefore, it is referred to as the third pole. These glaciers are the source of ten major rivers and tributaries sustaining and feeding the land and the people in Southeast Asian countries of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.


Tibet map museum.jpg

Photo: Tibet Museum, DIIR Dharamsala

Tibet has maintained a good and balanced relationship with its environment since ancient times. The estimated population of Tibet is over 6 million, very sparse for a vast land, and the people are devoted to their religion and spiritual pursuits. Nature has it that way to make them the perfect guardians of the plateau for the benefit of all sentient beings and global climate stability. Mountains, rivers, and forests are revered and treated as the abode of gods and goddesses. Mining, fishing, hunting, and deforestation are forbidden.

The philosophy and the law of interdependence were at the core of the Tibetan value system and civilization.

 It has environmental decrees issued occasionally to maintain this balance with nature and other living beings. Ri-rgya-klung-rgya, Ri-rlung-rtsa-tshig, bK`-bdus-tsa-tshig, and Yarlung-bya-gso-khang[1] are some of such decrees protecting the environment and wildlife on the plateau. In fact, scholars say that Tibetans were perhaps the first to have laws on the environment. Man, animals, and nature all lived together harmoniously. This has saved the Himalayan plateau and the glaciers, and the neighboring countries could enjoy the blessing of the pure snow water of Tibet since ancient times undisturbed.

 How Tibet is the water tower of Asia?

 46,000 glaciers and the vast permafrost on the Tibetan plateau and the rivers are the major sources of rivers in Asia. Senge-khabab, Langchen-khabab, Maja-khabab, and Tachog-khabab are the four great rivers originating from the base of Mount Kailash in western Tibet and flowing into India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Among the many reasons why Mount Kailash has been worshiped by Indians and Tibetans of various religious schools since ancient times, this could be the one logical reason. Senge-khabab flows through India to Pakistan as the Indus River. Langchen-khabab flows southward as Sutlej in western India. Maja-khabab becomes the sacred Ganges through Gangotri. Tachok-khabab flows eastward and, joining Kyichu becomes Yarlung-tsangpo and flows to India and Bangladesh as Brahmaputra.


International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) Washington DC


Gyalmo-ngyulchu from central Tibet flows to south China, Myanmar, and Thailand as Nujiang, Thalween, and Salween. Zachu River of Tibet is the famous Mekong River. It is 5000 kilometers long from its source in Tibet to the South China Sea nourishing millions of people in China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam[2].

 Drichu and Machu Rivers of Tibet are the sources of the Yangtse and Huangho Yellow Rivers of China. These two rivers are the longest rivers in China and the Huangho Yellow River is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. From this, we can understand how important Tibet is as the source of water in Asia.

 How this water tower is being damaged?

 With the occupation of Tibet by Communist China in 1950 and with the increased human activities under Chinese colonial policy, we are witnessing great damage to the Tibetan plateau and the ecosystem. This damage comes in the form of melting of the glaciers and permafrost due to increased militarization of the Tibetan plateau, increased housing, and industrial projects because of increased migration from mainland China, excessive mining of the mountains, and damming of the Tibetan rivers. 

 This continued damage to the Tibetan environment has increased the temperatures at the plateau negatively affecting the net accumulation of glaciers and permafrost. The Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development has reported that temperature warming more than 1 degree centigrade on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas will result in rapid melting of the glaciers which will be disastrous for the plateau and all the riparian states[3]. If the current rate of increase in the temperature continues, scientists say that by 2050, 2/3 of the 46,000 glaciers in the Tibetan plateau will be lost[4]. This will cause an acute shortage of fresh and life-sustaining water in the riparian Southeast Asian states.

 On top of this melting glacier crisis, China is building dams to contain these rivers for its mega hydro projects and changing the rivers' course without consultation with the riparian states below. Ms. Dechen Palmo, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, writes, "Over the last seven decades, the People's Republic of China has constructed more than 87,000 dams. Collectively they generate 325.26 GW of power, more than the capacities of Brazil, the United States, and Canada combined. On the other hand, these projects have led to the displacement of over 23 million people."[5]

 International Campaign for Tibet (ITC) reports that the Chinese government plans to construct large hydropower stations in Tibetan areas, likely to have a negative impact on the environment and lead to the relocation of thousands of local people. At least one project directly affects a UNESCO-protected World Heritage site.[6]

 As of now, China has built several thousand dams, dikes, and reservoirs in Tibet and China. With these dams and dikes, China could release water to cause flood and at the same time stop the tap creating a draught situation downstream. This is very dangerous and intimidating. China already has 11 huge dams upstream of the Mekong River putting Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam at the mercy of China's "open and close tap" policy.  China plans to build many more dams and dikes in the Lower Mekong Basin under the guise of One Belt One Road (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promising mega hydropower and development.

 How this OBOR or BRI has benefitted the participating nations is an open secret and well delineated in the report by the International Republican Institute (IRI)[7]Washington for all to see. The developing countries should be careful enough not to be taken for a ride by this Chinese overture to collaborate and generate hydro-energy, it will only fulfill the strategic ambition of China's hydro-hegemony. It is also said that most of the dams are constructed in highly seismic-prone zones, this forebodes great dangers of flood and inundation in the event of earthquake.

 How this damage to the water tower will affect the neighboring countries?

 China's continued militarization, excessive exploitation of mineral resources of the Tibetan plateau, and damming of rivers in Tibet have adversely affected climate change, global warming, and the stable flow of water to Southeast Asian countries. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has reported that at the current pace of melting glaciers with increased temperature and human activities, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus and other rivers across the northern India plains would soon become seasonal rivers. This would greatly affect the livelihood of millions of people in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for Nature has reported that the Indus River is one of the world`s ten rivers most at risk. This is because China has built a dam on the dying river in the Ngari region of Western Tibet without sharing the information with India and Pakistan[8].

 Recent news in Japan Times reports that the UN has declared South Asia the worst in the world for water scarcity. "A staggering 347 million children under 18 are exposed to high or extremely high water scarcity in South Asia regions plagued by floods, draughts, and other extreme weather events, triggered by increasing climate change."[9]

 Experts blame China's mega dam projects as the cause of the historic drought crisis in 2019 where Mekong's water levels fell to their lowest[10] and the livelihood of 70 million people in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam were affected. Agriculture, fishery, forestry, tourism, trade, and transportation industries suffered greatly. Just as the Huangho Yellow River was the cradle of Chinese civilization, the Mekong River was the cradle of Southeast Asian country's civilization.

 We come across many reports and articles on how the Mekong is drying up and how people's lives, flora and fauna, agriculture, fisheries, and tourism are affected. The Head of the Mekong Program at Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand, Dr. Khen Suan Khai, writes "The once mighty and resourceful Mekong is in a critical situation. The Mekong River is maltreated; the lands are mismanaged; unconscious development projects in the region are cluttered. All in all, the people are suffering and their voices need to be heard. The Mekong's floodplains and 37 wetlands sustain about 61 million people living in the five countries of Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. However, the development activities in the Upper Mekong Basin and unconscious development projects in the lower Mekong have challenged regional stability and the balance of power in the region."[11]


Figure 2: Sub-basins, major rivers, and evaluation of the UMB in China


 Another major cause of co-disasters is China`s excessive mining of the Tibetan plateau. Tibet has deposits of more than 132 different minerals like copper, silver, coal, gold, lithium, lead, zinc, oil, gas, magnesium, uranium, etc. China forced more than 2 million Tibetan nomads between 2006 and 2012 to the cities under the slogan of development and protecting the environment[12]. Many nomads lost their land and livestock and found themselves on the street without proper livelihoods. China made them dependent on the minimal government subsidy to have total control over them.

 China`s colonial policy of aggressively mining Tibet's mountains for mineral resources and taking the booty to mainland China is damaging the fragile Tibet's ecosystem. It is reported, "China's booming electric vehicle industry is fueling a lithium rush in the Tibetan plateau that risks damaging the troubled region's fragile ecology and deepening rights violations." Around 85% of the country's total lithium reserves are said to be in Tibet.”[13] China has boasted of its environmental law in its white paper, but environmental damage due to excessive mining in the Tibetan plateau has led to water pollution and the death of aquatic life. Local environmental groups who protested the mining of the sacred mountains were arrested under the charge of "separatism, disrupting peace and security" in the region[14].

 Gabriel Lafitte, the author of "Spoiling Tibet" writes, "Environmentalists are aghast. So certain these days are the arrest, detention, tortures, and public confession, for publically questioning official policy, they dare not speak directly. This is their plea."[15]

 Water pollution in the Tibetan plateau is not good for all the nations below the streams.

 What H.H. the Dalai Lama has said about the planet Earth?

 H.H. the Dalai Lama has said, "This planet of ours is a delightful habitat. Its life is our life, its future is our future. Indeed the earth acts like a mother to us all. Like children, we are dependent on her. In the face of such global problems as the effect of global heating and depletion of the ozone layer, individual organizations and single nations are helpless. Unless we all work together, no solution can be found. Our Mother Earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility. Take the issue of water as an example. Today, more than ever, the welfare of citizens in many parts of the world, especially of mothers and children, is at extreme risk because of the lack of adequate water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions. It is concerning that the absence of these essential health services throughout the world impacts nearly two billion people.

 "Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Ignorance of interdependence has wounded not just our natural environment, but our human society as well. Therefore, we human beings must develop a greater sense of the oneness of all humanity. Each of us must learn to work not only for his or herself, family, or nation but for the benefit of all mankind."[16]

 So, we can see how we have greatly deviated from what His Holiness has said. What is happening in Tibet, what is happening in Ukraine, and what is happening in Gaza right now is all because of our divisive way of thinking about the "I, you, and they" concept. We all must see that this Tibetan Plateau, the Water Tower of Asia, belongs to all of us and we all need to protect it if we want our children to continue to have a peaceful life with a continued supply of fresh water from the Water Tower of Asia. For this, we all must uphold the principle of global community and the need for universal responsibility as advocated by H.H. the Dalai Lama.

 What do we all need to do to save this tower?

 What happens at the rivers upstream is definitely going to affect the rivers downstream and the people. Therefore, the environment and ecology of Tibet is not a matter of Tibetan people only. It is a critical issue for all of us, it is a global issue. It affects global warming and climate change, and the lives of more than 3 billion people, 40% of the world's population. So, we all need to ensure that Tibet's environment and ecology are properly protected so that people and lands dependent on the rivers from the Tibetan plateau are not deprived of this water resource and their livelihood.

 Prof. Brahma Chellaney has in one of his writings concluded "China - with its hold over Asia's transnational water resources and boasting more than half of the world's 50,000 large dams - has made the control and manipulation of river flows a pivot of its power and economic progress. Unless it is willing to play a leadership role in developing a rule-based system, the economic and security risks arising from the Asian water competition can scarcely be mitigated."[17]

 Therefore, we all need to urge China to share hydro project-related information with the nations concerned and stop the China-centric hydro hegemonic policy. This Chinese mad rush in damming all the rivers from Tibet will not only be disastrous for Tibet and the riparian states but also to mainland China. The riparian nations need to make the international community aware of this critical water issue and chalk out a way to deal with this crisis not in isolation but through collective effort for the global common good.

            སེང་གླང་མ་རྟ་་ཨིན་སཊ་གང་བྷྲ་བཞི།                    བོད་ཀྱི་གཙང་པོ་འཕགས་ཡུལ་ཕྱོགས་ལ་འགྲིམ།

རྒྱལ་མོ་དངུལ་ཆུ་རྒྱ་བཱར་ཐཱེ་གསུམ་གྱི།                  ནུ་ཇིང་ཐལ་ཝིན་སལ་ཝིན་གཙང་པོ་ཡིན།

ཛ་ཆུ་རྒྱ་བཱར་ལའོ་ཐཱེ་ཀམ་ཝེཊ་ཡི།                        མེ་ཀོང་གཙང་པོ་ཆེན་པོ་དེ་ཡིན་ནོ།

བྲི་རྨ་རྒྱ་ཡི་གཡང་རྩེ་ཧུ་ཝང་ཧོ།              གཙང་ཆེན་དག་གི་བྱུང་ཁུངས་བོད་ཡིན་ནོ།


Senge, Langchen, Maja, and Tachog Rivers of Tibet are the Indus, Sutlej, Ganges, and Brahmaputra, Tibet's rivers flow to the Arya Bhumi.

Gyalmo-Nyulchu is China, Burma, and Thailand's Nujinag, Thalween, and Salween Rivers.

Zachu is China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam's Mekong River

Drichu and Machu are China's Yangtse and Huangho. All these great rivers` sources are in Tibet. Therefore, it is very important to protect Tibet's environment.

 *Dr. Tsewang Gyalpo Arya is the Representative of the Liaison Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama for Japan & East Asia. He is the former Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR) and the Former Director of the Tibet Policy Institute of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India. This paper was presented as an opening remark during the 4th Tibet Environment Conference “Tibet: The Water Tower of Asia – Towards A Global Common Good” from 27-28 November 2023 at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

 End Notes:

[1] Tenzin Norbu, Tibet: The Third Pole & the Himalayas, FNVA

[2] Khen Suan Khai, Threats to the existence of Riparian Communities of the Mekong, 17/08/2021, Heinrich Boll

[3] Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, Retreat of Tibetan Plateau Glaciers Caused by Global Warming Threatens Water Supply and Food Security, August, 2010

[4]Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen, The Tibetan Plateau: Why it Matters to the Indian Subcontinent, Tibet Policy Journal, Vol- issue

[5] Dechen Palmo, Tibet's Rivers Will Determine Asia's Future, The Diplomat, 1/11/2019

[6] Damming Tibet`s Rivers New Threats to Tibetan Area under UNESCO Protection, International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) Report 2019

[7] Chinese Malign Influence and the Corrosion of Democracy by the International Republican Institute (IRI) Report 2019

[8]Aashina Thakur, Tibet is “Third Pole and Water Tower of Asia”: River flowed throughout Asia 1/02/2021

[9] South Asia worst in the world for water scarcity, says U.N. Japan Times, p-6, 14/11/2023

[10] Lee Kok Leong, Mekong River Faces Existential Threat From Chinese Dams, 23/06/2022, Maritime Fairtrade

[11]Khen Suan Khai, Threats to the Existence of Riparian Communities of the Mekong, 17/08/2021, Heinrich Boll

[12] Tibet was never a part of China, p-129, DIIR publications, 2018 

[13] China's lithium boom harming fragile Tibetan plateau, Japan Times, p-4, 4-5/11/2023


[15] Damming Tibet`s Rivers New Threats to Tibetan Area under UNESCO Protection, International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) Report 2019

[16] H.H. the Dalai Lama, Message for Earth Day, 22/04/2021, www.dalailama.com

[17] Brahma Chellaney, Chellaney: China's great water wall, The Washington Times, 8/04/2013