The New Scientist has a special report on China taking control of the Tibetan plateau, Asia’s largest source of fresh water. But its ambition is stirring fresh trouble with its neighbours, that could potentially erupt as one of this century’s biggest conflicts — a fight over water.
Beijing has set its sights on international rivers in order to keep up with soaring demand for energy and irrigation in the world’s second biggest economy.
China and Tibet have never been on good terms since China’s invasion of the region in the 1950s. And recent projects by Beijing to dam or divert each of the five great rivers that emerge from Tibet’s high plateau (see photo) — the Indus, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong — have sparked disputes with China’s neighbours such as India and Bangladesh. Each is vying for a piece of the plateau that supplies 1.3bn people with water for drinking and irrigation, as well as a huge potential for hydropower, the article says.
The plans are making Bangladesh and India, which both lie downstream on the Brahmaputra, “very nervous,” according to NS. Both countries face a water crisis, particularly Bangladesh that depends on the river for two-thirds of its water for irrigation. Nearly 20m Bangladeshis rely on the river, and the country has barely enough to pull itself through the dry season.
So what are these projects? Already, China has completed a series of dams on tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The first dam, called Zangmu and worth $1bn, on the river’s main stem, will be completed in 2014. Next in line are Mutuo (which could deliver 38 gigawatts) and Daduqia (42 gw) in the Tsangpo canyon. Another flashpoint is in northern Burma over the Myitsone dam being built by China on the Irrawaddy river. In the Mekong river delta, China has so far built four of eight planned hydroelectric dams, which, the NS says, at 292 meters tall, is higher than the Eiffel Tower. Further west, Chinese construction of the 7-gigawatt Bunji dam on the Indus in norther Pakistan has angered India, which claims the territory, NS writes. See map
Not only is building dams a source of geopolitical conflict, but a source of significant environmental damage. According to NS, an unpublished 900-page environmental impact assessment commissioned by the Chinese themselves recommended against the dam because it would flood important forest ecosystems. The article quotes Edward Barbier of the University of Wyoming and Anik Bhaduri of the International Water Management Institute warning that “a 10 to 20 percent reduction in the river’s flow could dry out great areas of Bangladesh for much of the year.” Without the flow of fresh water, salt from the Bay of Bengal would invade the large river delta, causing an “an environmental catastrophe.”
And in a study for UNEP, Ky Quang Vinh of Vietnam’s Centre for Observation of Natural Resources found that the “weaker flood pulse meant salt water from the South China Sea had penetrated 70km into the Mekong delta, destroying glare areas of rice paddies in the prime rice growing region.”
Elsewhere, a hydrologist at Helsinki University of Technology, Matti Kummu, warns that weaker flood pulse is also destroying fish nurseries, such as the flooded forests around Cambodia’s inland lake, the Tonle-sap.
As Loh Su Hsing, of the think tank Chatham House in London wrote recently: “The big issue for Asia is whether China will exploit it control of the Tibetan plateau to increasingly siphon off for its own use the waters of the international rivers that are the lifeblood of the downstream countries.”