Tibet: A Major Source of Asia’s Rivers

4 February 2016 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Key Points

  • Tibet is the epicentre of regional food and water security. It is crucial that China and the countries downstream co-operate to ensure freshwater supplies for all.
  • Climate change, Asia’s rapid urbanisation and population growth rates are placing increased pressure on scarce water resources.
  • It is difficult to achieve a political consensus on governing Asia’s transboundary rivers when downstream countries do not have equal power over the control of common water sources.
  • The potential for conflict within the region will increase if agreements are not established to ensure integrated water management among all the countries involved.
  • Australia can play a role in ensuring water security and averting future regional conflict.



The headwaters of six of Asia’s major rivers begin on the Tibetan Plateau. China, which requires water to meet the needs of 20 per cent of the world’s population, has harnessed freshwater from the plateau to meet its own food and water requirements by building dams, irrigation systems and creating water diversion projects. China is the largest and most technologically-advanced of all the countries in the region, enabling the Asian giant to hold an important position of power over downstream countries. Dwindling water sources in the transboundary rivers of the Tibetan Plateau threaten water security and create a high potential for geopolitical conflict in the region.


Chinese Involvement within Tibet and Downstream Countries

Forty-six per cent of the world’s population depend upon rivers originating in Tibet, including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong rivers. Rapid population growth, industrialisation and climate change, however, threaten water security across South and South-East Asia. With China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand all dependent on rivers that have their headwaters in Tibet, predicted water shortages threaten the livelihoods of millions of people living in countries downstream.

In 1950, Mao Zedong annexed Tibet, largely due to its strategic position and its water resources. China is, overall, an arid country and water security is regarded as an important national security issue. Building dams, irrigation systems and diversion projects is considered vital not just for providing water to its 1.3 billion people, but also for ensuring internal political stability. Any alteration to China’s control of Tibet and its water could alter the distribution of power between China and the countries downstream as well as cause heightened internal tensions, a notion that Beijing will be reluctant to countenance.

Climate change is likely to result in elevated global temperatures, rising sea levels, increased frequency of extreme weather events and changing precipitation patterns. Increasing glacial melt in the Tibetan Plateau, combined with changing rainfall patterns across South and South-East Asia, threatens water security for millions of people who rely on the transboundary rivers that originate in Tibet. The annual rate of glacial melt in Tibet is currently seven per cent, which could result in the loss of two-thirds of its glaciers by 2050. Water flows in some rivers like the Brahmaputra have increased due to melting glaciers. River water supply will increase in the short-term but this will only last as long as the glaciers do. Asia cannot rely on increased run-off being a long-lasting phenomenon. Changing rainfall patterns are expected to further exacerbate dwindling freshwater sources.

China’s population currently stands at 1.36 billion people, with an annual growth rate of 0.5 per cent. The World Bank estimates that by 2030, China’s population will peak at 1.4 billion. The fifty-five per cent of China’s population who reside in urban centres have an annual urban growth rate of three per cent. Increasing rates of urbanisation and population growth will increase the demand for water within China and place further pressure on Tibet’s declining water resources downstream.

The Tibetan Plateau has suffered severe environmental degradation. More than 16,100 square kilometres of land was converted to forest between 1949 and 2011 by the Chinese Government. While forests improve soil conditions and purify the air, ecosystems on the plateau already experience competition for water between human consumption and vegetation. Afforestation decreases a region’s river runoff, particularly in arid or semi-arid areas where trees consume significant amounts of water. Such environmental activity exacerbates the scarce supply of water in downstream countries and could contribute to regional conflict over future water security.

The Tibetan Plateau’s rich supply of natural resources has been exploited since the 1960s. Mining threaten the fragile ecosystem of the plateau. Poor environmental regulation has contributed to social tension within Tibet and Tibetan petitions against mining practices have largely been ignored. Protesters concerned about the pollution of Tibet’s streams and rivers have had their protestations suppressed by the Chinese authorities. The government of the Tibet Autonomous Region recently introduced new measures for the conservation of water on the plateau, including regulations to strengthen control over pollution. This development is beneficial for Asia’s water supply, but to further reduce the risk of irreversible water pollution and depletion, China must continue to adopt more sustainable development measures on the plateau.

Irrigated agriculture takes up almost 40 per cent of land on the Tibetan Plateau. Chinese irrigation practices, however, are leading to the overexploitation of water resources, another element adding to increasing water scarcity on the plateau. Continued overexploitation will continue to add to tension between the countries downstream over shared water resources. China has also started to bottle Tibetan water. In 2014, the government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region established a $54 million development fund to promote the bottled water industry. Development of the bottled water industry threatens available water sources for China’s downstream neighbours, and could have dire implications for water security across the entire region.

The Potential for Conflict: Implications of Chinese Control over Asia’s Major River Systems

The arid climate in China’s northern regions has created the need for it to divert water from the Tibetan Plateau into its northern and western regions. Dams, water diversion projects and irrigation systems have been created in the plateau, particularly upstream along the Mekong River. By 2025, water scarcity is predicted to affect 1.8 billion people, particularly across Asia. Chinese control in Tibet places China in a dominant position to control Asia’s water sources.

Hydropower is a clean alternative to meeting China’s increasing energy needs. As a result of dam building, however, the countries downstream have been, and will remain, negatively affected through altered water flow and increased sedimentation. Industrial activities also threaten the quality of Tibetan freshwater. Previous deforestation has created erosion and siltation and mining and industrial development has contributed to pollution from heavy metals within Tibet.

China has constructed seven dams along the Mekong River in Tibet and 21 more are planned. Almost 60 million people depend upon the river for food and water security in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Any alteration to its flow could have dire consequences for them, including the creation of environmental refugees. Reductions in downstream flows will not only damage freshwater availability, food security and livelihoods but could increase the numbers of those people living below the poverty line. The potential for conflict between China and downstream countries is likely to increase as the volume of water downstream decreases.

The Salween River is a World Heritage Site and home to 25 per cent of animal species in the world. China has constructed a dam 5.5 kilometres away from the Heritage Listed area, with plans for more dams in the pipeline. The construction of further dams would not only pose a risk to the ecological preservation of the Salween but could cause seawater intrusion in downstream Myanmar. There are concerns that if more dams are constructed, farmland areas could be destroyed and hundreds of settlements flooded.

China’s Zangmu Dam became operational in October 2015. The dam lies along the upper reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo (known as the Brahmaputra in India). Due to its close proximity to India, the dam may trigger floods in the Indian state of Assam during the rainy season and may cause the Brahmaputra to dry up during winter. In this event, downstream agriculture will be seriously affected and soil salinity will increase.

The Gyatsa and the Zhongda Dam are in construction across the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet. China also has plans for two more dams along the river. India opposes the construction of dams along the Yarlung Tsangpo because of the effects it will have on India’s own hydropower projects. China’s plans to divert water would damage water flow, agriculture, ecology, lives and the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people downstream in India and Bangladesh. India’s and Bangladesh’s combined population is predicted to surpass that of China’s within a decade. Rapid population growth downstream is likely to contribute to increasing water demands which, in turn, could severely heighten Sino-Indian tension. Geopolitical tension between the two major powers of Asia greatly increases the potential for conflict in the region.

Bangladesh will experience a serious threat to its water supply by Chinese and Indian activities upstream. The Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers merge in Bangladesh and flow into the Bay of Bengal. India’s damming of the Ganges River has already reduced its flow downstream. Soil salinity in Bangladesh has increased as a result and seriously damaged agriculture. Thousands of Bangladeshis have been forced to relocate to north-east India causing, due to the demographic composition of the area, serious ethnic conflicts. China’s actions upstream, combined with the India’s, have had grim consequences downstream in Bangladesh, which has little capacity to challenge them. Further reductions in its water supply could continue to create grounds for internal conflict.

Although dam building promotes the development of renewable energy and reduced carbon and sulphur dioxide emissions, it takes around ten years to fill a large dam, causing massive falls in water levels during the dry season. China is also likely to withhold water flow during the dry season to maintain hydroelectricity output.

Chinese dam construction and water diversion projects in Tibet no doubt have, and will continue to have, significant detrimental effects downstream. Opposition to dams built upstream, however, is not universal. Some countries, such as Thailand, have vested interests in China’s hydropower production. Thailand purchases 3000 megawatts of power generated by Chinese dams. Economic interaction between the countries through which a river flows complicates the issue of transboundary river negotiations and muddies the waters for future food and water security.

China is able to control water flow downstream through the construction of its dams and plans for water diversion. These constructions represent serious food, water and political security threats to the countries downstream. Tensions are building between China and downstream countries over the former’s lack of transparency with its dam building activities. To reduce the potential for conflict, greater consultation and communication is required within the region to facilitate peaceful co-operation over shared water sources.

Governing Water Security in Asia

Despite the fragile nature of transboundary river water sharing in Asia, no formal agreements exist between China and downstream countries over the use of shared river systems. Regional power imbalances exist among countries sharing water from Tibetan rivers. Mutual hostility, suspicion and the absence of any legally binding international agreements hinder the likelihood of multilateral success.

China has been reluctant to participate in multilateral transboundary water governance. In 1995, the Agreement on the Co-operation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin acknowledged that the Mekong does not belong to any one state. The objective of the agreement is to ensure sustainable development and co-operation, yet with the headwaters of the Mekong originating in Tibet, China chose to exercise its territorial jurisdiction and refused to join. With only downstream Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam signing the agreement, China’s reluctance to participate in the multilateral agreement has seriously hindered any chance of meaningful co-operation between them.

In 1997, the Asian giant voted against the United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC), which pushed for an international agreement on the governance of transboundary watercourses, on the grounds that the convention did not support its territorial sovereignty. India and Pakistan abstained, while Bhutan and Myanmar were absent at the time of the vote. Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam voted in favour of the convention. The results of the 1997 UNWC demonstrate the difficulty in achieving regional co-operation when downstream nations have a strong interest in ensuring water sources are protected, yet upstream nations hold different territorial concerns. Zhang Hongzhou, Associate Research Fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, argues that China’s reluctance to sign multilateral water co-operation agreements signals Beijing’s desire to control water in Asia, despite the detrimental impacts this could have upon the countries downstream.

Population growth throughout the world to 2050 is predicted to occur mainly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 90 per cent of the population of South and South-East Asia either live in poverty or are susceptible to it. Increasing population growth rates and urbanisation will only further threaten food and water security and increase the numbers of those living in poverty. The lack of equitable agreements governing the sustainable development and equal distribution of water flowing through Asia’s major transboundary rivers heightens the potential for conflict significantly.

Integrated basin management is imperative between those countries whose rivers originate in the Tibetan Plateau. Creating shared perception of the tragedy of the commons problem between these countries could create win-win situations, and has a greater chance of encouraging Chinese co-operation. Although China is more likely to rely on bilateral agreements where it can maximise its power over the downstream countries more effectively, transboundary water co-operation cannot be holistically managed through bilateral actions alone. The threat to regional food and water security must be at the forefront of Asian co-operation to minimise the risk of potential conflict.

Averting Conflict: Australia’s Role in Ensuring Regional Water Security

Water is arguably the world’s most important and valued resource. Australia’s role in averting future conflict over shared Asian water resources is not insignificant. Australian two-way trade with China totalled over $150 billion in 2014, making it Australia’s top trading partner. Australia also ranked sixth on China’s import source list for 2014. The relationship between China and Australia is an important one for both. It would be in the interests of both countries to ensure regional stability and avert any potential for future conflict, particularly regarding food and water security.

Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has argued that Australia’s capacity as a middle power extends from notions of good international citizenship. Encouraging co-operation over shared water sources in the Tibetan Plateau, however, extends beyond just being a good international citizen. It should also form part of Australia’s long-term strategic interests. Food and water security reaches beyond traditional notions of economic and military security. With greater potential for conflict in a highly volatile region, Australia would benefit from the use of middle power diplomacy to encourage water-sharing agreements between China and the countries downstream.

Although the sustainable management of resources on the plateau is in Australia’s long-term interest, it cannot, however, be expected to eventuate. Australia has greater economic interests in China and Canberra is not likely to pursue a conversation that may impede the broader Sino-Australian relationship.

Australian action against climate change may play a distant role in ensuring regional water security and averting potential conflict between China and downstream countries. It is 95 per cent probable that climate change is a result of human activity. Efforts to counter climate change most likely will not have a direct effect on water security in Asia. It may, however, contribute to halting global warming and prevent further glacial melting. Given that climate change is one of the biggest challenges to international security, it is imperative that the Australian Government commit to meaningful policies that help to mitigate global temperature increases, thereby slowing the rate of glacial melt.

It is predicted that seventy-five per cent of the world’s population will face freshwater scarcity by 2050. If Tibet’s precious resources continue to decline, future water scarcity may become the biggest transboundary challenge the region will need to address. Chinese involvement in multilateral co-operation must occur in order to ensure that millions of people downstream have access to freshwater sources.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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