When Mao Zedong concluded, “The south has plenty of water, the north much less. If possible, the north should borrow a little.” His this thought lead to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950.
Wars have always been fought over resources. Food and water security are essential for any nation, and the absence or blockade of these can have dire consequences for its population and even put its survival at risk. Fresh water supply is tied with a nation’s internal political security, extramural expansion, and geopolitical stability. Mao realised this and the strategic importance of Tibet in providing food and water security to water scarce China.
As recently as 20 years ago, there were an estimated 50,000 rivers in China, each covering a flow area of at least 60 square miles. But now, according to China’s First National Census of Water, more than 28,000 of these rivers are missing due to the significant reduction in water and climate change.
Tibet is a strategically important region due to its centrality in Asia’s hydrological cycle. Tibet is known as the Third Pole for having the most frozen fresh water outside the North and South Poles. Tibet is also called the water tower of Asia for being the source of major rivers that flow into India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar & Vietnam.
With the invasion of Tibet, China now controls the Water Tower of Asia but its thirst for water does not end here. China took an outward-looking food security approach aims to import more food from the international market. During 2000–2016, China managed to shift from a net exporter (26.67 billion m3 in 2000) to a net importer (79.12 billion m3 in 2016) of virtual water in the trade with BRI countries with respect to agricultural commodities, with an agricultural trade deficit of USD 50 billion. It is now the largest importer of pork, rubber, cotton, dairy and dry whole milk powder, to name but a few. China is supporting its agricultural companies both the state-owned enterprises and the Beidahuang Group as well as private companies to become global players that can compete with established global agribusiness giants such as Cargill. During the last five years China’s overseas food-related mergers and acquisitions reached USD 20 billion.
“Water could be a deadly tool to bring countries to their knees. “
China and India with nearly 2.5 billion people are the two most populated countries in the region and are most likely to face a bigger crisis given that the most of the freshwater supply in this part of the world depends on rivers emerging from the Himalayan glaciers and the Tibetan Plateau.
China’s plans to tap the waters of the Brahmaputra River have already created anxiety in India and Bangladesh who share its water. The Brahmaputra originates from the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in North East India; and further into Bangladesh where it joins the Padma River. China depends on the Tibetan Plateau for the water needs of its billion plus population.
China’s aims to construct dams and restrict the flow of water downstream into North East India have further complicated the already disturbed Indo-China relations. Beijing’s plans for the Brahmaputra include two kinds of projects. The first involves the construction of hydroelectric power projects on the river and the other, more ambitious project; envisages the diversion of its waters to the arid north.
Since 2010, China has started construction work on the damming/diversion of the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Sutlej and Lancang (Mekong) in Tibet. China also plans to tap most of the other big rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau.
The Brahmaputra’s northward diversion will result in a significant drop in its water level as it enters India and has a grave impact on agriculture and fishing in the downstream areas; due to increased salinity. All these activities raise serious concern in India; especially in the absence of a dispute resolution mechanism; like the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan.
China has built the world’s largest water diversion project, one of the most ambitious and expensive engineering projects ever undertaken in human history. This massive scheme has already taken 50 years from conception to commencement and is expected to take almost as long to construct. Planned for completion in 2050, it will eventually divert 44.8 billion cubic metres of water annually to the population centres of the drier north.
Now China plans to expand the world’s largest water-diversion project further, aiming to double the amount of water it can transfer from Tibetan Plateau to its Eastern, Central, and Western region. The second phase of the South-to-North Water Diversion project will cover both the eastern and middle routes. A new 1,785 km long water channel will be built with 25 pump stations.
China’s South-to-North Water Diversion project has sparked criticism that these moves could be devastating for downstream communities. As the populations of South and Southeast Asia continue to grow, water scarcity will become more acute, which could lead to conflicts between China and its neighbors over water resources.
Currently, there exists no regional framework for these nations to discuss or negotiate over water resources. A treaty or framework would create a system of modern water rights based around an integrated water resource act; ideally, it would include all Asian countries that depend upon the Tibetan Plateau for their water.
The South and East Asian countries should encourage and develop a regional framework on water security, in relation to the major rivers of Asia that flow from the Tibetan Plateau and are subject to current and potential Chinese dam and diversion projects else they will not have enough water to power their economies.
According to the World Bank, water will become the most sought after natural resource, most likely to cause wars in the 21st century. While the main constraint on agriculture has been the lack of arable land in the past, it will be the lack of water in the decades to come.
The lack of food and water will have severe consequences for the world’s population, and in nations that are extremely water scarce, will even create water refugees. In the coming decade, the world will see a sustained focus and investment in the global water sector.
“It is ironic that water that is used to put out fires will ignite blazes globally when in scarcity.”
However, new sources of water can cost between two to three times that of sources already tapped. One must remember that while Oil has its substitutes in the form of alternate energy; water in its real or virtual form has no substitute. It is not without reason that water is considered the crude and lifeline of the 21st century. It is ironic that water that is used to put out fires will ignite blazes globally when in scarcity. Water could be a deadly tool to bring countries to their knees.