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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

River Runs Through It

August 20, 2010

The Times of India
August 17, 2010

 From 1911 to 1950, Tibet was an independent
nation possessing all the attributes of
statehood. StrategistMao Zedong had repeatedly
stated his objective about that territory: "There
are two winds in the world, the east wind and
west wind...I think the characteristic of the
current situation is that the east wind prevails
over the west wind; that is, the strength of
socialism exceeds the strength of imperialism."

These words were pronounced in 1957, but by 1950
there had been no question that China would not
allow the west wind prevail as China's People's
Liberation Army set out to 'liberate' the roof of
the world. Mao knew that he who holds Tibet
dominates the Himalayan piedmont and, thereby,
the Asian water towers. The government of India,
having inherited past treaties signed by the
British with Tibet, should have gained an
advantage over control of these water towers. But
India failed to do so and gave no serious thought to the consequences.

The Indians were not only shocked at China's
unprovoked military action in Tibet, they were
also offended by how the Chinese government had
disregarded its explicit assurances to India that
Tibet would be left alone. In a sharp note to the
Chinese government, the Indian foreign ministry
expressed deep regret and surprise at the
decision to send troops into Tibet just after the
Tibetans had initiated negotiations with China's
ambassador in New Delhi. The US and British
governments expressed their support for the
Indian position, and the US state department
informed New Delhi of its desire to help Tibet by whatever means possible.

The Americans recognised that, in view of
geographic and historical factors, India's
cooperation was needed in any attempt to
effectively help Tibet. But India's foreign
ministry dissuaded the US from supplying military
aid to Tibet. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
even requested that Washington refrain from
publicly condemning China. India's attitude of
washing its hand of Tibet deeply hurt and
humiliated the Tibetan people and put India at a permanent disadvantage.

Tibet's strategic position has become obvious in
recent years: scientists and policymakers have
begun to recognise how climate change has the
potential to reduce snowpack and glacier mass in
the Tibetan plateau, altering one of the world's
most crucial hydrological systems. Thanks to its
control over Tibet, China can claim sovereign
right to control the world's largest freshwater
resources outside the polar regions. These water
resources, vulnerable to global and regional
warming, are critical for sustaining South Asia's
food and water security. Should China be the lone
arbiter of the fate of Tibet's waters? What
happens to downstream nations that depend heavily on these rivers?

China possesses a robust glaciological programme
and knows fairly well how long Tibet's snow and
ice resources will last. It has embarked on
integrated water resource management of all
rivers emanating from Tibetan plateau. And it has
completed dam construction and water diversion
projects on the Salween and Mekong rivers,
despite regional and global criticism that these
will be socially and economically devastating downstream.

China plans to build 59 reservoirs on rivers
flowing out of the Tibetan plateau to save
glacier run-off. Construction is in full swing at
Zangmu for a 540 MW run of the river power
project and feasibility studies have been
completed for five more such projects further
upstream on the Yarlung Tsangpo. Tapping the
power of the river Tsangpo (Brahmaputra for
Indians) as it bends and plunges down towards
Indian and Bangladeshi floodplains has long been
a dream of Chinese politicians and
hydro-engineers. Metog will be the site of the
mega project at the huge bend inside a giant
canyon approximately 3.1 miles deep and 198 miles
long. This will involve construction of a series
of tunnels, pipes, reservoirs and turbines that
will generate 40,000 MW of power and exploit the
spectacular 2,000-metre fall of the river as it winds down towards India.

This water diversion project an essential part of
China's 10th five-year plan will cost $62
billion. The entire staff responsible for
constructing the Lhasa-Beijing railway line has
been assigned to executing this mega project
quickly. The project is ominous for millions of
Indians and Bangladeshis. Chinese
conservationists have admitted that the canyon is
home to more than 60 per cent of the Tibetan
plateau's biological resources and many
indigenous communities. Yet China officially
denies it is constructing any reservoirs or dams
on the Brahmaputra. Surprisingly, India accepts
these official denials (an attitude much like
Nehru's in 1950 prior to Tibet's annexation).

China has emerged as the world's second largest
economy and a formidable military and nuclear
power. Accordingly, the world's great powers
treat it with respect and caution. Control over
Tibet's water resources in a world that is
warming has provided it with strategic edge over
its neighbours. India should recalibrate its
Tibet policy and start negotiating a legally
binding international treaty on the Brahmaputra
and Sutlej rivers. As of now, both countries have
no legal and policy architecture in place to deal
with a looming water dispute. They only have a
couple of MoUs in sharing flood-season
hydrological data on these rivers. This, despite
the fact China has already started exploiting
Tibetan rivers for their strategic advantage.

* The writer is senior visiting fellow, Stimson Centre, Washington DC.
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