Preserving Tibet - The Water Tower of Asia to avert the Global Water War

His Excellency President of Central Tibetan Administration, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, delivered the 5th Rabindranath Barthakur Memorial Lecture, 2017. In honour of Shri Rabindranath Barthakur, he speaks about preservation & conservation of the Eastern Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau- the Water Tower of Asia.

If you look globally, there is decline of internationalism and decline of liberalism, which we saw rise of liberalism and internationalism in late 80s and 90s and on those two, rise of internationalism and liberalism, we rode the wave for human rights, democracy and environmental matters but now there is a challenge to internationalism; there is rise of nationalism that you can see from America to Europe to Asia. And then there is rise of extremism also because you can see ISIS and militant Buddhist in Burma, you can clearly see in the violent form of extremism. Now in this context, we are entering a new world – a very challenging, complex and conflict oriented world.

Many Experts also say that 21st century will be the century of Asia, which we all welcome because there will be economic growth in Asia and Asia will dominate the 21st century. But at the same time there is armed race going on, which I’m sure from some accounts, the largest number of arms are bought in Asia. So, with Asia dominating the world, arms race also dominating Asia and countries are preparing for war. And what are the likely scenarios, what might be the cause for this kind of conflict in this part of the world and globally? Hence, I have been hearing that World Bank said “The Earth can sustain 7 billion people, unfortunately this year we will be reaching 8 billion people, which means we are 1 billion people more than what the earth can sustain. For the 1 billion people extra, we do not have forests, or the land or water.

Many experts also say that wars were fought over land during the colonial era. Nowadays, wars are fought over oil and petrol. That’s why there is crisis in Venezuela, there is crisis in Nigeria, in Iraq..because these countries are rich in oil. Soon there will be war over water. Because of the shortage of Water. In that sense, even though the conference is about Eastern Himalaya, the whole of Himalaya is very very important for the whole world.

The whole of Himalaya is as fragile and as important as the rainforest of Latin America, where Government recognition is given. And hence, to have the Balipara Foundation and Natural Economics Forum to discuss about preservation of Elephants, Tigers, animals, Botany, local communities and villages and Rural Futures is very important and hence, the preservation and conservation of Himalayas is very very important. And as a Tibetan I would say, on top of Himalayas sits Tibet.

Many experts say that Tibet is the third pole because after Antarctic and Arctic, Tibet has the third highest reserve of ice. The difference is that when the ice of Antarctic and Artic melts, it goes to the ocean but when the ice of Tibet melts, it forms rivers. And 10 major rivers of Asia flow from Tibet, Indus River- India is called India after Indus river but it starts from Tibet, Sutlej river, which flows from Tibet to Jammu & Kashmir to Pakistan, flows from Tibet and lifeline of North East, Assam & Bangladesh - Brahmaputra flows from Tibet.

Some of the representatives are here from ASEAN Countries. Salween river, Irrawaddy river, Mekong river which are also lifelines for ASEAN Countries, flow from Tibet. Yangtze River in China and Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization also flows from Tibet. Hence, Tibet is the water tower of Asia and 1.4 billion people depend & survive on rivers starting from Tibet.

Hence, Tibet is very important for not just the Himalayan Regions, for South East Asia, for South Asia & the whole of Asia as well.

Now the problems are as follow – Some scientists have said, the climate in South America is directly affected by the over Tibet, a scientist in Tibet has said whether the winter in Canada will be warm or cold, is affected by the climate in Tibet. In fact, a scientist from California has said that if you want to understand global warming and climate change, you must understand the Tibetan plateau, till then it won’t be complete.

But the problem is, in the last 100 years, 50% of Tibetan glaciers have melted and disappeared. According to NASA, by 2100, of the remaining 46,000 glaciers we have, Tibet is very rich in mountains, 100 highest mountains in the world are in Tibet, now of the remaining 46,000 glaciers we have left, minimally 1/3rd or 2/3rd of these glaciers will disappear. If 2/3rd of glaciers disappear, what will happen to the 1.4 billion people who are dependent on fresh water flowing from Tibet. Hence, there is a crisis in the making, it is looming large. So that way it is very important to talk about preservation and conservation of flora and fauna of the Himalayan belt, but is equally important how do we handle the water tower of Asia, that is Tibet.

In a recent news, Chinese government is planning to divert Brahmaputra River all the way to Xianjian, what will happen to the lifeline of Northeast, Assam and Bangladesh? Hence, there is a crisis in the making.

Not just the rivers are being diverted, not just the glaciers are melting partly because of the global warming, partly because of the urbanization and industrialization of Tibet, deforestation that is taking place in Tibet. If there is 1 degree of temperature rise in the rest of the world, it is 2 degrees on the Tibetan plateau because it is so ragile and so delicate.

I’m not saying this because I’m a Tibetan, I’m rather reiterating what the Chinese environmentalists and scientists have been saying. Given the fragile nature of the Tibetan plateau, we all have to preserve and conserve it in the form of Third Pole National Park. A proposal offered by Chinese Environmentalist and Scientists. Because Tibet is vital for the rest of the world.

Now because of industrialization, because of deforestation, because of urbanization of Tibet, the temperature in Tibet is rising very fast and not just the 46,000 glaciers are melting rapidly, which might disappear, 1/3rd or 2/3rd by 2100 then there will be a major crisis in the whole world. The problem is also that China has 90% of the world population but only 12% of freshwater, which means 7% of 400 million Chinese people are already facing the water crisis and the situation in Bangladesh, ASEAN or India is worse than China.

Now what will happen if water scarcity happens - that’s one crisis!

Now with the rise of temperature, globally and on the Tibetan plateau, not only glaciers are melting fast but also what it is doing is it is melting or defrosting the Permafrost – which means the soil freezes, it’s so cold that the soil freezes but what it does is it holds the carbon dioxide underneath that soil and meltens underneath the soil. Now half of Tibetan plateau, half of Tibetan plateau, up to 1.6 million square kilometers of land is permafrost and underneath it, there are 12,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and an equal number of 12,000 million tonnes of methane, now imagine with global warming, and urbanization, industrialization of Tibet, permafrost melts, which is as deep as 1m to 30 m. 1m can melt very fast, once it opens up, it will release all the carbon dioxide and methane is 2 or 3 times more stronger than carbon dioxide. If all this is released in the air of the earth, one can clearly see a danger, increasing global warming, affecting the ozone layer and polluting rather the whole planet, especially Asia. Therefore, since Tibet is vital, we ought to preserve and protect and conserve the Tibetan plateau.


I just want to say 2 points –

Traditionally, Tibetans as Buddhists, we have managed and maintained the Tibetan plateau and shared our water resources with all our neighboring countries. Nowadays we drink water in bottles, we have to buy. Had Tibetans been selling our water for centuries, I think we would have been the richest country in the whole world. But part of this practice of sharing water comes from our Buddhist tradition or Buddhist values. As we all know, Buddha was an environmentalist in the sense that he was born under a tree, he attained enlightenment under a tree, he gave his first teaching to 7 followers under a tree, so there is a symbolism behind it and as a Buddha when he taught about human beings, he also taught about interdependence – interdependence between human beings and nature. For e.g. this is a dialectic discourse – when you ask someone as a Buddhist “who are you?” and if you have to point to “I” that is “you”, you will say who you are rather, you will point to a part of your body, your chest or head or the whole body. Then the dialectic discourse will say if the body is you, you can’t live without the air that you breathe, you can’t live without water, which is 90% of your body, you can’t live without food, so you are dependent or interdependent with nature as well.

So, when you define you as an individual, nature is a part of you and that’s the Buddhist value we have. And hence, in India and rest of the world you see, Buddhist prayer flags everywhere and it has 5 elements - Earth, Water, Sky, Air. Because we believe that nature is part of humanity and we are dependent on nature as well as we live on this Earth and this Buddhist notion has helped us preserve and protect the Tibetan plateau for many centuries. And hence, if you don’t want to see water crisis, if you don’t want to see global warming, it is very important that we respect the fragile nature of Himalaya and the important aspect of Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau.


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