Tibet is sometimes called the third pole, because it’s ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside of the north and south pole. But the area is suffering from climate change and extensive dam projects, led by China.
Tibet’s President in exile Lobsang Sangay was recently on a tour of Europe, where he appealed for international support in the face of Chinese occupation and economic exploitation.
In Sweden, Ric Wasserman spoke with Tibet’s President-in-exile.
When Tibet’s President in exile Lobsang Sangay addressed the Swedish parliament on November 14, he got straight to the point: China is pillaging Tibet’s natural water resources. Climate change is melting glaciers. The effects will be devastating.
“The glaciers of Tibet are melting very fast. In the last 100 years 50% of the glaciers have disappeared.” Sangay continued, “the remaining 46,000 glaciers we have, by 2100 at least one third will disappear.”
As Tibet’s glaciers melt, water is fast flowing into South and Southeast Asia. But over time, the glaciers will shrink and the water will dry up.
“Water resources will be increasing for a while due to melting but in the long term that is not good, because when the glacier disappears then of course we have a huge problem,” explained Professor Deliang Chen, a glacier researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Not just for the region, but the whole world.”
According to studies by the United Nations, almost half of the world’s population relies on water that flows from rivers on the Tibetan Plateau into catchment areas across Asia.
China controls the Tibetan Plateau, and with tense relations between India and China, experts fear the potential for water to be used as a weapon.
“1.4 billion people depend on fresh water flowing from Tibet, in that part of the region,” said Sangay. “This is a major crisis.”
To meet its insatiable thirst, China plans to divert water from the Brahmaputra River, which starts in Tibet, into Xinjiang province. That would steal it away from its natural course which provides water to much of India and Bangladesh.
During the last seven years, China has built four dams along the Brahmaputra River in Tibet. These dams have disturbed local ecosystems and have significant effects downstream, like stopping the flow of silt, making agricultural land less fertile.
“Huge dams are being built on the major rivers in Tibet by the Chinese government to gain profit for the Chinese industry,” said Bhu Dhondop, a member of Sweden’s Tibetan community in exile was a mountain guide. He says he’s seen Tibetan villages destroyed and people forcefully relocated to make way for dams.
“Protesting and criticizing your government is almost impossible,” Dhondop said.
Human Rights Watch reported that almost two million Tibetans had been displaced from their land between 2006 and 2013 to make way for Chinese development.
Tibetans have been opposing Chinese occupation since 1959.
Two years ago, a violent protest took place in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
Tibetans demanded the right to self-determination. Opposing Chinese control, they pointed to human rights abuses, ethnic discrimination, the closure of monasteries, the influx of Han Chinese, and the loss of their homes.
Since 2014, over 150 Tibetans have set fire to themselves – a Buddhist act of defiance against Chinese hegemony.
At China’s recent 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping firmly declared that separatism would not be tolerated, sending a clear message to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. The situation could become more repressive under Xi’s rule.
On his recent tour of Europe, Tibet’s President-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay appealed for international support, highlighting Tibet’s image of spiritual and environmental purity, and contrasting it with China’s environmental destruction and repression of dissent.
“Are you for non-violence or violence? Justice or injustice? Are you for Mahatma Gandhi or Mao Tse Tung? Are you for Dalai Lama or Xi Jinping? Are you for democracy or undemocratic means? If you don’t support us, it reflects you” Sangay told European audiences.