COP26: Why Is the World Silent on China’s Monopoly on Tibet’s Rivers?

Tibet is the source of 10 major rivers and has the largest glacier reservoir on this planet.

5 min read
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As COP26 wraps up, the world is again ignorant about the importance of Tibet's role in combating the global climate crisis. Despite all the hue and cry, the stakeholders failed to recognise the urgency and weightage of "The Third Pole" in this collective mission – not just "The Third Pole" after Arctic and Antarctica but also a "Water Tower" of the whole of Asia. Noted environmentalist Michael Buckley stated in his book 'Meltdown in Tibet', "We have only one Tibet. There are no backups, no second chances. If the water resources of the Tibetan plateau should be blocked or diverted or become polluted, then Asia will tumble into chaos."

It may sound a little exhausting to reiterate that Tibet is the source of 10 major rivers and has the largest glacier reservoir on this planet. Nobody cares about these facts because they sound so fabricated to them. If UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson cares about the importance of global action on the climate crisis and states, "It's one minute to midnight on that Doomsday clock and we need to act now", then why is he not aware of Tibet’s role? It’s partly due to China's pressure. China’s annexation of Tibet led to the monopoly exploitation of her natural resources. This act alone, to my mind, has irreparable consequences for the entire world. It is time to protect Tibet's environment for the sake of this planet.


Avoiding a Confrontation With China

The Chinese government’s relentless assault on Tibet’s rivers poses a great risk to the downstream countries. Renowned geo-strategist Prof. Brahma Chellaney observed the impact of the decline in Tibet's environment on the whole world. He stated, "With its lofty terrain, featuring the world's tallest peaks and the largest concentration of glaciers and river heads, the Tibetan plateau influences atmospheric circulation – and therefore, climate and weather patterns – across the northern hemisphere." For instance, India's farmer population, which is between 100 million and 150 million, depends on agriculture. It’s needless to state how important and indispensable water is for them.

The unfathomable challenge was perfectly foreseen by Prof. Chellaney: “No country will be more affected by China’s dam frenzy than India because of one telling statistic: Out of the 718 billion cubic metres of surface water that flows out of Chinese-held territory yearly, 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3% of the total) runs directly into India. Several major Indian rivers originate in Tibet, including the Brahmaputra, the Kosi, the Sutlej and the Indus.” If China’s monopoly over Tibet’s rivers is not checked, it may lead to a huge crisis soon. However, this big challenge is never contested by the nations concerned.

Globally well-received climate activist Greta Thunberg categorically said that COP26 is a failure. The conference may not have met all goals and some of the burning issues might have been neglected, but the negligence of Tibet is the worst mistake they committed.

More surprisingly, the United Nations and the international community’s silence over the negligence of Tibet at COP26 prove that they don't want a confrontation with China.

A gentle reminder: His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentioned in a video message released two days before the COP26, "At least in Asia, Tibet is the ultimate source of water. All major rivers from Pakistan’s Indus River, India’s the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, China’s Yellow River, Vietnam’s Mekong River flow from Tibet. We should pay more attention to the preservation of Tibet’s ecology. This is not only in the interest of six-seven million Tibetans but whole people in the area."


Blocked Tweets

Being a strong advocate of climate change, His Holiness has always believed that climate and environment are transboundary issues that concern not just a particular nation but the entire world. So, it is hard to understand this negligence from leaders who believe they can save this planet. If they can't even raise a word about Tibet, let alone the consideration of its roles in combating the climate crisis, then it raises an important question – how can a collective community kowtow to a single nation, China?

More shockingly, all of my tweets relating to COP26 and Tibet have been shown as “sensitive content”. In an actual sense, those tweets were sensitive because they concern the whole world and believers in freedom. Unfortunately, those tweets have become too sensitive for the Chinese government. So, I strongly pity Twitter India for censoring my tweets. Twitter India must also know how China censors their company. In short, Twitter is banned in China. But on the contrary, Twitter allows Chinese diplomats to propagate their narratives. For instance, a new study by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, shows that “PRC [People’s Republic of China] diplomats and state-backed media outlets are highly active on Twitter, with 189 diplomatic accounts tweeting 201,382 times between 9 June 2020 and 23 February 2021, receiving nearly 7 million likes, 1.3 million retweets and commented on one million times.”


Tibet's Rivers as a Political Weapon

Let me be categorically clear that the more you ignore Tibet, the higher are the chances of the worsening of the climate crisis. Moreover, China is converting Tibet’s rivers into a political weapon. This manoeuvre may not yield results today, but it is a clear preparation for the contestation of hydropower soon. As some scholars aptly put it, “World War I was fought over lands. World War II was fought over oil. World War III will be fought over water.”

China has already begun damming on one of Tibet’s largest rivers — the Brahmaputra. It has been a lifeline for so many downstream countries. China doesn’t care about the international community’s concerns so long as they meet their ambitions. Hence, it is imperative to study the historical trajectory of China to avoid blunders in the future.

Next year, the COP27 will be held in Egypt. But history reminds us that the conference has become merely a customary practice to pretend that the world cares about this planet. Will the COP27 recognise the role of “The Third Pole” and “Water Tower of Asia”? This question may not have a clear answer, given the current scenario of global politics.

As long as the international community kowtows to China, the issue of Tibet and its role in combating the global climate crisis will never materialise.

Let us march forward with what former UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon said on the COP26: “The COP26 could not be more important, because the reality is we have been failing, we have been failing the world and we have been failing the most vulnerable communities living on the frontlines.”

We must remember that Tibet is one of the most vulnerable communities on the frontlines in this fight against the global climate crisis.

(Yeshi Dawa was the former Academic Administrator of the Institute of Leadership and Governance, MSU Baroda. He is currently an affiliated fellow at Tibet Policy Institute and Host at Tibet TV [Central Tibetan Administration's WebTV Station]. He tweets @yd_tweets. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Tibet    China   COP26 Summit 

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