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Tibet in Crisis; Asia’s Water Tower at Risk
Entwined with the self-immolations in Tibet lies the hidden story of China’s exploitation of Tibet’s lands and water

Saturday, Apr 7, 2012
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When Chinese Premiere Hu Jintao flew into New Delhi on March 28, 2012, for the BRIC Summit, he careened onto unfamiliar terrain: a democracy with a free press, where a 27 year old Tibetan refugee, Jamphel Yeshi, walked to a public protest, poured kerosene over his body and lit himself on fire whilst shouting for an end to Chinese atrocities in Tibet. The searing images from India of Jampa Yeshi’s burning body exposed to the world the cost of China’s reign of terror in Tibet, which has been well concealed for 61 years.

To date, at least 33 people inside Tibet have alighted themselves on fire, in public, in defiance of Chinese Communist assaults on their Buddhist faith, but there are no journalists or diplomats to bear witness to the carnage, only raw video that reaches the internet.

There is another potent source of this explosion of Tibetan outrage, which receives negligible international coverage; the covert history of China’s rape and pillage of Tibet’s ancestral lands and waters.  In Asian folklore Tibet is known as “The Western Treasure House, its people have for millennia been careful stewards of this bounteous terrain.  Tibet’s blessing, its remote plateau, is now its curse: China controls the “Third Pole” with an iron fist and there is no one to stop them.

The elemental facts about Tibet are not widely known, yet any map of the Tibetan Plateau reveals the enormous resource and strategic advantage gained by its capture. Tibet is a unique geomorphic entity, its 46,000 glaciers comprise the Earth’s third largest ice mass. This “Third Pole” is a vital component of the planet’s ecosystem, filled with pristine riches of wildlife, minerals, timber and above all, water; Tibet is the fount of the Yangtze, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Chenab, Sutlej, Salween and Mekong, which flow through 11 nations, nourishing three billion people from Peshawar to Beijing. Today, all but one Asia’s great rivers – the Ganges – is controlled at its Tibetan headwaters by the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2000 China launched a vast development project entitled “Xi bu dai fa”, the “Opening and development of the Western Regions” of Xinjiang and Tibet, which together comprise one half of China’s land mass. A massive influx of Chinese settlers, urbanization and forced relocation of nomads swiftly followed. The Xizang railway, which opened in 2006, transports Tibet’s vast supplies of minerals, stone and lumber to the mainland and brings in a flood of Chinese engineers and laborers who have built at least 160 hydro dams across Tibet and have plans for hundreds more.

Chinese engineers now operate multiple dams and mines all across Tibet, polluting the rivers at their source – you can see all of this on Google Earth. The Chinese government dismisses concerns of its own scientists and those of neighboring states, alarmed by a sudden decline in water levels and fisheries. In the 1990’s China refused to sign the UN treaty on transboundary rivers, increased militarization of the Tibetan Plateau and denies journalists and international observers access to the troubled region. Author Michael Buckley who captured rare footage of dam construction in his film “Meltdown in Tibet” observes; “China doesn’t have to listen to anyone on this. China has Tibet, so China has all the cards.” (For Mr. Buckley’s videos and archives visit

When recently asked about the crisis in Tibet, Chinese official media stated: “The Dalai Lama remind us of the uncontrolled and cruel Nazi during the second world war … How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jewish!” Many diplomats and journalists are puzzled by China’s obsessive demonization of the Dalai Lama, the distinguished Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, but the Politburo’s Stalinoid hysteria works, squelching any and all rational discussion of China’s exploitation of Tibet’s resources, and subverting attention away from how Chinese mines and dams have created a looming environmental catastrophe on the world’s most populous continent.

NASA Satellite Photograph of the Tibetan Plateau

The preservation and management of Tibet’s glaciers and the rivers they sustain is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Tibet’s waters flow through eleven countries, where population growth and industrial development is projected to double within 50 years. The combined effects of rapid development, desertification and water scarcity  has already created extreme cycles of droughts and floods, food shortages and pandemics. The Chinese mainland is also imperiled: in April 2011, Yangtze River water flows were at their lowest level in record. Yet despite irrefutable evidence of the dangers of over-exploiting Tibet’s water resources, the Chinese government will not modify or downscale plans for dams, tunnels, railroads and highways across the Tibetan plateau.

Since Chairman Mao invaded Tibet in 1951, China has administered a huge military infrastructure across the Tibetan Plateau, which gives China a continuous border with Thailand, Burma, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan, and is now filled with military airfields and PLA battalions. In the coming age of “water wars”, China has a firm hand on the water tower of Asia.

China’s insists that Tibet is “an internal affair of the state” and for decades the world has turned away in uncomfortable silence as the slaughter of a helpless civilian populace continues without impediment or penalty. The Chinese Communist party has for 61 years controlled the narrative, but to ignore Tibet is to misread how the Chinese occupation intensifies environmental, economic and military instability in Asia and the world.

Tsetan, a Tibetan journalist based in Delhi, says; “For years we have protested the desecration of our culture, the yoking of our rives and the mining of our sacred mountains, but China will not listen: they shoot us, torture us, and there is no one to stop them. Now people inside Tibet are driven to burning their bodies to get the world to understand what China is doing to Tibet, and the world had better wake up before it’s too late.”

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