Chinese folklore tells of a man named Yu the Great, who was said to have controlled the water that flows in the Yellow and Wei Rivers. Because of this, the Chinese say Da Yu Zhi Shui, or “Great Yu controls the waters.” For hundreds of years the Emperors of China regarded water as the principal resource of the country. China’s historical location between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers directly contributed to its population growth, and water has been a driving force behind China’s economy. However, in the past several years China has been facing a major water shortage, one that former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called “a threat to the survival of the Chinese nation.” As China’s population and economy have increased at unprecedented rates, mass consumption and pollution have led to a decreasing supply of clean and usable water. China is home to 20 percent of the global population, but only seven percent of its water.
That’s why, when in 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road Initiative, the necessity of foreign resources to meet China’s macroeconomic and strategic goals became clear. The Belt and Road Initiative aims to reorient China’s domestic capacity and capital towards new international projects. When it comes to hydropower and freshwater resources, China’s outward approach has brought investors to the Himalayas. Chinese investment in Himalayan water produces a dilemma common in contemporary development: whether a country ought to prioritize its own economic and domestic goals or prioritize sustainability and environmental protection. This question, regardless of how it’s answered, will have major implications for China and for South Asia.
The Himalayan region is home to the third largest river system in the world and is composed of three unique rivers: the Ganges River, the Brahmaputra River (or Yarlung Tsangpo in China), and the Meghna River (GBM). Altogether, the GBM river system exists within the borders of five countries- Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal- and supplies water to around 1.5 billion people. The GBM river system also has an average annual water flow of 1.35 trillion cubic meters, and is estimated to have about 200 thousand megawatts of hydropower potential. This immense supply of water and potential hydropower has attracted the interest of all five countries in the region, and can be considered an integral component of the economy of South Asia.
However, despite the huge economic potential, hydropower development has been relatively minimal due to an unfavourable investment environment and political uncertainties. China’s Belt and Road Initiative hopes to change this, and has prioritized Tibet and the northern region of South Asia as a part of the Himalayan Economic Rim. Through this strategy, China hopes to not only invest heavily in energy and transportation infrastructure, but also further integrate South Asia into Belt and Road. In May 2017, Nepal, which is geographically China’s principal entry into South Asia’s economic zone, entered into several binding agreements with China under the Belt and Road framework. China has plans to build well over one hundred dams in Tibet, Pakistan, and Nepal, pledging in May 2017 to invest 50 billion USD for several key hydropower infrastructure projects. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example, has committed to key hydropower projects in Pakistan. Other Chinese organizations that are getting involved include the Bank of China, providing project loans and foreign deposits, and the Three Gorges Corporation, aiding local developers.
With more than a quarter of its land classified as desert and large parts of its river system considered polluted, China’s pivot to the Himalayas is centered around meeting domestic demands. The proposed projects have two goals: first, to tap water from the Himalayan snow-melt and glaciers and transport it to China’s farmlands and industrial regions, and second, to generate electricity and supplement China’s current electric grid in order to sustain and expand its continued economic growth.
With more than 400 hydropower projects in planning or under construction, the effect of human-environment interaction in the Himalayas could have far reaching effects on the region’s climate and biodiversity. China is already considered a water stressed country, and scientific reports convey concern that massive investments in Himalayan hydropower would only exacerbate the water crisis. In 2008, the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, a unit of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, reported that the area and mass of Himalayan glaciers had decreased seven percent over the last four decades as a result of changes in the region’s climate. Various climate models suggest that the water flow from Himalayan glaciers could decline by ten to twenty percent by 2050, which would have major implications for the populations that live along the GBM River system. In fact, government scientists in Bangladesh estimate that even a ten percent reduction in water flows would have far-reaching impacts on up to 50 million Bangladeshis, mostly farmers who depend on the water for agriculture and consumption.
Despite the warning signs, it appears that the countries involved in Himalayan development have not taken the necessary steps to address the decline in glaciers and reduction of water flows. Despite their 2008 report, the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research offered no recommendation for reversing the trend or better managing the issue, and China has thus far done little to address the decline of Himalayan glaciers. The changing climate of the Himalayas poses a conundrum where investment in renewable energy sources like hydropower actually further perpetuates environmental degradation.There are two key reasons that governments have thus far shown no signs of stopping their projects.
First, the total scientific literature on Himalayan water is not extensive, and so governments are not adequately confronted on the environmental impacts they are indirectly perpetuating. Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, states that “[they] do not have credible environmental and social impact assessments, [they] have no environmental compliance system, no cumulative impact assessment and no carrying capacity studies.” Because there is a limited amount of research on the human and ecological impact of projects like dams, there is no coordinated effort to regulate the activities of governments, which could increase the probability of ecological devastation, ranging from floods to earthquakes.
Second, the governments of India, China, and other countries have thus far been motivated by economic and security concerns, and so have put environmental concerns to the side. Mallika Bhanot, a member of the environmental activist group Ganga Avahan, laments that the “government is not keen to review the dam policy” because it has no real incentive to halt projects that could lead to economic growth and development. According to Tashi Tsering, a water resource researcher at the University of British Columbia, the governments of India and China have displaced tens of millions of people over several decades, and have thus far been unresponsive to the concerns of scientists and people who oppose Himalayan development. All of this makes the Himalayan region, considered a biodiversity hotspot, especially susceptible to ecological and climate change.
Neither a person nor a country can survive without water, and this has proven to be especially true for China. As levels of water stress have increased in the country over the last few years, its increasing demand for water has brought its investment machine known as the Belt and Road Initiative to the Himalayas. The GBM River system is vital to the economic sustenance of every major country in the Himalayan region, and as China ramps up its political-economic development of South Asia, it will put into perspective the economic and environmental consequences of Chinese presence in the region. China will be better equipped to meet its domestic demand and harness new sources of electricity, but environmental concerns will continue to grow as China’s current ineffectiveness and unwillingness to address declining Himalayan water will exacerbate the rate of long-term ecological damage. Overall, Chinese development will remain a defining feature of the political economy of the Himalayas, and at its current trajectory will profoundly shape the political, economic, and environmental landscape of the region for decades to come.