Posted by: Jason | December 11, 2009

International Conflict and Tibet’s Water

One of the topics I mentioned in my talk at the Geochemistry Institute was a Chinese plan to divert water from rivers like the Indus and the Brahmaputra (international rivers that have their headwaters in Tibet) into the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers.  It’s called the Great Western Route, and it’s the third of a three-stage canal project by the Chinese government (the first, and only so far, is the Grand Canal, which diverts water from the Yangtze 1100 miles north, to Beijing).  Politically, I have no doubt it would be a disaster, and I’m fascinated by the implications for conflict in South and Southeast Asia.

There’s a book about the Great Western Route I’ve been looking for on this trip – translated, it’s titled Water From Tibet Will Save China. It’s a report by the Ministry of Water Resources, and it’s only distributed here (and not online – that would have made the search too simple).  I read about it in 2007, in this NYT article about water conflict in Asia, so this is a two-and-a-half year search –

Having extensively contaminated its own major rivers through unbridled industrialization, China now threatens the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia in its bid to meet its thirst for water and energy.

The idea of a Great South-North Water Transfer Project diverting river Tibetan waters has the backing of President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist. The first phase of this project calls for building 300 kilometers of tunnels and channels to draw waters from the Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu rivers, on the eastern rim of the Tibetan plateau.

In the second phase, the Brahmaputra waters may be rerouted northward, in what be tantamount to the declaration of water war on lower-riparian India and Bangladesh. In fact, Beijing has identified the bend where the Brahmaputra forms the world’s longest and deepest canyon just before entering India as holding the largest untapped reserves for meeting its water and energy needs.

The future of the Tibetan plateau’s water reserves is tied to ecological conservation. As China’s hunger for primary commodities has grown, so too has its exploitation of Tibet’s resources.

And as water woes have intensified in several major Chinese cities, a group of ex-officials have championed the northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra waters in a book titled, “Tibet’s Waters Will Save China.”

This article, from, is a good summary of the report’s origins and history (it’s also the hard copy I’ve been carrying everywhere, so I can show people the title in Mandarin)

With its estimated investment of over 200 billion yuan (US$25.1 billion), the Great Western Route project is revealed in great detail in Save China Through Water From Tibet, a book published by Li Ling in November 2005, after having worked on it for 17 years. The book met with immediate success, with 10,000 copies having been ordered by various central government ministries and commissions, among which the Ministry of Water Resources alone bought 100 copies at a time.

Since it’s a government report, it’s not the kind of book that’s sold in bookstores, so I’ve been asking everyone we meet whether they can help me find a copy.   If you ask the students from Lawrence, I was getting a little desperate – maybe verging on pathetic.  They’ve started laughing and rolling their eyes (good-naturedly, I assume) when I say, “Do you mind if I ask you a quick question?  There’s this book…”  because they know I’m fighting a lost battle.  I even put a photo of the cover in my presentation at the Geochemistry Institute, and told the 40 Chinese faculty and grad students about my hunt.

And one of them came through!  He had a digital copy on his laptop!  Success!! All of the Lawrence students who laughed at my desperation are hereby invited to apologize for doubting my resourcefulness.  Well, not so much “resourcefulness” as “stubborn willingness to keep asking, even when it’s pretty clear no one has any idea what I’m talking about”.  But they’re invited to apologize nevertheless.

Unfortunately, the report is written in Mandarin and, to my knowledge, has never been translated into English.  That means my next step is to find a Lawrence student who speaks the language, has an interest in international environmental politics, and wants to do a senior project or an independent study.  “Professor Brozek, you are a scholar and a gentleman, and only my own failure to acknowledge your dedication kept me from believing you would be successful.  Please accept my deepest apologies, and also this venti caramel latte,” would be a good start, if you’re a student looking to apologize for giggling at my quest.


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