China will run out of water

Water war in the high mountains

The nine longest rivers in Asia have their source on Chinese territory in the Himalayas. The Brahmaputra flows to Bangladesh, the Mekong to Vietnam, the Indus through the extreme north of India and Pakistan. 1.3 billion people live along the rivers. Some conflicts in the Himalayas are currently boiling up again, especially that between India and China. How important are the mountains for South and Southeast Asia?
Historically, this area is very important: the Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Red River all originate from the Tibetan Plateau. For the mountainous regions of South and Southeast Asia, they were what the highways are today. Goods, people and ideas were transported across the water in the mountainous continental Southeast Asia.

And today?
Much of the conflict in this area revolves around water. There are two aspects to this: on the one hand, it is about water in concrete terms, i.e. the material to be drunk, to be used for irrigation. On the other hand, it is about energy generation. The problem with damming the rivers is that both the ecosystem is changing and the total amount of water downstream is decreasing. Neighboring states and the people who are settled downstream have to accept losses if a state generates energy further upstream. China does both, it takes water from the rivers and builds dams.

At least ten in the past ten years alone. How important is energy generation through dams for China?
Overall, China is more of a dry area, there aren't that many rivers outside of the Himalayas. And since those who are there still have to be largely navigable, the Tibetan Plateau is extremely important for Chinese energy production in terms of hydropower.

How are the neighboring countries reacting to the dams in China?
For the respective state power there is only the problem of sovereignty and the interference with the options for action by Chinese politics. To what extent the states also take care of the people is another question.

However, people everywhere are suffering from the massive decline in the amount of water. Bangladesh, for example, only exists through the Brahmaputra and without its water would only be able to feed a fraction of the population. The river previously flows through Assam in northeast India. The enormously fertile valley, 1000 by 50 to 200 kilometers in size, could probably feed all of India from its potential. These two areas suffer tremendously from the decline in water. Experts assume that due to the water abstraction and the dams on the Chinese side, the river carries up to 50 percent less water than it did ten or 20 years ago. This means the destruction of livelihoods for people along the Brahmaputra. It is similar, if not quite as bad, along the other rivers.

There are many border disputes about the Himalaya Mountains, such as between India and Nepal or India and China. How is this about control over water?
In the case of China and India, that is perhaps the main reason. I myself traveled up to China for the Brahmaputra. With the exception of Assam, the whole of Northeast India is poorly developed, there are actually only dirt roads as roads. The only exception is the road that leads to the border at the exact point where the main tributary of the Brahmaputra crosses the border - at an altitude of over 5000 meters. The Indian military was stationed along this road. China has also built a railway line to the border. The infrastructure only serves the military. Since there is nothing else to argue about in this area, the water remains. It is true that in the past 15 years a huge natural gas field that extends as far as Myanmar and that everyone wants to develop has become a sideline. But the main focus of the conflict remains the Brahmaputra.

In the Mekong River Commission, the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand coordinate to manage their shared water resources. How well do agreements between neighboring countries and China work?
The Mekong is central to the whole of mainland Southeast Asia, for these four countries it is practically the lifeline. Since these countries work together with China, the conflicts along the Mekong are not quite as extreme as, for example, with Brahmaputra. In the case of the Indus, things are a little different again, because Pakistan has become very dependent on China and can hardly protest against Beijing's interests. It is similar with the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. With regard to the Red River in Vietnam, there are always disputes between Vietnam and China, although the two countries have come closer together over the past ten years.

After the very dry spring of 2016, Vietnam and Cambodia asked China to channel more water into the Mekong. China complied with the request - doesn't that make the dependence on China clear?
This is a difficult question because the dependency exists on many levels, not just on the flow. The more powerful side must not overuse its advantages, the Chinese leadership is aware of this. It tries to accommodate the weaker states because it wants their benevolence. The Mekong is in really bad shape, because not only China is building dams, but Laos too. In the area around Vientiane downstream you can see that the Mekong has almost no water in the dry season. Allegedly, but I'm by no means an expert, the ecosystem is suffering badly.

With its huge freshwater reserves, the Himalayas are considered the third pole of the earth, and the glaciers there are suffering from climate change. What does this mean for the rivers that arise there?
I have spoken to a great many people who live in this region and without exception they all say that they are feeling climate change and that dry spells are increasing and becoming more problematic. At the same time, heavy rain increases with floods, but these cannot compensate for the dry phases because the water runs off.

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