Water Conservation on the Tibetan Plateau

Memo #112 (The second Memo from the Theme, Water, Scarcity, and Tibetan Plateau Frontiers)

By Jack Hayes – jhayes [at] norwich.edu

China’s most pressing water issues may not be its maritime claims in the South China Sea but matters of freshwater security. For many analysts, China’s domestic and international water security begins and ends with waters of the Tibetan Plateau. And the picture they paint is, to say the least, bleak. Unfortunately this ignores many grassroots and local water conservation efforts in western China.

Chinese scientists generally recognize that the scarce water resources in China are poorly managed, unsustainable, and often plagued by ineffective policies and weak institutional capacity. The central government is aware of this, and other water security and conservation issues. It is determined to transform China through policy and institutional reforms. Many of these reforms, however, like the impacts of large dams, climate change and melting glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, and downstream water quality and safety issues are sources of serious national and international tension.

More attention should be given to grassroots and local water conservation efforts that are promoting new approaches to maintaining sustainable and cleaner water reserves.

On the eastern Tibetan Plateau in northern Sichuan, joint Chinese-Tibetan NGO projects like Green Camel promote education, protection of local wetlands, and conservation of local water resources. Sichuan based Green River works with local communities and townships on the Yangtze and Min Rivers’ headwaters to survey and develop water quality improvement plans. On the Yellow River, Green Camel Bell developed water quality initiatives as well as agriculture and sewage monitoring in Gansu. Other Yellow River headwaters NGOs include the Sanjiangyuan Environmental Protection Association in Yushu, Qinghai, which studied eco-tourism development and water quality issues; the Altiplano Tribe works with college students and Tibetans on water sanitation and local conservation.

These are some local projects that have downstream implications. They function alongside national projects to protect and rehabilitate wetlands and mitigate desertification in and around nature reserves in Qinghai and Sichuan.

NGOs and local initiatives give hope for the future of the region’s water security and conservation. While such projects are unlikely to resolve international tensions over water diversion and sovereignty, in their own way they begin to address China’s domestic water issues on the Tibetan Plateau where institutional actions only raise international and domestic concerns.

Jack Hayes – Assistant Professor, Department of History and Political Science, Norwich University. Guest Editor for Theme: “Water, Scarcity, and the Frontiers on the Tibetan Plateau

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