Presentation by Gabriel Lafitte to “River waters: Perspectives and Challenges for Asia” conference of the Foundation for Nonviolent Alternatives, India International centre, Delhi, November 2011 +613 59623434

ABSTRACT: Potent new metaphors are forming in the ice above India: the third pole, the water tower of Asia, the engine of the monsoon, mother of all rivers of Asia. Like the classic metaphors of Gangotri and Kailash, realms of gods guaranteeing the icy purity of the waters of India, they conjure an image of Tibet as the protector of the whole of Asia, from the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan to the mouth of the Yellow River below Beijing.

Yet these increasingly common metaphors are increasingly literalised as objective scientific truth, restricting the gaze of the billions downstream to the pure realm of the glaciers. What is missing from this rhetoric of water sources is the watershed that is the Tibetan Plateau, its six million Tibetan people and five million recent Chinese immigrant settlers. The great rivers of Asia follow thousands of kilometres winding their way across the rangelands of Tibet, across an area the size of western Europe, before they descend to the lowlands of South, Southeast and East Asia.

On these degrading rangelands an epic drama is rapidly unfolding: India should sit up and pay heed. Millions of Tibetan pastoral nomads are being herded off their lands, in the name of scientific necessity, leaving these watersheds prey to illegal gold hunters who pollute the streams with cyanide and mercury. China says the degrading rangelands are to be blamed on ignorant, selfish, careless nomads who recklessly overgraze, heedless of the consequences. Yet the Tibetan Plateau was managed sustainably by Tibetan nomads for almost 9000 years. The grand narrative of Tibet as upstream guardian of India is important, but so too is close attention to ground truths, of nomad dispossession, internal displacement, loss of environmental services and the socially engineered ending of skilful nomadic use of the entire Tibetan Plateau.

THE REACH OF THE STATE INTO THE MOUNTAINS: On both sides of the Himalayas a boom is about to occur. After so many centuries as a barrier, rampart and abode of deities, the Himalayas are about to be repurposed. Until now the modern nation-state has seen the great wall of rock in military security terms, as a natural border separating the greatest of Asian powers. While the mountain chain inexorably pushes upwards, India and China interminably push sideways at each other, with no resolution in sight to claim and counterclaim; likewise the contested border between India and Pakistan which currently sits as a fictive line traversing a glacier.

As a result, it is only the military arm of modernity that reaches into the Himalayas, even right up to the snow peaks where signals intelligence interception devices are planted. The reach of the state seldom extends to build health clinics or schools for the many mountain villagers, who, in the distant capital cities, are depicted as simple and backward tribes. But the state penetrates the high passes with roads, bulldozers, helipads and forward bases, in readiness for the enemy.

Now this is about to change, especially in the eastern Himalayas, the wetter end, where hydrodamming is about to seal the steep valleys with concrete, driven by an engineering dream of feeding electricity to those far distant cities that classify mountain folk as simpletons.

A new phrase captures this new imaginary: the water tower of Asia. Both the Himalayas and the entire Tibetan Plateau are now the water tower that never runs dry, forever supplying water and soon hydropower to all below. So captivating is this new metaphor, there are serious engineering plans for electricity from the edges of the Tibetan Plateau to power factories from Kolkata to Guangzhou and Shanghai. And there are plans for these waters to be diverted overland as far as Beijing and Tianjin. India has similarly bold plans. With an installed capacity of 5,175MW, National Hydropower Corporation (NHPC) has lined up 16 projects for the 12th five-year plan, aggregating to a capacity of 14,000MW.

A HISTORY OF THE MODERN FACT IN THE HIMALAYAS: There is something quite magical about this new “water tower” metaphor, which is in such common usage it has now become a naturalised well known, self-evident fact that is literally true and thus no longer a metaphor. The magic is that no matter how much water is taken or impounded, the water tower is always full. This magical water tower inevitably and invariably produces water of utter purity, and it flows year-round, not just during the summer monsoon. Truly it is magical.

For the water-hungry cities far downstream, from Chongqing, Wuhan and Shanghai to Dhaka and Islamabad, it is best not to look too closely at how downstream connects with upstream. What matters is the snow peaks and their shimmering glaciers. The intervening terrain is of little interest.

Yet that terrain is the vast expanse of the thousand plateaus of Tibet, the land surrounded by mountains, to use a classic Tibetan self-definition. Those thousands of plateaus are the grasslands, which the great rivers of Asia traverse, for thousands of kilometres, before they leave Tibet and descend steeply to tempt the dam builders. Although Indian civilisation has long venerated not only Gangotri but also Kailash as magical sources of pure waters, the intervening tracts before the rivers beginning there descend to the lowlands, are a matter of indifference.

REDRESSING THE GRASSLAND LACUNA: The reality is that the water tower dispenses its waters through great rivers spreading in all directions from Kailash, traversing great distances through the grasslands of the high plateau. It is those grasslands, and the people of the grasslands, we have ignored, and taken for granted. Now we must refocus, because the grasslands and their people are in crisis.

According to the archaeologists, the vast grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau have been occupied by nomadic pastoralists for nine thousand years. Nine millennia of actively shaping and curating the land, extending the grassed slopes, controlling the extent of forest, managing the herds, skilfully handling the risks of blizzards and gales, suggest we are not looking simply at a natural landscape. The human presence of herd managers and land managers has profoundly shaped the plateau, contrary to our magical desire that nothing come between glacier and urban tap.

For 9000 years the supposedly backward Tibetan nomads delivered environmental services to populations downstream, from the mouth of the Yellow River on the Bohai Sea facing Korea to the mouth of the Indus and the Arabian Sea. Long before their daily practices were conceptualised as provision of environmental services, as current terminology has it, they kept the grasses growing, the herds moving, the waters clear and unimpeded, the entire cycle sustainable, the magic flowing. Knowing when and how to maintain mobility was the key. They built an entire mobile civilisation, even a mobile kingly court, a tent city that could materialise on a remote grassland and be gone the next day. If there is magic to be found it is here: in managing to generate sustainable livelihoods and sustainable environmental services through staying true to mobility.

That achievement remains invisible to the modern nation-state, which sees the nomads of Tibet as slaves to nature, leading lives little better than animals, forced to wander in search of grass, at the mercy of the elements. Civilised people, the Chinese say, bring grass to the animals in their pens; only the uncivilised wander with their animals. India, with its elaborate system of scheduled castes and tribes, sees the Himalayan herders similarly.

The contemporary nation-state demands two things of highlanders: sustainable productivity and sustainable delivery of environmental services to the lowlands. Sustainable productivity these days means more than subsistence self-sufficiency. It means producing surpluses to be traded commercially in the lowland markets, so the highlanders enter modernity, enter development, and learn to become citizens, with the nation-state as their primary identity. Sustainable delivery of environmental services means highlanders should not deforest hill slopes, or hunt wild animals too much, or overgraze and set off degradation and landslides which interfere with the flow of pure waters.

With very little evidence –scientific, social scientific or economic- urban governing elites have readily assumed the primitive highlanders fail on all counts. The primitive pahari cut the forests, keep too many animals, plunder the wildlife and cause degradation, and the floods that lowlanders are subjected to. National elites, in Kathmandu and Delhi, Beijing and Rangoon, have presumed the highlanders are both unproductive and unsustainable, despite the lack of data or dialogue.

China is an extreme instance. An official slogan says: there is a contradiction between grass and animals. The more grazing animals eat, the less grass there is observable above ground. The fewer the animals, the more the grass. Thus the contradiction, the starting point for a classic Marxist dialectic which can end only by removing both the herds and their herders in order to grow more grasss to protect the water supply as it makes its way across the degrading grassland from the magical water tower to the urbanised lowlands.

China refuses accept that the mobility of the herders for 9000 years maintained a balance between grass and animals. China’s starting point is that the rangelands are degrading, as indeed they are, to the great distress of the nomadic pastoralists of Tibet, who lost decision-making power over their land and animals sixty years ago. China refuses to consider that degradation began, and has persisted uncontrollably since, when cadres sent to the grasslands demanded greater productivity, bigger herds, less mobility and greater meat production for troops and immigrant settlers in new towns and cities built on the grasslands.

Blame lies squarely with the primitive herders who, it is alleged, graze their animals on common land that belongs to no-one, heedless of the consequences. The herders are self-evidently greedy, careless and stupid. The only solution is to remove them and their animals, and this is now being done, on a large scale throughout Tibet.

Hardly a word is said in public about this emptying of the plateaus of Tibet, and the concentration of exnomads populations in concrete camps on the edges of towns, forbidden in many areas to own any animals at all. This internal displacement is on a huge scale, depopulating the Tibetan countryside in the name of growing more grass, as if an ungrazed grassland is somehow a natural wilderness. This is said to be an objectively necessary policy driven by science. But the Chinese scientists who measure degradation never speak to Tibetan nomads, regarding them with disdain. Their scientific measurements are often done by satellite imagery from hundreds of kilometres above the sky. Now a land of 2.5 million sq kms, is being emptied, the former pastures are overrun with invasive and toxic weeds, and shrubs replace grasses, while medicinal plants disappear.

No attempt has been made to rehabilitate degrading rangelands. China has not provided funds to buy seeds and resow the bare earth, or employ nomads to do the work of reforestation and rangeland repair. China has turned to what should be the very last resort, of wholesale removals when all else has failed, as its first resort.
Officially, the resettled nomads, without livelihoods or retraining, are “ecological migrants” who have voluntarily sacrificed a lifeworld of the past 9000 years, for the national good, to maintain Tibet as China’s number one water tower, to quote another official phrase.

Does the policy of tuimu huancao (closing pastures and removing animals to grow more grass) achieve its goal of protecting the water tower? Emptied lands seldom stay empty. Poor immigrant Chinese gold miners are moving onto the vacated pasture lands, all over Tibet. They are poor men, with only flasks of cyanide and mercury, both highly toxic, to capture flecks of gold in the stream beds. They work the streams illegally but persistently; even, if they can afford it, bringing in dredges that churn over stream beds, destroying aquatic life. Is this the way to protect the water tower?

INDUSTRIALISATION OF THE TIBETAN PLATEAU: On top of these small scale but destructive intrusions, China’s current 12th Five-Year Plan features intensive industrialisation of the Tibetan Plateau, as never before. New mines, ore concentrators and smelters are planned close to rivers which already, naturally, carry a considerable load of metals and other toxins since the river beds dissect a young land full of raw minerals formed by the collision of India with Eurasia. Many new dams are planned on the major rivers rushing down from the plateau, mostly for the electricity needed for the new mining and smelting towns, and for long distance transmission, along ultra high voltage lines, to the world’s factory on China’s coast. The Tibetan economy is to be integrated, as a raw materials provider, for the booming Chongqing-Chengdu manufacturing hub, the new capital of western China. It may even be that china will build a series of dams to capture the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, the many upper reaches of the Yangtze and the Mekong, to channelize huge amounts of water to the parched Yellow River. There is no sign that China is ready to go ahead with this plan yet, but it is under active discussion, and China officially committed to it a decade ago when it announced three routes to transfer water from south to north. The first two, in lowland China, will be completed by 2014. The third route, across eastern Tibet, would take a substantial portion of the annual flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo, depriving India and Bangladesh.

These major infrastructure projects add up to a serious assault on the pristine water tower. Add to this the impacts of climate change, itself caused by industrialisation and the total dependence of industry on fossil fuels, and we have a water tower in trouble. Everyone knows the glaciers are shrinking, and have not had sufficient rain or snowfall to recharge since the middle of last century. What is less well known is how climate change impacts on the grasslands, those thousands of kms of rivers traversing the pasturelands before they descend to South, Southeast and East Asia, watering everyone from Beijing to Sindh. Our gaze has been transfixed by imagery of disappearing glaciers, but we have failed to notice the shrinking of permafrost across the high plateau, the drying of the wetlands as early spring warming melts the ice in the earth, draining away stored water before the roots of wetland plants can reach down to drink.

China says it wants to be a good global citizen, not an arrogant superpower indifferent to its neighbours. Yet China does not accept membership of the intergovernmental agency intended to regulate the most international of Tibetan rivers: the Mekong River Commission. China, like many upstream countries, insists on bilateral negotiations, in which it has the upper hand.

In Delhi and Beijing, as well as Dhaka, Islamabad, Hanoi and Vientiane the metaphor of Tibet as Asia’s water tower grows ever stronger, a remarkable attribution for one of the more arid inland upland sectors of inner Asia. In all these capitals whose national lifeblood is the waters of Tibet, the official gaze turns apprehensively up to the melting glaciers, yet somehow misses the emptied grasslands, the immobilised nomads, and the degraded pastures no-one has seriously tried to rehabilitate.


The Tibetan Plateau is the size of India’s eight biggest states combined. It is so big and high, a vast island in the sky, it bends the upper atmospheric jetstream around it. The intense cold of Tibet in winter, followed by the quick and intense warming of the plateau in spring, drive the Indian monsoon. The best predictor of whether the coming monsoon will be strong or weak, early or late, is the amount of snow cover in Tibet in later winter and early spring. The greater the snow cover, the more sunlight is reflected back into space, the less is the heating of bare dark rock above the treeline, which makes for a weak, even a failing monsoon. This is a quite recent discovery by meteorologists of the teleconnections linking the fates of India and Tibet.

What power is capable of pulling through the sky all those billions of tons of water floating in clouds forming over the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, drawing them in across India? It is the power of the intense low pressure over Tibet in spring and summer.

Not only is India downstream from Tibet, dependent on Tibetan water for life, India relies even more on Tibet as the engine of the monsoon. We already know that due to climate change, the monsoon is becoming more extreme, more erratic and unpredictable.

If the industrialisation of Tibet, and the exclusion of the nomads, gets to a point where the Tibetan Plateau’s capacity to regulate the monsoon is compromised, India will bear the brunt. It only takes an unseasonal snowfall across Tibet in late winter or early spring to reflect the heat of the returning sun back into space, leaving Tibet exceptionally cold, slow to heat and thus slow to draw the monsoon clouds inland.
We are all more interconnected than we notice. Tibet and India are one fused land, sharing a common destiny. India is now realising that the fate of Tibet is also the fate of India. Buddhists of both India and Tibet have always called this pratityasamutpada: interdependence, a fundamental principle of ecology known in India thousands of years before the science of ecology.