Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon: China’s “Peaceful Development” Dream leads to Greater Internal and Foreign Anxiety about Water Security

Via Future Directions International, a report on how China’s “Peaceful Development” dream leads to greater internal and foreign Anxiety about water security:

Key Points

  • Beijing announced state-led development policies for its western regions in the early 2000s. It promised that they would create economic opportunities, improve political stability and enhance the living conditions of those regions.
  • Those policies have had mixed results, however, with concerns about degraded environmental conditions bringing new causes of internal civil unrest and further anxiety about water conditions in countries further downstream.
  • A water treaty between China and the countries with which it shares rivers would help to reduce mistrust and build mechanisms to deal with shared concerns about the health of Tibetan rivers.
  • There are lingering tensions between India and China over the status of Tibet, the sharing of water data and parts of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China refers to as “South Tibet”. These issues are likely to impede any effort on that front.


Water pollution is a major environmental concern across China, with 85 per cent of major urban waterways and about 80 per cent of tested groundwater affected. Most of that pollution is the result of rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and the haphazard application of agricultural additives. In resource-rich parts of the country, however, residents are more concerned about the long-term effects of mining. Anxiety about the health of rivers is also beginning to spread to neighbouring countries that share rivers with China, especially India. Forging water treaties with downstream countries like India could offer a means to alleviate the mistrust that is characteristic of water relations in the region.



The Tibetan Plateau encompasses the Tibet Autonomous Region, most of Qinghai province and parts of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. There are large deposits of oil, gas, copper, zinc, gold, iron, mercury and uranium on the Tibetan Plateau. Lithium is of particular interest and was found in vast quantities by Chinese geologists in the 1960s. Exploration work in the 1980s identified Zabuye Lake as having the world’s second-largest concentration of lithium, surpassed only by the salt flats of the Atacama Desert in South America. Estimates indicate that 90 per cent of China’s lithium reserves are located on the plateau.

Tibet is also the source of most of Asia’s major rivers. The headwaters of the Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, Salween, Sutlej, Irrawaddy and Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra rivers are all located in the region. Together they are vital sources of water for more than a billion people. While considerable attention has been focused on the effect that damsclimate change and large-scale water diversions could have on the flow of those rivers, comparatively little thought has been given to other developments that could disrupt Asian water security.

Prior to the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway from Xining to Lhasa in 2006, most of the mining operations in Tibet were on a small-scale. While the railway was constructed with considerable attention given to the minimisation of environmental harm, the opportunities it provides (such as easier access to cheap labour, increased tourism and the transportation of mineral resources) present other challenges that perhaps have not been adequately considered.

In 2000 Beijing launched the “Go West” strategy, which dovetailed with the “Peaceful Development” framework that it developed in the 1990s. These strategies reflect the belief that Chinese economic development is predicated on peaceful and stable domestic and international environments. They also suggest that the development of the Chinese economy and its society, particularly in its western regions, will support that peaceful and stable environment. President Xi Jinping even proclaimed that ‘development is the greatest form of security’.

That view has had mixed results. While Beijing might have hoped that economic development would bring greater stability to Tibet, it seems that it has failed to do so. Indeed, an argument could be made that it has exacerbated tensions. Tibetans now not only claim that Beijing is undermining Tibetan identity and suppressing cultural practices, but also that it is destroying the natural environment that underpins that identity and culture.

Western China is undoubtedly more connected domestically and internationally than it was in the 1990s. Living conditions have also improved, but Beijing has maintained peace and stability only through the threat or use of force. Its spending on domestic security has increased nationally since 2010 and has surpassed its spending on external defence. International unease about Chinese activity in the western provinces has also increased since the 1990s, particularly in countries that share borders and water resources with that region. A lack of public information about increased mining activity is a major cause of the suspicion, mistrust and anxiety among the people of western China and those countries that share Tibetan rivers, who fear that their water supplies will be compromised.

Chinese demand for battery resources, including lithium, cobalt and nickel, continues to rise. That has resulted in increased mining in the mineral-rich regions of China and growing investment in foreign mines, particularly in Africa. Since 2014, Chinese mining companies have: bought controlling interests in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (which has 60 per cent of the world’s known cobalt reserves); entered into partnerships with South Korean battery manufacturers; and invested in Australian lithium mines and processing facilities. There have been reports that funds are also flowing to state-owned mining companies, for the development of large mines in Tibet. Chinese demand for lithium is unlikely to be met through domestic production alone, hence the investment in foreign projects. Domestic production is likely to continue to rise, however, because the commodity is seen as a strategic resource.

Demand for battery resources is expected to continue to rise, partly due to the continued adoption of electric vehicles in China. Global sales of electric vehicles exceeded one million for the first time in 2017, with more than half of the total sold in China. Beijing announced a push towards the adoption of electric vehicles in the 13th Five Year Plan, which was released in 2016. Global demand for these vehicles is also expected to increase over the next decade. Several countries have announced their intention to enact laws that would ban the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines between 2025 and 2050. If those countries take the next step and begin to enact such legislation, the global demand for battery resources will increase. The widespread adoption of grid storage batteries could also fuel further demand.

The mining of lithium does not necessarily cause environmental harm. Processing the mined lithium, however, requires close environmental management, to prevent toxic chemicals from leaking into the water supply. Tailings ponds and dams also need to be well-constructed and maintained, to ensure that mine waste does not cause environmental harm. Ensuring that effective environmental safeguards are in place will help to reduce fears about the effects of mining in Tibet.

Various communities have accused Chinese mining interests of causing environmental damage, particularly since mining operations increased in the late 2000s. For example, large protests occurred in 2013 and 2016, around the Jiajika lithium mine in Sichuan province. Jiajika is the largest hard-rock deposit of lithium in Asia and has been mined since 2009. Protesters believe that the mine’s operations polluted the Liqi River, killing fish and yaks. They claimed that ‘the river became black, it stank, then we found dead yaks. They drank, they walked and then they collapsed afterwards. There were a lot of dead fish too’. The mine was closed in 2013, to allow an official investigation to occur; it concluded that pollution from the mine had caused the mass die-off of aquatic life. Protests took place again in May 2016, a month after the mine re-opened, when mass fish deaths had again occurred.

While the Liqi River does not directly flow into any of the major Asian rivers, other countries are beginning to voice concerns about the health of the Tibetan waterways that they share with China. Indian officials expressed worries after the Siang River (as the Brahmaputra is known in the state of Arunachal Pradesh) turned black in late 2017. Tests conducted by Indian scientists indicated that the water was unfit for human consumption; it contained elevated levels of suspended particles and iron. Beijing claimed that the conditions of the river were probably caused by an earthquake that struck south-eastern Tibet in mid-November, stating that it ‘might have led to the turbidity’ in the river waters. While China argues that it would not pollute its own river, that claim is unlikely to convince India, especially when Beijing admits to doing so in other parts of China.

There is a high level of mistrust between Beijing and New Delhi, particularly in relation to shared water issues. Neither party appears to be taking steps to rectify that. Beijing’s refusal to enter into a water treaty with India, or engage in a joint investigation of the causes of the river’s condition, only serves to fuel wild speculation about the causes of the unusual darkening of the water. For its part, however, India also refuses to share data about the flow of the Brahmaputra; treating it as classified under the Official Secrets Act. The Sino-Indian border between Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh remains a sensitive issue. An official Prime Ministerial visit by Narendra Modi was enough to draw complaint from Beijing, which stated that it ‘resolutely opposes’ the activities of Indian leaders in the region. It is unlikely that a water treaty will be forthcoming.

With oversight and sensitive environmental safeguards, mining need not pose a threat to the water security of the Tibetan Plateau and the rivers that flow from it. Those safeguards are unlikely to negate anxieties about the possible environmental effects of mining, both in Tibet and further afield in India. For that reason, Chinese development in its western provinces is likely to continue to fuel anxieties about water security.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 13th, 2019 at 11:07 am and is filed under China, Tibet.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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