Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon: China’s Bottled Water Industry Eyes The Tibetan Plateau

Via The Guardian, an article on how Tibet is encouraging companies to tap the Himalayan glaciers for premium drinking water, but the environmental stakes are high:

Bottled water
Qomolangma Glacier Water bottles water from a national reserve located 80 km from Everest Base Camp 

In the last two decades China has become the world’s largest bottled water consumer and a major producer. With per capita consumption 19% lower than global average, the market is expected to continue to grow.

Although it currently makes up a small proportion of China’s annual bottled water production, water from Tibet’s mountain glaciers is seen as the new point of growth for China’s booming bottled water industry.

The snow-capped peaks of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau are perceived as a pure source of water that can command a premium price from consumers concerned about water pollution in China. This has spurred a huge influx of companies hoping to cash in on the region’s water resources.

Tibet’s provincial government has encouraged the expansion with a 10-year plan to help grow the bottled water industry. The long-term ambition is to be producing 10m cubic metres of bottled water by 2025, although production at the beginning of this year was reportedly just 153,000 cubic metres.

In an effort to boost growth, the provincial government in Tibet had approved licenses for 28 companies to produce bottled water by the end of last year. Bottled water activities are also growing rapidly in neighbouring Xinjiang, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, with companies even bottling water straight from the tongues of rapidly melting glaciers.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 6.06.22 PM
A map showing the location of some of the major bottled water companies in the Tibetan region

The Everest range is also fair game. One company, Qomolangma Glacier Water, bottles water from a national reserve 80km from Everest base camp.

This is just the start of the rush to exploit the region’s water resources. Last year, Tibet’s provincial government signed 2.6bn yuan (£270m) deals with various investors, including the state-owned oil producer Sinopec and the Three Gorges Group, which owns in the world’s largest hydroelectric power station in Hubei province.

With the support of local government in Tibet and central government in Beijing, companies have moved fast. Since early 2015 Sinopec Group has sold glacier water bottled from Tibet in its 23,000 petrol stations and convenience stores across China.

What about the environment?

In recent years, the Chinese government has strengthened policies to conserve forests and natural protection zones. Its commitment to dealing with climate change also includes actions to protect its glaciers. However, the new expansion plans in Tibet, which include preferential tax rates, tax exemptions and low-interest loans, indicate that local policies appear to be misaligned.

The region is among the places most vulnerable to climate change. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau have already shrunk 15% over the past three decades. In the short term melting glaciers mean higher bottling potential but in the long term, rivers will dry up, with disastrous consequences downstream.

Bottled water
Tibet has begun a 10-year plan to help expand the bottled water industry.

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is not only an important source of water for China but also the source of 10 of Asia’s major rivers that flow on to South Asia. The region is also known as “the third pole” because it holds the largest stores of fresh water outside the north and south poles.

Any development could also have a major impact on the wider region’s water security. Aggressive plans to build an extra 124 gigawatts of hydropower on transboundary rivers in the region have already raised geopolitical tensions with countries downstream.

If the bottled water industry runs wild, this could lead to a new set of environmental problems. There are no environment impact assessments and the majority of companies haven’t released reports on water-source protection, pollution control, water efficiency or benefits for local people.

Companies that do disclose information, such as the Hong Kong-listed Tibet 5100, claim that the amount of water withdrawn from springs or glaciers is not enough to dry them up. However, is it ethical to withdraw any water from protected areas where glaciers are already shrinking and where the central government has invested billions of yuan in conserving the region for climate adaptation and mitigation?

Given the high costs of bottling and shipping glacier water to households and public facilities, as well as the high environmental costs involved, investors should start to rethink their strategies in Asia’s water tower.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 at 6:07 pm and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2022 Water Politics LLC.  'Water Politics', 'water. politics. life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.