In the extensive media coverage of the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the accepted source of conflict between Chinese police and Tibetan protesters has been competing claims of nationalism and self-determination. But a number of experts now say that control and management of a vital resource—Tibet's vast supply of freshwater—is also central to this increasingly tense political and cultural relationship.
In its glaciers and alpine lakes, the Tibetan Plateau stores more freshwater than any place on earth, except the North and South poles. The region serves as the headwaters for many of Asia’s largest rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Indus, and Sutlej. Almost half of the world's population lives in the watersheds of these rivers.
In contrast, with more than a quarter of its land classified as desert, China is one of the planet's most arid regions. Beijing is besieged each spring by raging dust storms born in Mongolia, where hundreds of square miles of grasslands are turning to desert each year. In other parts of the nation, rivers are either too polluted or too filled with silt to provide all of China's 1.3 billion people with adequate supplies of freshwater.
Because of water stress, accessing and controlling Tibet's freshwater resources has become an increasingly crucial element in China's political and cultural relationship with Tibet.
However, recent studies have documented a host of serious environmental challenges to the quantity and quality of Tibet's freshwater reserves. Deforestation has led to large-scale erosion and siltation. Mining and manufacturing are producing record levels of air and water pollution in Tibet.
Most important, the region's warming climate is causing glaciers to recede at a rate faster than anywhere else in the world—in some regions of Tibet by three feet per year, according to a May 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The quickening melting and evaporation are raising serious concerns about the future of Tibet's water resources.
The prospect of future water scarcity can only add to the regions volatility.