World Water Day & Tibet

In 2010, I completed independent undergraduate research in Ladakh and Tibet on the environmental issues currently plaguing the Tibetan plateau. In honor of World Water Day, I have included an edited excerpt of my work below. Please note, citations have been removed from the text but have been mentioned below. 

Snow peaks, glaciers, and glacial lakes have earned Tibet the nickname the “Water Tower of Asia,” given that it is the leading supplier of water in the region. Home to several thousand lakes, the headwaters of nine of Asia’s major rivers, and one-sixth of the world’s glaciers, water is the plateau’s most vital resource. It supplies nearly half of the world’s population with fresh water, or 85% of the population of Asia. In short, what happens to Tibet’s environment will directly impact half of the world, and indirectly effect the other half—a fact that should not be overlooked on World Water Day.

Nine of Asia’s major rivers originate in Tibet―the Brahmaputra (Tib: Yarlung Tsangpo), Indus (Sengay Khabab), Sutlej (Langchen Khabab), Yangtze (Drichu), Mekong (Zachu), Ganges, Yellow (Machu), Salween (Gyalmo Ngulchu), and Irrawaddy Rivers—and branch across borders into nine countries.

The Yarlung Tsangpo originates in western Tibet and flows east, bordering Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, on the south, and providing the city with fresh water. From there it runs further east, banking south into India, where it becomes the Brahmaputra River and flows into Bangladesh to meet the Ganges, finally emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The Indus and Sutlej Rivers flow west into northern India and Pakistan; the source of the Ganges River in India is on the edge of the plateau. The headwaters of the Mekong River originate on the plateau, and the river runs through China to the borders of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, then flowing into Laos and south to Cambodia and Vietnam. The Irrawaddy runs through Burma, and the Salween also runs to Burma and Thailand. The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers flow exclusively into China.

In China alone, over three hundred million people depend on water from the Tibetan plateau. The Yangtze River Basin, fed by the Yangtze River, accounts for 40% of China’s freshwater resources, 70% of the country’s rice production, 50% of grain production, over 70% of fishery production, and 40% of the Gross Domestic Product. In recent years, the Yellow River has failed to reach the Yellow Sea off of China’s coast, and the Yangtze sank to its lowest level in eighty years in 2006. In 2007, The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) identified the top ten rivers facing great risks, with four of those originating in Tibet―the Indus, Yangtze, Salween, and Mekong. Damming of rivers (see the controversial Three Gorges Dam), over-fishing, pollution, and climate change are various factors endangering these four rivers. According to the WWF, glaciers on the Tibetan plateau—which reach into China, India, and Nepal—are receding at an average rate of 10-15 meters per year.

In addition, the stability of the Tibetan plateau directly affects the Indian monsoons, which supplies upwards of 70% of India’s annual rainfall. While the plateau heats up in the spring and summer, air pressure attracts moist air from the Indian Ocean in the south and creates the monsoon rains that sustain an estimated one billion people. Monsoon clouds also pass through southeastern Tibet’s lush Yarlung Gorge—the world’s largest gorge, three times deeper than the Grand Canyon—and the water from the Yarlung Gorge flows into India, becoming the Brahmaputra River.

Read more:
Tibet Women’s Association: Protect Tibet’s Water

Tibet Environmental Watch:

SFT UK Publications: Environmental Report, Roof of the World

The Atlantic: [In Focus] World Water Day

Delpero, Claudia. “WWF – Melting glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau.” WWF – WWF. World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2010. <;.

“Environment & Development.” Environment and Development in Tibet: A Crucial Issue. Environment & Development Desk, Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2010. <;.

“Impacts of Climate Change.” Impacts of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau. Environment & Development Desk, Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, 2009. Web. 2 Apr. 2010. <;.

Mayhew, Bradley, and Michael Kohn. Lonely Planet Tibet. 6 ed. Oakland: Lonely Planet Publications, May 2005. Print.

Wild China. Dir. n/a N/A. Perf. Wild China. BBC Warner, 2008. DVD.


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