Tibet is the Water Tower of Asia. It sustains the life of 1.4 billion people, who depend & survive on rivers starting from Tibet. Traditionally, Tibetans as Buddhists, have managed and maintained the Tibetan plateau and shared their water resources with its neighboring countries. Tibetans practice of sharing water comes from Buddhist tradition or Buddhist values and of living in harmony of nature.
But let’s take a look at the situation globally. If we look globally, there has been a rise of liberalism and internationalism in late 80s and 90s, which rode the wave for human rights, democracy and environmental matters. But with the rise of internationalism there has also been a rise of nationalism that has spread from America to Europe to Asia. And then there is rise of extremism also because you can see ISIS and militant Buddhist in Myanmar, representing a violent form of extremism. Now in this context, we are entering a new world — a very challenging, complex and conflict oriented world.
Many Experts say that 21st century will be the century of Asia, which we all welcome because there will be economic growth in Asia and Asia will dominate the 21st century. But at the same time there is armed race going on, which from some accounts, the largest number of arms are bought in Asia. With Asia dominating the world, arms race also dominating Asia, countries are preparing for war. And what are the likely scenarios, what might be the cause for this kind of conflict in this part of the world and globally?
Hence, one the statistics that we need to pay attention to is World Bank saying “The Earth can sustain 7 billion people, unfortunately this year we will be reaching 8 billion people, which means we are 1 billion people more than what the earth can sustain. For the 1 billion people extra, we do not have forests, or the land or water”.
Many experts also say that wars were fought over land during the colonial era. Nowadays, wars are fought over oil and petrol. That’s why there is crisis in Venezuela, there is crisis in Nigeria, in Iraq. Because these countries are rich in oil. Soon there will be war over water. Because of the shortage of Water. In that sense, not just the Eastern Himalaya but the whole of Himalaya is very important for the whole world.
The whole of Himalaya is as fragile and as important as the rainforest of Latin America, where Government recognition is given. And hence, multi-disciplinary Forums like the Eastern Himalayan Naturenomics™ Forum and the Natural Economics Forum are pivotal to discuss the role of Communities and Botany in Conservation of our natural resources. Innovative concepts and frameworks like Rural Futures launched at the Forum — a holistic plan encompassing all human needs and one, which allows wildlife to thrive alongside are important for socio-economic equality and sustainable development.
The Himalayas is one of the richest biodiversity hotspots of the world and a source of daily sustenance and livelihoods for the several indigenous communities, who are dependent on the natural resources and have developed an intricate relationship of living interdependently with Nature. Hence, these conferences help highlight the importance of preservation and conservation of the region. As well as Tibet, as on top of Himalayas sits Tibet.
Many experts point out that Tibet is the third pole because after Antarctic and Arctic, Tibet has the third highest reserve of ice. The difference is that when the ice of Antarctic and Artic melts, it goes to the ocean but when the ice of Tibet melts, it forms rivers. And 10 major rivers of Asia flow from Tibet, Indus River in India, Sutlej river, which flows from Tibet to Jammu & Kashmir to Pakistan, flows from Tibet and lifeline of North East, Assam & Bangladesh — the Brahmaputra river.
Salween river, Irrawaddy river, Mekong river which are also lifelines for ASEAN Countries flow from Tibet. Yangtze River in China and Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization also flows from Tibet. Hence, Tibet is very important for not just the Himalayan Regions, for South East Asia, for South Asia & the whole of Asia as well.
However, there are reports and many factors that can impact these lifelines — Some scientists and studies have pointed out that the climate in South America, temperatures in Canada are all affected directly affected by climatic changes in Tibet. In order to understand global warming and climate change, one must understand the Tibetan plateau.
In the last 100 years, 50% of Tibetan glaciers have melted and disappeared. According to NASA, by 2100, of the remaining 46,000 glaciers in Tibet is very rich in mountains, minimally 1/3rd or 2/3rd of these glaciers will disappear. If 2/3rd of glaciers disappear, it will impact the 1.4 billion people who are dependent on fresh water flowing from Tibet.
With the rise of temperature, globally and on the Tibetan plateau, not only glaciers are melting fast but also melting or defrosting the Permafrost. Half of Tibetan plateau, up to 1.6 million square kilometers of land is permafrost and underneath it, there are 12,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and an equal number of 12,000 million tonnes of methane; with global warming, and urbanization, industrialization of Tibet, permafrost melts, which is as deep as 1m to 30 m. Once it opens up, it will release all the carbon dioxide and methane is 2 or 3 times stronger than carbon dioxide. If all this is released in the air of the earth, one can clearly see a danger, increasing global warming, affecting the ozone layer and polluting rather the whole planet, especially Asia.
In the context of global climate impacts and political changes such as recent news on the Chinese government planning to divert Brahmaputra River all the way to Xianjian, not just the rivers are being diverted which can impact the lifeline of people, not just the glaciers are melting partly because of the global warming, partly because of the urbanization and industrialization of Tibet, and the deforestation that is taking place in Tibet, but also water is becoming more and more scarce.
China has 90% of the world population but only 12% of freshwater, which means 7% of 400 million Chinese people are already facing the water crisis and the situation in Bangladesh, ASEAN or India is worse than China. Hence, there is a crisis in the making, one that is looming large. So, while we talk about preservation and conservation of flora and fauna of the Himalayan belt, it is equally important to discuss how do we handle the water tower of Asia, that is Tibet.
Traditionally, Tibetans as Buddhists, have managed and maintained the Tibetan plateau and shared their water resources with all neighboring countries. Part of this practice of sharing water comes from the Buddhist tradition or Buddhist values. As we all know, Buddha was an environmentalist in the sense that he was born under a tree, he attained enlightenment under a tree, he gave his first teaching to 7 followers under a tree, so there is a symbolism behind it and as a Buddha when he taught about human beings, he also taught about interdependence — interdependence between human beings and nature. For e.g. this is a dialectic discourse — when you ask someone as a Buddhist “who are you?” and if you have to point to “I” that is “you”, you will say who you are rather, you will point to a part of your body, your chest or head or the whole body. Then the dialectic discourse will say if the body is you, you can’t live without the air that you breathe, you can’t live without water, which is 90% of your body, you can’t live without food, so you are dependent or interdependent with nature as well.
So, when you define you as an individual, nature is a part of you and that’s the Buddhist value Tibetans have. And hence, in India and rest of the world we see, Buddhist prayer flags everywhere and it has 5 elements — Earth, Water, Sky, Fire, Air. Because there is a belief that nature is part of humanity and we are dependent on nature as well as we live on this Earth and this Buddhist notion has helped Tibetans preserve and protect the Tibetan plateau for many centuries. And hence, if we want to avert the water crisis, if we don’t want to see global warming, it is very important that we respect the fragile nature of Himalaya and the important aspect of Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau.
This article was first delivered as a speech by President of Central Tibetan Administration, His Excellency Dr. Lobsang Sangay at the 5th Rabindranath Barthakur memorial lecture at the Balipara Foundation Awards 2017, which was followed by the multi-disciplinary Forum — The Eastern Himalayan Naturenomics™ Forum 2017.
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