For many, the Himalayas, site of the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest, and shrouded by Buddhist cultures such as Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, is a romantic region shrouded in mystery, as exemplified in the 1937 movie, “Lost Horizon.”
Now reality is about to impinge upon the “roof of the world,” as surrounding nations prepare plans to harness the hydroelectric potential of the mighty rivers, including the Mekong, the Brahmaputra Yangtse and Yellow rivers. It is the headwater of rivers on which nearly half the world depends descending from the Tibetan plateau.
Now, southern Himalayan watershed nations India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan are all developing massive hydroelectric schemes to build overall more than 400 hydroelectric dams which, if built, could collectively provide more than 160,000 megawatts of electricity to their developing economies.
To the north?
China is developing plans for roughly 100 dams to generate a similar amount of power from Tibet’s major rivers.
And to the east, 60 or more dams are being planned for the Mekong River, which also rises in Tibet and flows south through Southeast Asia on its way to the South China Sea.
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According to Ed Grumbine, visiting international scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming and author of a paper on the topic in “Science” magazine, over the next two decades "the Himalayas could become the most dammed region in the world. India aims to construct 292 dams... doubling current hydropower capacity and contributing 6 per cent to projected national energy needs. If all dams are constructed as proposed, in 28 of 32 major river valleys, the Indian Himalayas would have one of the highest average dam densities in the world, with one dam for every 32km of river channel. Every neighbor of India with undeveloped hydropower sites is building or planning to build multiple dams, totaling at minimum 129 projects."
Should these ambitious projects be realized, then China, which is building multiple dams on all Tibet’s major rivers, could emerge as the ultimate controller of water for nearly 40 per cent of the world's population.
So, will the various nations rimming the Himalayas cooperate in utilizing the water?
India, with whom China fought a brief war in 1962 in the Himalayas over a disputed frontier, have already disputed the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River and China’s hydroelectric plans along the Brahmaputra’s source, the Arun River, before it descends into India. Both the Brahmaputra and Indus rivers have their origins in a lake in western Tibet near Mount Kailash.
Further east, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos are alarmed by China’s intentions to build three massive dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, adding to six existing hydroelectric facilities.
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Indian strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney observed, "China has always been unapologetic about its refusal to enter into water sharing agreements with any states. It has always maintained that it would take into account interests of the lower riparian states but about half of the world's total number of large dams are in China. India, with so many of its major rivers originating in Tibet, is going to be among the worst affected. The issue is usually soft pedaled by the water resources ministry, and there is never any international pressure on this though the list of countries suffering because of China's refusal is quite long including Russia, Kazakhstan, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos."
Just to spice things up, Pakistan is also concerned about India’s ongoing construction of two hydroelectric dams on the upper reaches of the Indus River. Islamabad is concerned that the 45 megawatt, 190-foot tall Nimoo-Bazgo concrete dam 44 megawatt Chutak hydroelectric power project will reduce the Indus River’s flow towards Pakistan, as they are capable of storing up to 4.23 billion cubic feet of water, violating the terms of the bilateral 1960 Indus Water Treaty.
Four months ago Lahore’s “The Nation” newspaper published an editorial entitled, “War with India inevitable: Nizami.”
Lost horizons, indeed.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com