Drying Out: Climate Change and Economic Growth Drive Water Scarcity in the Third Pole

I pulled my horse to a stop along the banks of a little stream, which was wedged between two grassy hills speckled with wildflowers and pika holes, to admire the view of the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau’s rolling hills evolving into snowcapped mountains.

China’s Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau is part of the world’s third pole. Together with the Himalayan mountain range, the region’s ice fields hold the world’s largest store of fresh water outside of the Arctic and Antarctic. It provides water for 10 of Asia’s largest rivers and for 1.4 billion people downstream—almost 20 percent of the world’s population. It hosts the Ruo’er’gai wetlands—the “kidneys of China”—which filter more than 30 percent of the water that flows into the Yellow River, the cradle of the most successful ancient Chinese civilizations.

Dangzhi, the leader of the local Tibetan community, reminisced about the days when the stream, now only a few inches across, used to be so wide he could not jump over it. It used to flow down from the hills, sourcing its water from multiple springs. However, over the past few years, the spring had dwindled.

China’s “One Belt One Road” development plan, which spans its western regions, into neighboring countries, and now even into the Arctic, have built on the historical significance of the Yellow River as the cradle of civilization. At the same time, the impacts of climate change are beginning to threaten the future of the river. Actions in this Plateau will have significant impacts on the not only the Third Pole, but also the entire country and its neighbors.

The river that is now only a small trickling stream

Melting Glaciers and Drying Grasslands

The Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau has warmed at a rate of approximately two times the global average. The Chinese Academy of Science predicts within the century, the average temperatures will increase up to 4.6 degrees Celsius. The warming is drying the Ruo’er’gai wetlands, where desertification is increasing at a rate of 10 percent per year.

In addition to a warming climate, increasing populations of people, livestock, and rodents are threatening the region’s grasslands. Both livestock and human populations have more than quadrupled in the past 60 years. During my weeks monitoring grassland degradation on the plateau, I learned the pika that darted across my blankets were disturbing more than just my sleep: as climate change and overgrazing have decreased the biodiversity of the region’s flora, these small mammals adapted by eating plants they previously did not, thereby accelerating desertification.

The decline of these ecologically critical wetlands has triggered crippling problems for those who live immediately downstream. At the headwaters of the Yellow River in Maduo county, 3,000 out of 4,077 lakes have disappeared, reducing the water supply for nearly 3,000 people.

These problems extend beyond the Chinese border. The Third Pole’s glaciers are receding faster than anywhere else in the world, which could significantly alter the intensity and timing of monsoons and droughts throughout the entire continent. And as permafrost continues to melt, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase, possibly changing global atmospheric circulation.

Map of the Third Pole, courtesy of ThirdPole

One Belt: New Roads and Struggling Rivers

China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, which will invest $1 trillion in infrastructure development across 60 countries, will not only fuel domestic economic growth but will spur growth in its neighbors. Although it includes an Ecological and Environmental Protection Cooperation Plan, the lack of quantifiable targets within this plan make it hard to measure.

The initiative’s plans for new dams, coal plants, roadways, railroads, and mines—all water-intense projects—do not take the already significant environmental and water stress in the region into account. Caught between developing trade routes, providing energy for countries facing energy scarcity, enhancing social stability, and creating an ecological civilization, the Chinese government needs to understand the cross-border implications of water issues stemming from the Third Pole. Whether by  investing in dams along the already struggling North Indus River into Pakistan or along the Mekong into Vietnam, China has the power to shape these rivers’ futures, increasing insecurity in the downstream countries.

While it transitions away from coal in its own plants, China plans to develop coal projects in neighboring countries. Given coal’s water demands, investing in coal contradicts many of China’s domestic policies on water use. And many of these investments will only exacerbate climate change and its impacts on the Plateau.

“One Belt One Road” could also bring 3 billion people into the middle class and boost the economy, positioning it to contribute 80 percent of global economic growth by 2050. The growing urban middle class will require more water-intense energy, food, and water in already water-constrained locations. While Chinese money may flow into its neighbors, including Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, long-term water security will not.

Small-scale efforts—such as local movements to restore grasslands, China’s first national park in the area, and initiatives (like the one I was working with) to reduce impacts of livestock—are working to bring President Xi Jinping’s concept of an ecological civilization to the Third Pole region.

But these small initiatives are not enough. China’s “Three red lines” policy, which was created to protect water supplies, is part of a movement towards incorporating water into economic and social development. However, most of China’s water policies rely on local governments to implement them, which is hard to regulate. And these policies do not extend beyond the country’s borders, where it is making most of its water-intensive investments, and it is not always at the table in regional governing bodies. For example, China is only a dialogue partner, not a member, of the Mekong River Commission, thus stagnating cross-country collaboration over this contested waterway.

Finally, a dearth of data on the region’s environmental situation—especially water flows, glacial melt, and permafrost coverings—makes it hard to properly assess the extent of environmental degradation. China needs to support better environmental research and monitoring, sustainable development, and cross-border collaboration, to ensure that one fifth of the world’s population has reliable sources of water for their businesses, energy, agriculture, and their daily lives.

Lyssa Freese is a research assistant with the China Environment Forum and previously worked with Green Camel Bell in Gansu, China.

Sources: Bloomberg, Britannica, chinadialogue, CNA, E-International Relations, Global Water Partnership, New York Times, Science Direct, Scientific America, The Third Pole.net, World Watch, World Wildlife Fund, Xinhua

Photo Credits:

A view over the Ruo’er’gai wetlands in Maqu county, courtesy of Lyssa Freese

The river is now a small trickling stream, courtesy of Lyssa Freese

Map of the Third Pole, courtesy of ThirdPole