Chinese Regime ‘Weaponizing’ Tibet’s Rivers, Choking Asia’s Water Supply: Expert

Chinese Regime ‘Weaponizing’ Tibet’s Rivers, Choking Asia’s Water Supply: Expert
This picture taken on Nov. 23, 2014, shows prayer flags hanging before the Zangmu Hydropower Station in Gyaca county in Lhoka, or Shannan prefecture, southwest China's Tibet region. ( STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Cathy He
Jan Jekielek

The Tibetan plateau, which serves as the source for 10 major rivers in Asia, provides water to hundreds of millions across the continent. But the Chinese regime has weaponized these waters to fuel its own industrialization, starving downstream Asian countries of this precious resource, China analyst and Tibetan activist Maura Moynihan says.

She sounded the warning as water management has gained importance in China, which has experienced its worst flooding in decades. Over the past few months, tens of millions of people were displaced across central and southwestern China, and billions of dollars have been wiped from China’s economy.
The flooding has also renewed concerns about the structural integrity and environmental effects of the world’s largest hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. In August, water flowing into the dam’s reservoir reached record highs and approached maximum capacity. Critics have argued that the dam has limited ability to control flooding, and that its presence may exacerbate problems in the long run. Should the dam collapse, millions of lives would be in danger.

For Moynihan, the problems surrounding the Three Gorges Dam represents the tip of the iceberg—the regime has built hundreds of thousands of levees, dikes, reservoirs, and dams along its major river systems.

“Once you’ve built these dams, it’s really difficult to unbuild them, and to reverse the environmental damage caused by [them],” Moynihan said in a recent interview on Epoch Times’ “American Thought Leaders” program.

That’s precipitated a water crisis, yet “no one in the West wants to hear about it,” the activist said.

“The cost of yoking and choking that water, weaponizing that water, and taking Tibet’s water to the thirsty mainland of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has tremendous consequences, because Asia is the world’s most populous continent,” Moynihan said.

“We’re in a crisis,” she added. “And I don’t think there’s a single think-tank in America that’s working on this.”

For decades, Moynihan has traveled around the region, researching and reporting on issues facing Tibet. Her columns were previously published in outlets such as The Washington Post, but the appetite for her reporting ran dry “seemingly overnight” since the 2000s, she said. Media are now “basically doing the CCP’s bidding by removing any and all discussion of Tibet,” she added, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

“There’s seemingly a whole news blackout about Tibet in the last decade,” Moynihan said.

Turning Off the Tap

The Chinese regime’s aggressive dam-building projects have allowed it to weaponize waters by shutting off supply to downstream countries, Moynihan said.

For the past two years, the Mekong River—which originates in Tibet and flows through five Southeast Asian countries—has hit record-low water flows. This was caused not only by less rainfall, but also by China’s upstream hydropower dams that held back vast amounts of water, according to two reports this year.

An April report (pdf) found that for six months in 2019, while China received high levels of rainfall, its dams on the Upper Mekong restricted an unprecedented amount of water—even as downstream countries were battling a severe drought. The report was authored by Eyes on Earth, a U.S.-based climate consulting company, and was jointly commissioned by the U.S. government’s Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and the United Nations-backed Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership.
The Mekong River Commission—an inter-governmental group that includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—in an August report (pdf) also linked the Mekong drought to China’s dams.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called out Beijing’s activity on the Mekong, saying on Sept. 14 that the CCP’s “unilateral decisions to withhold water upstream have exacerbated a historic drought.”

He criticized the regime for not sharing comprehensive data on water flows with the Mekong River Commission.

Beijing provides water level and rainfall data only during the flood season, and only from two of its many stations on the Upper Mekong—“insufficient” for water management purposes, according to the commission. In late August, Chinese premier Li Keqiang pledged to share annual hydrological information with Mekong countries, but didn’t provide further details.

Pompeo encouraged Mekong countries “to hold the CCP accountable to its pledge to share its water data.”

“That data should be public. It should be released year-round,” he said, adding that it should be shared through the Mekong River Commission.

The United States last week launched the Mekong–U.S. Partnership—committing more than $150 million to regional initiatives—in part to strengthen water security along the Mekong.

Moynihan said that downstream countries haven’t been vocal about this issue because of their deep economic ties with Beijing. Many Southeast Asian states have signed onto the Belt and Road Initiative, the regime’s signature infrastructure investment project aimed at advancing its influence worldwide, she noted.

“They can’t really speak out and criticize the CCP ... because they can shut your supply off,” she said. “It’s very, very serious.”

India, meanwhile, also faces the prospect of its water supply being choked off, Moynihan said. China is building several hydropower dams along the Brahmaputra River—which runs from Tibet to India and Bangladesh—raising fears that the regime could exert control to its political and economic advantage. These concerns have taken on fresh urgency in the aftermath of recent deadly border clashes between India and China in the Galwan Valley.

Moynihan recalled a conversation with a retired Indian general whom she met at a cocktail party in New Delhi.

“We were talking about Tibet,” Moynihan said. “He said, ‘Well, what are we going to do? They’re there. And we’re here looking up, and their guns are pointed down at us. And they also have our water.

‘What are we going to do?’”

Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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