NEW DELHI—Divided by a colonial-time boundary that initially separated Tibet and colonial India and now the boundary of contention between the two most populous countries of the world, the Himalayas unlike never before are narrated by two different paradigms drawn very distinctly along two different political lines—democracy vs. communism.
According to Gabriel Lafitte, author and a noted expert on Tibet’s environment, this division is causing confusion in understanding what’s happening with the Himalayas.
Lafitte who’s the author of the book, “Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World,” compared two catastrophes, the Uttarakhand floods of February 2021 in India and the dramatic events of October 2018 that flooded the Yangtze river and the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river within two weeks of each other in Tibet.
The Uttrakhand floods happened after a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke on Feb. 7 and caused an avalanche and deluge, leading to sudden floods in three downstream tributaries of the River Ganges. It damaged two hydro projects, trapped many laborers, and killed 32 people while 190 others went missing, according to Hindu, an Indian daily.
“All three events have much in common: steep valleys carved by rivers powerful enough to cut deep, in pace with the ongoing rise of the Himalayas; glaciers perched far above on the upper flanks of the rising mountains, with a vertical gap between glacier and riverbed of two, three or more kilometers,” said Lafitte in an article on his blog on Feb. 11.
He noted that while the information about the floods on the Indian side of the Himalayas was discussed and debated, on the Chinese side, it was a state secret.
Lafitte said when millions of tons of mixed ice, water, rock, and earth plunge a great distance down into a riverbed, the catastrophe is incomparable. The world is engineering Himalayan rivers at its own peril, he said.
“Once the human rescue hopes fade, what remains is the debate about causes and consequences. In democratic India, debate swiftly segued to arguments on the folly of hydro dams. On the silenced Tibetan side, no such debate is allowed,” said Lafitte.
China has controlled Asia’s water map after its 1951 annexation of the Tibetan plateau from where it is driving hydro politics in Asia, said Brahma Chellaney in an essay in the Open, an Indian magazine. Chellaney, a noted geostrategist, is the author of two award-winning books on water: “Water, Peace and War” and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
“Almost all of Asia’s major rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau, and China is erecting an expansive hydro-infrastructure to make itself the upstream water controller. In recent days, its rubber-stamp parliament has ratified a controversial plan to build a mega-dam on the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans) just before the world’s highest-altitude river crosses into India,” said Chellaney, adding that the plan is likely to unleash havoc in the downstream region in India.
‘Follies of a Century Ago’
Henry McMahon, a British Indian army officer and a diplomat in times when India was a British colony, drew a line through the Himalayan glacial peaks, demarcating British India from Tibet.
The McMahon line is accepted by India as its legal border. However, China doesn’t recognize it and instead considers Line of Actual Control (LAC), which, in, places differs from the McMahon line, as the de facto border. According to Lafitte, this has caused a lot of confusion because it has divided the contiguous Himalayas, the existence of which doesn’t follow any political logic.
“The recent sudden catastrophic collapse of a glacier perched high above the deep river valleys of Indian Uttarakhand is also a casualty of McMahon’s logical but absurd peak-to-peak magical line,” said Lafitte. He added that the colonial demarcation and the reality of India and China being governed by contradicting political ideologies make it difficult to draw a complete picture of Himalayan reality.
“Initial reporting of the destructive surge of this outbreak flood (as scientists call it) were confused as to what could have caused it, and utterly unaware of recent similar events on the other side of McMahon’s line, thus lacking many bases for comparison.”
On the one hand, dramatic footage of the Uttrakhand flood was captured by the drone and was available to the public. On the other hand, the drone footage of the Yangtze and the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra catastrophe was available to only the party-state officials and it was a state secret, Lafitte said.
According to him, it can typically take years to understand such Himalayan catastrophes when adequate scientific analysis isn’t available.
“The gap McMahon drew dividing the south face of the Himalayas from the north face, is a gift that keeps on gapping. In the absence of any interest or awareness of the Yarlung Tsangpo damming, journalists in India, needing to wrap this story, have focused on the follies of hydro damming, even though the dams India builds on its Himalayan rivers (so far) are nowhere near as big as that China builds on the Yarlung Tsangpo and other rivers flowing from Tibet, including the Za Chu/Lancang/Mekong, and the Dri Chu/Jinsha/Yangtze,” Lafitte said.
Adding to the Confusion
Lafitte said there are other stories about the catastrophes which are not true and have caused confusion, such as stories of the Uttrakhand floods being caused by a CIA nuclear-powered monitoring device emplaced on a nearby peak in 1965.
“Indian environmentalists have been quick, as is possible in a democracy, to blame the hydro dammers; even suggesting Uttarakhand is a lesson China should heed, and not proceed with plans to build a 60MW dam in the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge,” he said adding that if the journalist would have heard about the 2018 catastrophe in Tibet they would have understood how similar the two crashes are and that such dams can never be built.
“No dam, no matter how well-engineered, can withstand tens of millions of tons of ice and rock falling from four or five kms above, at a speed faster than a bullet train,” he said.
He also said contrary to the metaphor of the Himalayas being “fragile,” the Himalayas are actually “powerful and indifferent to human will.”
“Tibetans have always known and respected this, and made frequent offerings to the local gods of place, burning smoldering juniper leaves every morning as fragrant smoke to please the gods,” Lafitte said.
“Today, we put our faith in numbers and the sciences that generate them; while the gods of place, the deities dwelling in the mountains are dismissed as superstition. We disseminate conspiracy theories about CIA mountain top monitoring devices, as we shelter under Henry McMahon’s great line, not keen on dispensing with fictions.”