A planet with ‘nukes’, but sans the Water of Life?

I confess to having often wondered why China, the largest of all Asian nations occupying nearly the entire East Asian landmass and having the largest population of any one nation in the world, would choose to play ruthless political hardball for sixty years over a minuscule, remote and helpless nation called Tibet. It simply didn’t make sense. But not any longer, not after Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet magazine, enlightened me of the little-known motivation for China maintaining its steely grip on tiny Tibet.

Chalmers Johnson noted in Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, that China’s People’s Liberation Army occupied most of Tibet in the 1950 invasion. The brutal occupation - "mass executions, forced labour, confiscations of property, and destruction of religious sites" - led to a low-level revolt in the mid-1950s that exploded in March 1959 into open rebellion, forcing the Dalai Lama into exile in India. [The rebellion, said Johnson, "was covertly aided by the CIA, which had earlier (1968) trained some 400 Tibetan exiles at an army base in Colorado and in Okinawa to fight the Chinese."]

But the on-going agony of Tibet has to do with much more than mere religious and political freedom. Inscrutable to the end, China had launched its secret ‘resource war’ to secure vital supplies of ‘Blue Gold’ way ahead of the pack and at a time when the US and the industrialized West were far more concerned about ensuring an uninterrupted flow of the ‘black’ variety to keep the wheels of industry turning.

"The Tibetan plateau is the faucet for much of Asia’s drinking water," says Lohan. "Major rivers drain from the icy mountains to help quench the farms, homes and factories of China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Incredibly, the countries affected contain 85 percent of the people in Asia and nearly half the population of the entire globe."

So China’s hands are securely on the tap supplying the increasingly scarce life-giving resource to most of Asia’s millions, and whatever China does in Tibet ultimately affects everyone downstream.

Lohan recalls the observation of Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute: "There is very little public discussion about the international nature of those water resources. I don’t know how to get the Chinese to play with everybody else, but there has got to be more international negotiation and diplomacy if we are going to avoid frictions and tensions and ultimately conflict over those water resources."

Predictions about climate change are worrisome, Lohan concedes, and are compounded by the fact that things are already bad in China. "Industrialization has left water either too polluted to drink or hard to come by in many areas. To make matters worse, the country has been gripped by drought. In February 2009, the Guardian, London, reported that 3.7 million Chinese and 1.85 million livestock in the country were without water.

Even more worrisome to the immediately affected nations in Asia are China’s known plans for multiple dams and canal systems to siphon melt from Himalayan glaciers. Wrote Brahma Chellaney in the Japan Times: "Having extensively contaminated its own major rivers through unbridled industrialization, China now threatens the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia in its bid to meet its thirst for water and energy. If anything, China seems intent on aggressively pursuing projects and employing water as a weapon."

With the planet facing a global water crisis, it seems surreal to learn from Politico magazine that the Pentagon in March last year actually sponsored a first-of-its-kind ‘war game’ focused not on bullets and bombs - but on how hostile nations might seek to cripple the US economy, conveniently ignoring the reality that the on-going global financial crisis that has effectively done just that was indisputably triggered by none other than an army of home-grown terrorists infesting that notorious place called Wall Street! "It felt a little bit like Dr. Strangelove," one person who was at the previously undisclosed exercise told the magazine. Needless to say, invitees included real-time ‘terrorists’ in the guise of major hedge-fund managers and executives from UBS, the rogue international investment bank that played a leading role in bringing the global economy to its knees.

In the Middle East, one of the hottest and driest places on earth, water has long been a serious source of contention. Along the Jordan River, which is now 90 percent diverted by Israel, Syria and Jordan, the countries are indeed facing scarcity, says Lohan. While consumption varies among Israelis, they have continuous access to water, much like the Americans. Palestinians, on the other hand, are at the will of Israel. In the West Bank, where sinking wells is prohibited, the per capita water use is around sixty litres per day, below even the 100-litres-per-day standard of the WHO, while Israelis have closer to 300 litres. "In Gaza, the aquifer is so overpumped and polluted that it is virtually undrinkable. Of the 4,000 wells in Gaza, only about ten of them would meet WHO standards."

The water crisis is undeniably global, but US citizens seem to have the luxury of not worrying about the right to water "simply because it comes out of their tap, and is clean and plentiful," says Lohan. What Americans don’t realize is that over the past few years water has been the cause of real tension between the US and Mexico.

The source of the strife over water is the long-arbitrated Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles, and whose watershed spreads across seven US states before dipping into Mexico and exiting at the Gulf of California. Just about every drop of it is allocated - and overallocated! – as its water serves over 30 million people and 2 million acres of farmland, and via canals and aqueducts, helps to quench thirsty US cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Under the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944 the US agreed to ensure its southern neighbour 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year. That was over and above the groundwater replenished from seepage draining from the 82-mile ditch called the All-American Canal running just north of the border which diverts water from the Colorado River across the desert of Southern California to feed farms in the Imperial Valley.

A decade-long drought prompted Colorado River states to unilaterally propose lining 23 miles of the Canal with concrete to prevent seepage and build a reservoir just north of the border to hold this ‘excess’, totalling an additional 127,000 acre-feet of water annually for the US, unmindful of its devastating effects on thousands of Mexican farmers consequently deprived of a livelihood. Understandably, Mexico has sued to prevent the proposed Canal lining.

The US State Department maintains the US can do whatever it wants with what it claims is its water, though the 1944 Treaty requires the countries to consult before taking action that would affect the other’s water.

The common thread in this story: US strong-arming Mexico, China doing likewise to Asia and Israel holding Palestinians hostage. [However wrong, Might is Right!]

Water being not just necessary to life, but life itself, desperate peoples worldwide will put their very lives on the line and kill if need be to gain access to it.

Is the ‘War to End All Wars’ finally round the corner?

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