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China Extracting Tibet's Precious Groundwater & Springwater for Profit, Reveals Report

The unsustainable exploitation of Tibet's groundwater resources and the commodification of its pristine water sources pose significant environmental, social, and economic concerns.

Shivam Dwivedi
China Extracting Tibet's Precious Groundwater & Springwater for Profit, Reveals Report (Photo Source: Pixabay)
China Extracting Tibet's Precious Groundwater & Springwater for Profit, Reveals Report (Photo Source: Pixabay)

Tibet Rights Collective has recently revealed that China is sourcing groundwater and springwater from Tibet, packaging it in plastic bottles, and selling it across the country. According to the report, China, known as the world's largest plastic polluter, considers bottled water from Tibet as the cleanest and most pristine available.

However, this exploitation not only targets Chinese consumers but also increasingly affects Tibetans themselves, as the once-pristine rivers in Tibet have become polluted and unreliable. The pollution of rivers in Tibet is primarily attributed to Chinese mining ventures, which have caused some portions of the rivers to become hazardous.

Tragically, yaks, an essential livelihood for nomads in Tibet, have perished due to consuming contaminated water. Tibet Rights Collective describes this situation as Chinese entrepreneurs essentially stealing groundwater from Tibet and selling it back to the Tibetan people, who used to have access to it for free. Consequently, the nomads, who were once self-sufficient, have been reduced to a state of dependency and even begging.

To make way for so-called "nature reserves," the nomads have been forcibly displaced from their traditional grazing lands and resettled in concrete settlements. These nomads now rely entirely on government subsidies, primarily used to purchase necessities such as yak milk, cheese, tea, and bottled water.

It is worth noting that, apart from tea, all these items were previously available to nomad yak herders free of charge. These herders used to camp near water sources, including rivers and lakes, to fetch the water. However, they are now compelled to purchase water bottled by Chinese entrepreneurs, who tap into Tibet's abundant groundwater and springwater reserves.

Prior to Chinese control over Tibet, the groundwater reserves had never been exploited on any significant scale. It was only after the establishment of the railway from Golmud to Lhasa in 2006 that the export of Tibet's bottled water to cities like Shanghai and Beijing became economically viable. Starting with a few water bottlers in 2006, the number of enterprises increased to nearly 30 operators by 2014.

The regional government of Tibet signed contracts with 16 major companies in 2014 to expand the water bottling industry, with the aim of producing 10 million tonnes of bottled water by 2025, according to the report. Unfortunately, the news report also highlights the poor regulation of Chinese water bottlers in Tibet, who rarely provide details regarding sustainability and environmental impact.

The extent of damage caused by excessive groundwater extraction to the surrounding flora and fauna remains unknown. However, it is clear that groundwater and springwater are being extracted at highly unsustainable levels, as noted by Michael Buckley in the report. Groundwater is considered a non-renewable resource that can take hundreds of years to regenerate. Additionally, some water bottlers operate within the boundaries of nature reserves, such as the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. Apart from the direct impact on Tibet's groundwater and springwater, there are infrastructure implications resulting from Chinese state-owned mining activities and the construction of mega dams along Tibetan rivers.

Tibetan bottled water originates from remote pristine locations and is highly sought after by wealthy buyers in China as a symbol of status. Consequently, Tibet brands are sold at up to three times the price of other domestic brands. The north face of Mount Everest has become an iconic logo to indicate that bottled water is sourced from Tibet. Approximately 12 brands feature a graphic or picture of Mount Everest, signifying the utilization of the mountain's glaciers in production, according to Tibet Rights Collective.

It's worth noting that the exploitation of Tibet's groundwater and springwater extends beyond the bottled water industry. Tibet Water Resources Ltd, the manufacturer of Tiandi Tibet Green Barley Beer, utilizes Tibetan barley and springwater sourced near Lhasa. Lhasa Beer, another beer brand, also relies on Tibetan barley-based production.

The report by Tibet Rights Collective emphasizes that China is the world's largest consumer of bottled water. Over the past two decades, several instances have occurred where people in Chinese cities were left without access to water for weeks due to industrial accidents, agricultural runoff, sewage, or other reasons. As a result, the reliance on bottled water skyrocketed overnight.

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