The Waters of the Third Pole: Water crisis in Asia

by Bhavani Prakash

There’s a native American proverb that says, “No river can return to its source, yet all rivers must have a beginning.”   Even the wise indigenous peoples of America could not have foreseen the kind of rapid changes in climate and developmental pressures that have altered the scenarios. 

The Third Pole is thus known because it is the largest frozen area of fresh water outside the two polar regions.  Also called the Hindu Kush- Himalayan (HKH) region, it extends 3,500 km over all or part of eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east.

It is the source of ten large Asian river systems -– the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and Tarim (Dayan).


Strategic_Framework_15_September 1_08.indd

Picture credit: http://www.icimod.org/?page=43


The river and river basins provide water to 1.3 billion people, or 20% of the world population. They also support livelihoods of over 210 million people in the region.

A new report on the importance of the Third Pole as a vital resource as well as a potential cause of crisis in Asia has just been released by ChinaDialogue.net

The Waters of the Third Pole: Sources of threat, sources of survival  is the joint effort of China Dialogue, University College London, King’s College London and the Australian National University.

The report highlights the various natural and man made stresses to this valuable ecosytem.

Natural stresses:

HKH region already faces several natural hazards such as seismic activity, glacial melting, extreme weather, windstorms, droughts, wildfires, and sea-level rise.  This affects the region’s glaciers, rivers, wetlands, grasslands and coasts.

Man made stresses:

There are a plethora of man-made stresses leading to unsustainable use of water, arising from dam constructions, diversion of rivers, floods, ground-water contamination, and water shortages.

The pressures are created by huge and rapidly growing populations. Urbanisation and globalisation lead to heavy demand on resources.

The policy responses and approaches are short-term, with governments trying to increase agricultural productivity and electricity generation, without adequate regard to the environmental consequences.

The number of people being displaced is rising. These environmental migrants or refugees number in millions, moving away due to larger dams, diversion projects, and degradation of farmland or fisheries.

A Common Ecosystem

There is little co-operation between countries and regions, with long standing disputes over decreasing water resources.

Due to the lack of a “systems” perspective and co-ordinated research, there is no understanding of the region as a whole as one common ecosystem, each element of which is interconnected and interdependent.

An example quoted by the report:

‘…large water management projects have created social, ecological, and economic problems, the repercussions of which cannot be immediately gauged. For instance, China has initiated massive infrastructural projects in Tibet, where many major Asian rivers originate. Industrialisation upstream in China has led to soil erosion, deforestation, and landslides, whose impacts are felt in the lower riparian states of Bangladesh and India. That these countries are part of a common ecosystem was made tragically clear by the flash floods that ravaged northeast India in 2000 caused by a landslide in Tibet.’

HKH region is already facing a crisis, affecting millions of people. The effects are likely to continue, increasing the likelihood of mass displacement and environmental migrantion, disease and conflict. Short term thinking of various governments and the lack of effective water management is constraining the preparedness for catastrophes.

Led Zeppelin once said “Then as it was, then again it will be, and though the course will change sometimes, rivers always reach the sea.”  For this to continue to hold true and to ensure the rivers can sustain present and future generations, a new kind of thinking, a shared understanding of the precious rivers of the Third Pole is the urgent order of the day.



Eco WALK the Talk summarises various environmental reports that may be technical or usually accessible to those in academia or research, to make the public more aware of important larger issues facing the environment. For various past report summaries, please click here. 

Further links you may be interested in:
EWTT:  Sick Water: UNEP Report

Stanford University: Scientists offer solutions to arsenic groundwater poisoning in southeast Asia

Stanford University Video : Drinking Water in the Developing World
The Telegraph, India : Not a drop to drink

Reuters: Rivers a source of rising tensions


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Posted by on May 22 2010. Filed under Growth/Sustainable Development, Water/Marine Life. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “The Waters of the Third Pole: Water crisis in Asia”

  1. [...] Continue reading here: The Waters of the Third Pole Report: Water crisis and opportunity … [...]

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