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No Blood For... Water?

The Christian Science Monitor asks whether water might become the new oil, as waste, climate change, and pollution make global freshwater supplies increasingly scarce. Already, there's evidence that some geopolitical conflicts are being driven, at least in part, by water—including Tibet:

While news reports have generally cited Tibetans’ concerns over exploitation of their natural resources by China, little has been reported about China’s keen interest in Tibet’s Himalayan water supplies, locked up in rapidly melting glaciers.

“It’s clear that one of the key reasons that China is interested in Tibet is its water,” Dr. Gleick says. “They don’t want to risk any loss of control over these water resources.”

The Times (London) reported in 2006 that China is proceeding with plans for nearly 200 miles of canals to divert water from the Himalayan plateau to China’s parched Yellow River. China’s water plans are a major problem for the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, says a report released this month by Circle of Blue, a branch of the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Who knows how big a role this plays in Tibet, but China's overall water situation does look grim. About 100 million people live off crops that use water being drawn from underground aquifers that aren't being replenished at all. Another 150 million people depend on the Yellow River, which is increasingly plagued by pollutants and chemical leaks (it's known to turn bright red thanks to toxic discharge) and will likely grow parched as the planet warms. But the Chinese government is wary of cutting subsidies and boosting the price of water in order to promote conservation, so it's focusing on diverting freshwater from the Himalayan Plateau instead, which could cause tension—or worse—with all those other South Asian countries that rely on that water.

And it's not just China. India has been mulling plans to reroute many of its own waterways, including the Ganges—which would in turn threaten the livelihoods of roughly 100 million Bangladeshis living downstream. It's easy to get too apocalyptic here: After all, some nations have learned to share their supplies and work together on conservation—as is happening with the Nile Basin Initiative in Africa. But it's natural to wonder, as global temperatures keep inching upward, if those treaties could start drying up as soon as the rivers do.

--Bradford Plumer