The ‘Blue Gold’ Rush in Tibet

Earlier in October, the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China released a 10-year plan to spur the companies across the country to invest in bottled water industry by tapping the Himalayan glaciers in Tibet’s already environmentally sensitive region, according a recent report. Tibet is embracing its new ‘blue gold’ rush era.

Qomolangma glacier water (source: inhabitat)

The government’s target is to reach a bottled water production capacity of 5 million cubic meters per year by 2020 according to a report, although the glaciers are melting at the rate of 4 to 8 meters every year – the glacier melting is measured in loss of length. This is just the start of the ‘blue gold’ rush–more and more companies want to enter this market, including pharmaceutical, confectionery and petroleum firms. The TAR government signed 16 agreements with various investors, totaling 2.6 billion yuan (US $409 million), including state-owned oil producer Sinopec, the second-largest food manufacturing company Bright Food Group and the state-owned power company Three Gorges Group.

Tibet is considered by many to be one of the last sacred places on land, because of its remoteness, uniqueness and purity. For Tibetans, water is not only important for daily use and livelihoods.  It also holds religious significance. Every year, they hang many new prayer flags around water temples, hoping for sufficient water supplies. To show respect for the local deities and other spirits that govern water, they treat water with gratefulness and respect. However, China is now the world’s largest bottled water consumer and a major producer, according to a study from China Water Risk. With the boom of China’s bottle water industry, companies have been eyeing up Tibet’s glacier resources for a long time and ready to start their ‘blue gold’ rush journey.

Tibet 5100 bottled water (source: Marketing China)

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is known as Asia’s water tower and provides a lifeline for China and other parts of Asia, and it has become a hotspot for new firms. By 2014, the government has approved 28 licenses for companies to produce bottled water in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It has attracted companies such as Kunlun Mountain Glacier Water, Tibet 5100 and Qomolangma Glacier Water, which produce bottled glacier water, sold at high prices. The appeal of what is considered the purest water on earth matches current demand well. One of the advertisements of Tibet 5100 water says, “the water is sourced from a unique glacier spring at 5,100 meters above sea level, one of the world’s most remote, pristine and untraversed location.” In 2010, according to the Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) State of Environment Report indicated that 40.1% of China’s rivers were unfit for human contact (Grade IV-V+) and 57.2% of the monitored groundwater was rated as badly or very badly polluted. Under such circumstances, many Chinese households drink bottled water, and only 59% drink tap water according to a survey done in 2014.

Tibet 5100 production line (source: thedailyeye)

Tibet is among the most vulnerable place to climate change. Glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau have already shrunk 15% over the past three decades, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. With the continuing trends of global warming, the risks of further glacier retreat are severe. The bottled water industry thus faces an uncertain future, and it will increasingly compete with other groups in Tibetan society that use water for domestic purposes and other, long-established livelihoods. The challenge to find the balance between the economic growth and environmental stability is at stake for Tibet.

To access to the full study report, please click here.



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