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Tibet’s rivers in the Anthropocene: history and present trajectories

Tibet’s rivers in the Anthropocene: history and present trajectories

This project aims to produce a multifaceted history of the eastern Tibetan Plateau’s rivers, focusing on the increasing human impacts during the Anthropocene. It will combine data from archival, cultural and oral sources in multiple languages with the results of scientific studies of river flow, water quality, and sediment, ice, and tree-rings analysis. The project will produce both historical narratives and graphic representations that model past land and water usage. The results of the project will underpin environmental policy for this hydrologically and ecologically crucial region, including the development of a paradigm of care based on the region’s indigenous cultural resources.

The eastern Tibetan Plateau is a hydrological node from which rivers, rains and sedimentary soils descend to areas in East, Southeast and South Asia in which billions of people live. The Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween and Brahmaputra all flow from this one region’s glaciers, descend through its valleys, and then fan out across Asia before entering the ocean in expansive heavily populated deltas. The rivers’ originating glaciers regulate Asia’s monsoonal precipitation; the rains that rise above them feed the rivers of and provide supplementary water to Asia, the Pacific and northern Australia. This hydrological system, which cycles between Tibet’s mountains and the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has supported the growth of the world’s largest human and nonhuman population centres; 45% of the world’s people depend on Tibetan rivers for drinking, agriculture, pastoralism and industry, and three of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots begin in eastern regions of the Tibetan Plateau before following its rivers downstream.

In the Anthropocene, this hydrologically, ecologically and geopolitically crucial region faces multiple threats. Temperatures on the Plateau are rising at three times the global average, shrinking “the third pole’s” glaciers more quickly than those of any other ice pack. Eastern Tibet straddles the borderlands between China and India, and these developing countries are building the world’s two largest hydropower systems along its waterways, extracting power to feed their lowland cities. India and China are also keen to develop this shared mountainous border region for geopolitical reasons, and the rivers provide access into it. River banks have, therefore, become the focus of large urbanisation and transport projects that are exponentially increasing sources of pollution. Despite the global influence of eastern Tibet’s hydrology, there has been scant research into human impacts on its waterways. The background and causes of the threats to them are poorly understood, as are the details of the region’s environmental past and the ways in which human activity has contributed to its present crisis.

This project aims to fill this severe knowledge lacuna by creating a multifaceted history of the eastern Tibetan hydrological system. Our work will include historical narratives and analysis combined with graphic representations of land and water usage. It has the potential to produce these results because it relies on a team of international and local scholars with combined skills in multiple languages (including Tibetan, Chinese, Hindi, and English), as well as Tibetan culture and society and the natural sciences. The project will:

  • Produce the first major multifaceted history of eastern Tibet’s hydrology and environment.

  • Provide a nuanced historical climate and land use model for eastern Tibet’s river systems. Such models are essential for the development of effective environmental policies and conservation strategies.

  • Contribute to a developing narrative about the Tibetan Plateau’s rivers that will be used to inform and promote indigenous, national and international conservation and rehabilitation initiatives.

  • Analyse the effect of human activity on Tibet’s rivers. This will contribute to a growing body of studies of rivers around the world and how they are being affected by pollution and climate change.

  • Develop a model for cooperative, transdisciplinary and multilingual research that will involve teams of international and local experts in humanities, natural sciences and social sciences who will gather data from various fields and publish transdisciplinary books and articles.


Dr Ruth Gamble (La Trobe University)

Professor James Pittock (The Australian National University)

Dr Sara Beavis (The Australian National University)


Professor Dr Petra Maurer (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich)

Associate Professor Per Sörensen (University of Leipzig)

Dr Yangmotso Yangmotso (Minzu University of China)

Project Funding

This project is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant (DP190101253)


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