China’s irresponsibility may cost lives

The bursting Tibetan lake calls for cooperation
The traditional Chinese response is denial and stonewalling. Its notorious lack of transparency precipitated the SARS crisis last year; many countries then were not able to take adequate measures to safeguard public health and China’s obfuscation of the cause and the size of the problem did nothing to help. Towards the end of that episode, China did open up a bit, and that little opening was useful in putting the brakes on the rampaging SARS epidemic.

For a few weeks now, China has been playing a similar game of obfuscation and denial with respect to the condition of a lake of the Pareechu river in Tibet. While it has informed the Indian government of a potential bursting of the lake it shows no inclination to cooperate with India and address an impending humanitarian disaster. Claude Arpi reveals that in a similar incident in the year 2000, India’s Himachal Pradesh state suffered severe loss of life and property due to what is suspected to be due to China’s unannounced breaking of the walls of the lake.

With thousands of human and animal lives under threat, a red alert was issued by the Himachal government, and armed and paramilitary forces were put on a war footing. The Rs 8,500 crore (Rs 8.5 billion) Nathpa Jhakri project which employs more than 1,000 people has been closed due to the alert.

But the matter is even more serious for national security . This area is one of the most strategic on the Indo-China border [Rediff]

The most innocent, though still unacceptable explanation to this is that China is displaying its ingrained opaque behaviour while trying to combat a flood crisis in its own territory. The more sinister explanation is that it has other ulterior motives. In either case, China’s behaviour risks the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people, and regardless of its political preoccupations, the Chinese government cannot ignore the human consequences of the tragedy. As SARS has shown, like terrorism, natural disasters and environmental threats are increasingly trans-national in nature, and can cut both ways. China may need international cooperation to combat such crises in future and would do well not to let its international goodwill go into overdraft just yet.