Every spring, devout families in eastern Tibet gather at Benri Mountain for a meditative ritual walk. It takes a day and a night to complete the 35-kilometre circuit of the 4,500-metre peak, which Tibetans consider one of their most sacred.
For one company, however, its value lies in revenue rather than religious inspiration. Tibet Linzhi Deji Real Co. Ltd. is bottling water from Benri Mountain spring for sale elsewhere in China, as part of a rush of investors and entrepreneurs turning Shangri-La into an industrial-scale water well.
Tibet is known as Asia’s water tower, its glaciers and lakes the high-altitude source for rivers that sustain the great mass of humanity between Pakistan and Vietnam.
But in China, downstream chemical effluent and sewage outflows pollute that water so badly that it is not drinkable by the time it reaches big coastal population centres.
So Chinese leaders are pushing a plan to ship Tibetan water in bottles instead.
Using tax breaks and other forms of government encouragement, the country wants its companies to bottle five million tonnes a year of Tibet water by 2020 – equivalent to just over 10 per cent of bottled water consumed in the United States last year – and double that by 2025. That’s a 65-fold increase from 2014.
“It’s mainly because Tibet’s water is barely polluted and the environment is good,” said Sun Liangfeng, the general manager of Tibet Linzhi Deji. It sells its water as “the springs of Tibet Linzhi,” after the Chinese name for Nyingchi, where Benri Mountain is located.
“The market is developing faster than expected,” he said, “because large numbers of people want to invest here, including massive state-owned enterprises and powerful private corporations.”
China is already the world’s biggest guzzler of bottled water, with sales marching up at about 6 per cent per year.
But the industry’s expansion in Tibet is controversial, in part because of its reliance on sources with religious importance. Companies are siphoning water from sacred mountains like Mount Kailash and protected areas, including Mount Everest. One firm, Qomolangma Glacier Water, has built its bottling operation inside the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve.
That gives it huge cachet. “With the exception of imported drinking water, our brand can be described as the highest-end product in China,” said salesman Danzeng, who like many Tibetans goes by only one name. (Qomolangma is the Tibetan name for Everest.)
But the building of water extraction into a new industrial pillar for Tibet has raised local anxieties.
“It causes more harm than good,” said one Tibetan man in Lhasa, who worried that taking too much water could exhaust resources and cause future “disasters.”
There are “huge concerns” over what is happening to Tibet’s water, said International Campaign for Tibet spokeswoman Kate Saunders.
“You have got what has been termed the greatest water grab in history – multiple dams being built on all the major rivers coming off the plateau by powerful Chinese state-owned consortiums,” she said.
“All of this puts Tibet’s environment under considerable pressure, and the bottled-water industry is going to do that even more.”
China Water Risk, a non-profit advocacy group, has pointed out that the Tibetan plateau is both ecologically sensitive and in the midst of change. Local glaciers have shrunk 15 per cent in the last three decades. And it can take nearly four bottles’ worth of water to produce a single bottle on store shelves.
Chinese academics and officials argue that the industry can create 10,000 jobs while providing safe drinking water for as much as 15 per cent of the national population. Tibet’s annual rainfall exponentially exceeds even the biggest bottled water extraction targets. It’s clean, too, according to a Chinese Academy of Sciences report last year that said Tibet’s major lakes all met the country’s “first-class national standard” for purity.
Others say even this distant place has been sullied by China’s decades of industrial expansion. Soft-drink billionaire Zong Qinghou decided against investing in Tibet after testing showed pollution.
“Our [technical] staff climbed a very high mountain to get water samples for testing. But we were disappointed by the results, which showed a very high concentration of heavy metals in the water,” he said earlier this year, according to a China Business Journal report.
His comments were dismissed by Chinese analysts as cover for the economic difficulties of extracting water from Tibet, so distant from major markets that other companies have bled money.
Yet there are indications of gaps in the scrutiny China is applying to its industrial water rush. The Tibetan Plateau Ecology Institute is the only research body focusing on the region’s long-term ecological health, but does no work on bottled water.
“Theoretically, [that industry] will not affect the ecosystem too much,” said Xu Asheng, a professor of ecology. “Our institute hasn’t done this research. Mineral water is basically not produced in our area.”
The institute is located not far from Benri Mountain, where Mr. Sun’s company has approval to take 30 per cent of the water from its spring.
That’s enough to do environmental damage, said Brian Richter, chief scientist for the global water program at The Nature Conservancy. He has published academic research on the topic.
Local ecology can be protected “if you keep alteration of the natural flow conditions to less than 10 per cent,” he said. Beyond 20 per cent, “you can expect degradation of the ecological system, including possible displacement of native species,” he said.
“And of course those risks go up as alteration of the natural flow conditions increases.”
Mr. Sun is unconcerned.
“As long as we take water in strict accordance with the amounts required by the regulations, and do not over-extract, it will work fine,” he said.