Land of blue gold

In a region fraught with mutual distrust, anxieties over water supply are raising tensions between I

Almost anything the Dalai Lama does can trigger protests from Beijing. But his November 2009 visit to the disputed territory of Tawang, in the remote north-east Indian state of Arun­a­chal Pradesh, was felt with particular resonance in China's capital. Relations between India and China have been bad-tempered for months, with nationalists on both sides urging their respective governments to act tough.

The Dalai Lama's presence in Tawang - which China sees as southern Tibet, and which was the birthplace of his eccentric but talented predecessor, the sixth Dalai Lama - reminds Beijing that this was once Tibetan territory. The current Dalai Lama first came through these parts in 1959, as a young refugee fleeing Chinese rule. He never returned to Lhasa. India's open-hearted hospitality to exiled Tibet­ans has annoyed Beijing ever since.

Arunachal Pradesh, nearly 33,000 square miles of lightly populated mountain and valley, is claimed by both India and China. Its people, largely Buddhist and ethnically Monpa, speak a language similar to Tibetan and have suffered long years of neglect by both states: a condition they no doubt prefer to being fought over. During the Indo-Chinese border war of 1962, Chinese troops occupied Tawang for more than a month. Now, China is reasserting its claim. India, in turn, is claiming more than 14,700 square miles of Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin, near the Kashmir border. Talks between the two countries have been held repeatedly over the past four years without resolution.

Today, the line of actual control is heavily patrolled by both nations: on the Indian side by troops housed in ramshackle, temporary huts, and on the Chinese by soldiers in concrete barracks marching along well-paved roads. The contrast has not escaped the notice of local people and is taken as a signal of intent.

The Dalai Lama's presence in Arunachal Pradesh and the warm welcome he received from his devout Monpa following are symbolic of the antagonism. But Beijing also issued a strong protest when the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Arunachal Pradesh last October during an election campaign.

Historically, China is Pakistan's ally and many in India believe that China maintains pressure along the 2,500-mile border that the two countries share to keep Indian forces tied down. There have been alarming reports in the Indian press of repeated incursions across the line of control by Chinese troops. The Indian government plays these incidents down, pointing out that the boundary is not only disputed but also ill-defined, and that these incursions need not be taken as provocation.

Behind the immediate stresses, there is jockeying for regional and international influence by two large, utterly developing economies, built on radically different political philosophies and lying in a region with both live and frozen conflicts. After 1962, relations were hostile for decades: China and Pakistan became ­allies, and India turned for support to China's enemy, the USSR.

The end of the cold war brought new conflicts based on ethnicity and religion, in a region with four nuclear powers. Recently, India has been alarmed by China's increasing presence in Sri Lanka and Nepal, historically Indian spheres of influence. Now, there is another factor to complicate relations - the impact of climate change on states divided by political boundaries but united in their dependence on the rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers for water, essential both for security and life itself.

Just a few miles across the line that divides Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet, the powerful torrent of what becomes the Brahmaputra River enters one of the most dramatic passages of its 2,000-mile journey to the Bay of Bengal. Rising on the slopes of the holy mountain of Kailash in western Tibet, it flows east, along the northern flank of the Himalayas, then enters one of the deepest gorges in the world, executing a hairpin bend before roaring south into Arunachal Pradesh.

To the engineers dominating the upper echelons of Chinese politics, who have the twin concerns of meeting China's ever-growing demand for energy and its need for water, the great bend of the Brahmaputra seems to offer an irresistible temptation.

Dammed if they do

Damming the great bend of the Brahmaputra is an idea with a long pedigree. It was first suggested as one of a series of global "megaprojects" by the Japanese in the 1970s. More recently, the Chinese government has made occasional reference to the plan. Though it remains a drawing-board idea, India suspects it is moving up the Chinese list of priorities.

Anxieties about China's intentions were inflamed in 2005 by the publication of the provocatively titled Tibet's Water Will Save China. Though it was not an official statement of policy, it was written by a former officer of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, Li Ling, and its wide circulation gave it sufficient stature in Indian eyes to merit careful scrutiny. Ling's enthusiasm for diverting Tibet's rivers, including the Brahmaputra, to northern China to alleviate the acute water crisis there fitted enough of the facts to set alarm bells ringing.

In many ways, it is an implausible project, but China's engineering record and its demonstrated love of ambitious dam projects are troubling to its neighbours, so much so, that many in India's security establishment have said that if China were to dam the Brahmaputra, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war. Doubts about the feasibility of the project, including those expressed by the more sober Indian civil engineers, have not dampened wider fears. For India, concern about China's ambitions for the Himalayan region rivals - and is linked to - its long-standing enmity with Pakistan. In the heated atmosphere of mutual suspicion, water has taken its place as a critical national security concern.

At a meeting between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Bangalore in October, India sought, and reportedly received, reassurances over the Brahmaputra. China, Indian officials were told, is a responsible country that would not harm the interests of its neighbours. But reports that remote sensing has detected the beginnings of construction on the river at Zangmu, Tibet, continue to circulate.

Both India and China suffer long-term anxieties over water, now rendered more acute by the rapid melting of the glaciers of the Himalayas (from which all of the great rivers of Asia derive to some degree). In a region fraught with mutual suspicion and reciprocal bad faith, there are no source-to-sink, trans-boundary water management agreements in place and, currently, little prospect of any being negotiated to manage the sharing of what threatens to be a rapidly diminishing supply.

The dispute works both ways. While India protests about Chinese infrastructure investments in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which include roads and a £7.8bn dam, India has its own plans to dam the Brahmaputra in Aruna­chal Pradesh, which China opposes. India has drawn up plans for 42 dams in Arunachal Pradesh, which have the potential to produce nearly 28,000 megawatts of hydropower, equivalent to the entire hydro capacity built by India in the past 60 years.

The dispute over the dams went international in June when China attempted to block an Asian Development Bank loan that included £37m for projects in Arunachal Pra­desh. The bank should not invest, China said, as the state was disputed territory. India responded by saying that it would finance the projects itself and stepped up its military presence in the region, deploying another 60,000 troops to the neighbouring state of Assam in addition to the 40,000 already stationed there. The shadow war games rapidly spread across the Himalayas, as China initiated military exercises. In September, India responded by stepping up the state of alert on the line of control in Kashmir.

The status of India's legal claim to Arunachal Pradesh is complicated and rests on the unresolved argument about the historic status of Tibet. It centres initially on an exchange of notes during the negotiation of the Simla Accord in 1914, under Henry McMahon, the then foreign secretary of British India. China, Tibet and Britain negotiated the accord, which resulted in the contentious McMahon Line that, for the British at least, defined the border between India and Tibet. The Tibetans conceded the territory that became Arunachal Pradesh to British India in return for a British promise, never honoured, to recognise Tibetan autonomy.

Chinese water torture

China rejected the Simla Accord and insists that Tibet did not have the status to sign any international agreement. If India were to rest its case on the accord, it would imply that Delhi recognised Tibet's authority to negotiate and conclude international agreements: a step that Beijing would take as severe provocation. The British, at the time, insisted on a distinction ­between China's acknowledged "suzerainty" over Tibet and full sovereignty, but the picture was further complicated last year when the Foreign Office abandoned the distinction, for current policy at least, as "anachronistic".

After Simla, neither side paid much attention to the disputed territory, and the Tawang monastery continued to pay taxes to Tibet until the 1950s. Shifting regional geopolitics have made this, and other Himalayan regions, the focus of potentially dangerous rivalries.

For the Tibetans in exile, these developments carry their own threat. Rising tension between their Indian hosts and Beijing is not good news. India has been a generous host to some 150,000 Tibetans who now live there, to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile, and to refugees who continue to arrive.

Yet there are voices in India which argue that, in the face of China's growing assertiveness, the cost to India of this spiritual and material solidarity is getting higher. It is not hard to find Indian analysts who believe that both India and China need a comprehensive agreement on the main points of contention between them - the border and the disputed territories, the fair management of declining water supplies, and the scientific and technical co-operation that such agreements would demand.

The question that many ask, but nobody has yet answered, is whether the price of a comprehensive agreement will be the special status and security that India's Tibetan exiles have enjoyed for more than half a century. Such a bargain would certainly please Beijing. For India, it is still a long way from official policy, but some argue it would be a price worth paying.


Isabel Hilton is editor of


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This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood