TIBETAN ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

ENVIRONMENT OF TIBET

The great difference of altitudes and rainfall in Tibet creates ecosystem that vary from tropical cloud forests to high altitude deserts. The Tibetan plateau is the world’s highest ecosystem and one the world’s last great untouched wildernesses. Many mountain ecosystems are disappearing as result of excessive use of resources, inappropriate infrastructure development, deforestion and natural hazards.

Tibet is considered as the land of pure earth. It has traditionally had one of the most successful systems of environmental protection of any place in the world: namely that hardly anybody lives there. Formal protection of wildlife and environment through parks and reserves has traditionally not been necessary because the few people that live in Tibet practice Buddhism, which teaches people to respect all living and non-living elements of nature. Buddhism prohibits the killing of animals and advocates compassion towards the environment. All this is changing somewhat with the influx of Chinese into the region and their hunger for resources.

Currently about 20 percent of Tibet Autonomous Region is a nature reserve. Most of these reserves are in name only. There is little protection. Poaching occurs.

See Animals, Lhasa, Dams, Energy.

Website: Tibet Environmental Watch: www.tew.org

Environmental Issues and Tibetans

The Dalai Lama has spoken out on environmental issues and abuse of the Tibetan environment by the Chinese. He has raised the idea of turning much of the plateau into the world’s largest national park. Buddhism, some say, is a very environmentally-friendly philosophy. It denounces waste, consumption and forbids the killing of animals and promotes the idea that the natural world and the human world are interconnected and thus should be revered and treated well.

Buddha told his disciples in the 5th century B.C. that mankind must embrace all living things "as a mother cares for her son, her only son." He also said, “The forest is a unique organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends protection to all beings, offering shelter, even to the axeman who destroys it.”

Not everyone agrees with assessment that Tibetans are admirable nature lovers. Michael Buckley, author of a book on environmental issues in Tibet wrote: “Tibetans were not environmentalists. They had no concept of sanitation, plumbing, or garbage disposal.” There is a lot of litter in Tibet.

Political tensions in and around Tibet are increasingly exacerbated by environmental concerns. According to a separate report today, hundreds of Tibetan villages are staging a peaceful protest against a gold mine in western Sichuan that is planned near an area that locals consider a sacred mountain. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, May 26, 2009]

Himalaya Biodiversity Hotspot

The Himalayas were declared a Biodiversity Hot Spot in 2005.The Himalaya Hotspot is home to the world's highest mountains, including Mt. Everest. The mountains rise abruptly, resulting in a diversity of ecosystems that range from alluvial grasslands and subtropical broadleaf forests to alpine meadows above the tree line. Vascular plants have even been recorded at more than 6,000 meters. The hotspot is home to important populations of numerous large birds and mammals, including vultures, tigers, elephants, rhinos and wild water buffalo. [Source:Conservation International **]

VITAL SIGNS: Hotspot Original Extent (km²): 741,706; Hotspot Vegetation Remaining (km²): 185,427; Endemic Plant Species: 3,160; Endemic Threatened Birds: 8; Endemic Threatened Mammals: 4; Endemic Threatened Amphibians: 4; Extinct Species: 0; Human Population Density (people/km²): 123; Area Protected (km²): 112,578; Area Protected (km²) in Categories I-IV: 77,739. **

Stretching in an arc over 3,000 kilometers of northern Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the northwestern and northeastern states of India, the Himalaya hotspot includes all of the world's mountain peaks higher than 8,000 meters. This includes the world’s highest mountain, Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) as well as several of the world’s deepest river gorges. **

This immense mountain range, which covers nearly 750,000 km², has been divided into two regions: the Eastern Himalaya, which covers parts of Nepal, Bhutan, the northeast Indian states of West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh, southeast Tibet (Autonomous Region of China), and northern Myanmar; and the Western Himalaya, covering the Kumaon-Garhwal, northwest Kashmir, and northern Pakistan. While these divisions are largely artificial, the deep defile carved by the antecedent Kali Gandaki River between the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains has been an effective dispersal barrier to many species. **

The abrupt rise of the Himalayan Mountains from less than 500 meters to more than 8,000 meters results in a diversity of ecosystems that range, in only a couple of hundred kilometers, from alluvial grasslands (among the tallest in the world) and subtropical broadleaf forests along the foothills to temperate broadleaf forests in the mid hills, mixed conifer and conifer forests in the higher hills, and alpine meadows above the treeline. **

Forests in Tibet

Sultrim Palden Dekhang wrote: “According to conventional belief, Tibet is cold and barren. However, southern, eastern and southeastern parts of Tibet have alpine, temperate, sub-tropical and even tropical forests! Tibet has one of the oldest forest reserves in central Asia, which has been preserved in its natural state not through the new- age 'environmental movement' but via centuries-old understanding of Nature by the Tibetan Buddhist belief in ahimsa (non-violence) and realization of the vital interdependence nature of both biotic and abiotic elements of the earth. [Source: “Forestry in Tibet: Problems and Solutions by Sultrim Palden Dekhang, Green Tibet - Annual Newsletter 1996, The Office of Tibet, tew.org *^*]

The forest belt of Tibet has a rich biodiversity of species, including many endemic and fossil tree species. Tibet has over 5,700 species of higher plants belonging to 208 families and 1,258 genera. Many plant species are unique to tile high Tibetan Plateau, such as species of rhododendron, saxifraga, meconopsis, iris and others. *^*

Tibet's forests covered 25.2 million hectares. Most forests in Tibet grow on steep, isolated slopes in the river valleys of Tibet's low lying southeastern region. The principal types are tropical montane and subtropical montane coniferous forest, with evergreen spruce, fir, pine larch, cypress, birch and oak among the main species. The are many old growth forests in Tibet, with trees over 200 years old. The average stock density is 272 cubic metres per hectare, but U-Tsang's old growth areas reach 2,300 cubic metres per hectare - the world's highest stock density for conifers. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

According to Chinese government figures from the mid 1990s, the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' has the largest forest cover in China. The result obtained through satellites and land surveys shows that TAR has two billion square meters of timber forests, the biggest area in all of the present Chinese empire. About 9.8% of the region (7.17 million hectares) is covered by trees and vast tracts of forest spread across the east and south. *^*

Major forest areas in Tibet are in southern (Dram, Kyirong, Pema Koe, Kongpo, Nyingtri, Tawu, Metok, and Monyul), eastern (Chamdo, Drayap, Zogong, Karze, Potramo, Dhartsedo, Nyarong, Nyawa), south-eastern (Dechen, Balung, Gyaltilang, Mili, Lithang, Zayul, Markham, Zogang). In the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' (TAR) alone there are more than 8 forest vegetation types, 45 forest formations and still many other large number of forest associations have been recognized. *^*

Pollution in Tibet

Some Tibetans are angry about polluting factories built by the Chinese. Tibetans living in Gabu Village in a Tibetan area of Qinghai Province are incensed about an aluminum smelter there that belches out grayish smoke and leaves a grimy film on clothes and buildings. To make matters worse all the good jobs at the plant go to Han Chinese---who don’t do much or know much Tibetans say---while Tibetans only get the low-income and hard labor jobs.

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p> In 2007, Tibetans in Ganzi in Sichan Province held an protest to voice their anger over a mining company shearing off the top of a mountain regarded as sacred.

Global Warming in Tibet

Glaciers in Tibet and the Himalayas are disappearing at a rate of 7 percent a year. Global warming is believed to be a factor. See Glaciers. Global in Separate Sections

Global warming is being blamed for unusual heat waves. In 1998, Lhasa had its warmest June on record. The temperatures exceeded 77̊F for 23 days. People who live in the Himalayas say the sun is much stronger now than it used to be and say it snows less in the winter and the snow stays on the ground less time.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau has been warming faster than the global average with temperatures rising 0.16̊C per year. If the trend continues glaciers will recede significantly. The tjale---the 1.35 million square kilometer permafrost-like layer under the surface of the plateau---could thaw and be reduced by 60 percent by 2100. About 3,000 of the 4077 lakes in Qinghai Province’s Madoi County have disappeared. Large dune loom over some of the remaining ones.

There indications that global warming could produce more precipitation in Tibet. In the past 40 years the average annual temperature in Nagqu prefecture---a 4,500-meter-high, 446,000 square kilometer on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau that accounts for 37 percent of Tibet Autonomous Region---has risen 0.6 to 1.5 degrees C. Over the same period annual precipitation has nearly doubled from 78 millimeters to 150 millimeters.

Beijing is using rockets and artillery to seed clouds with rain-inducing chemicals. In Madoi County in Qinghai Province the program is so intense during the summer that the blasts of artillery keep people awake at night. Authorities insist the program is working and increasing rain and replenishing glaciers. Locals say the rockets just anger the gods and perpetuate the drought.

In western Tibet-Qinghai there is a mysterious "ozone valley" that thus far scientists have been unable to explain.

Deforestation in Tibet

right In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese logged the forested areas of Tibet very intensively. The film Cutting Down Tibet, made secretly by a Tibetan, showed huge logging camps in southern Tibet and trucks loaded with trees with 10-foot-in-diameter trunks.

Deforestation has turned once clear streams muddy brown. An increase in the number of livestock and a rising demand for fuel is threatening to strip the valleys of vegetation. Run-off from denuded mountain slopes is believed to have been a factor in excessive flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998.

Deforestation has been slowed since the 1998 Yangtze flood. Logging has been banned in Omda, Markam and Gonjo counties in Tibet in part to prevent erosion from filling in the Three Gorges Dam reservoir on the Yangtze. Large reforestation projects are being carried out.

China’s Impact on Tibet’s Environment

In review of the book “Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems From the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia” by Michael Buckley, Kapil Komireddi wrote in Washington Post, “Since its violent annexation of Tibet in 1950, China has relentlessly disfigured the hypnotically beautiful plateau. It has mined and carted away Tibet’s mineral wealth, dammed and diverted waters from its bountiful rivers, herded innumerable Tibetans into what it calls “New Socialist Villages,” suppressed the expression of Tibetan identity, and annihilated whole ways of life. [Source: Kapil Komireddi, Washington Post, January 2, 2015 /=/]

“Buckley is a keen observer. Seemingly minute changes in Tibet’s environment set him off on a quest to uncover their underlying causes. Stung by a mosquito in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, he is at first baffled: Mosquitoes aren’t supposed to be able to survive above 11,000 feet, and Lhasa sits at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Historically, Tibet has never been affected by malaria, still among the most fatal diseases in the vicinity. But as China’s aggressive colonization degrades Tibet’s habitat, this may soon change. The railway line from Beijing to Lhasa — a feat of engineering and a fount of pollution — brings trainloads of Han Chinese tourists and settlers.” /=/

To the Chinese “Tibet is a source of prized minerals, hydropower and water — officially classified as “Water Tower Number One.” Having survived waves of genocide, Tibetans must now endure ecocide: deforestation, landslides and “ecological migration,” the Chinese euphemism for mass displacement caused by damming. But the crisis engineered by China extends beyond its Buddhist colony.” /=/

Book: “Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems From the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia” by Michael Buckley, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015]

China, Tibet and the Great Rivers of Asia

Kapil Komireddi wrote in Washington Post, “Tibet, the third-largest reservoir of freshwater on Earth, is the source of some of Asia’s most vital rivers: Yangtze, Mekong, Yarlung Tsangpo. By Buckley’s estimation, the survival of more than 750 million people in nations downstream — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Cambodia — depends on waters originating in Chinese-controlled territory. By aggressively damming transboundary rivers and curtailing their flow, China has not only jeopardized Tibet’s fragile ecology; it has gained political leverage over the downstream nations. [Source: Kapil Komireddi, Washington Post, January 2, 2015 /=/]

“The rapidly proliferating megadams and reservoirs within China’s borders — more than 26,000, or half the world’s total — are taps that Beijing can turn on and off at will. Unlike neighboring India, which has signed generous water-sharing treaties with Pakistan and Bangladesh, China has repeatedly rebuffed efforts aimed at equitable resource allocation. In 1997, Beijing rejected a United Nations convention that prescribed a framework for water sharing. When Vladimir Putin threatens to block oil supplies to Europe, it at least spurs talk among his clients of alternative sources of energy. But for China’s weak and impoverished neighbors, there is no alternative to water. They are increasingly at Beijing’s mercy. /=/

Traveling to “the tail-end of the mighty rivers flowing from Tibet,” Buckley meets the people whose lives have been devastated by China’s actions. In Cambodia, for instance, he finds that the fish, along with the river silt so essential to the soil’s fertilization, are disappearing. China’s dams have halted their natural movement. Although Buckley does not directly state this, his book reaffirms the warning contained in Brahma Chellaney’s indispensable 2011 study, “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”: that China, through its unrestrained damming of transboundary rivers, may soon plunge Asia into a deadly conflict over water. /=/

Mega-Dam on the Brahmaputra in Tibet

In November 2014, China began generating electricity from Tibet's biggest ever hydropower project: on the Yarlung Zangbo river, known as the Brahmaputra in India, where it is a major waterway. The dam is 116 meters (381 feet). The project has prompted concern in India. The Brahmaputra is world’s largest rivers and a lifeline to some of India's remote, farm-dependent northeastern states.[Source: Agence France-Presse, November 24, 2014 */*]

AFP reported: “The first generating unit of the $1.6 billion Zangmu Hydropower Station, which stands more than 3,300 metres above sea level, went into operation. It will have a total generating capacity of 510,000 kilowatts, Xinhua said, making it the largest dam ever built on the Tibetan plateau. India's Foreign Ministry last year urged China "to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas" of the river, after state media reports that China planned several more dams there. */*

“Chinese dam construction has been blamed for reduced flow and sudden flooding on the Mekong river which flows into Southeast Asia, claims Beijing has denied. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, "The hydropower stations China builds will not affect the flood prevention and ecological system of downstream areas." Chinese media showed photographs of the Tibetan dam - a large concrete structure that did not appear to have flooded an area significantly wider than the river's original span. */*

Image Sources: University of Washington, Xinhua, Environmental News

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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