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

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.

A report issued by the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center in March 2009 said The central government would invest nearly US$2.9 billion to build a protective screen program during the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-2010). According to Xinhua: A number of environment-friendly regulations were issued to curb the damage of construction projects to the environment, charge fees for discharging industrial wastes, accelerate afforestation and protect the bio-diversity in the region. The report said Tibet has relied on environment-friendly industries, including tourism and Tibetan medicine and pharmacology, to ensure economic growth and sustainable development.[Source: Xinhua News Agency March 31, 2009]

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. The report above said the biodiversity in Tibet was well protected, it said. "Since the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951, not one species in Tibet has been found to have suffered extinction." Tibet also boasted 20 nature reserves, including nine at the national level and 11 at the regional level, with a total area of 41.26 million hectares, or 34.8 percent of the land area of Tibet.

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 and Litter 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. 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.

The report issued by the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center in March 2009 said the air quality of Lhasa was noticeably better than that of the other big cities in China, according to the report. In 2007, more than 98 percent of the days in Lhasa registered with "excellent" or "good" air quality, with only seven days registered as "slightly polluted." [Source: Xinhua News Agency March 31, 2009]

There is a lot of litter in Tibet. China launched an anti-white pollution campaign in all 73 county seats and major tourists sites in Tibet in of 2010 which included a ban on the production, sales and use of disposable plastic bags and foam dinnerware. Zhang Yongze, director of Tibet's environmental protection bureau, told Xinhua that the task was "daunting" as most supermarkets, department stores, food markets and restaurants in the county seats still use plastic bags and foam dinnerware. A similar campaign was launched in Lhasa in 2004 and later extended to capitals of major prefectures. Local authorities in Lhasa seized more than 260 tonnes of disposable plastic bags and foam dinnerware in the crackdown on white pollution last year. [Source: Xinhua, January 20, 2010]

200-Meter 'Garbage Belt' at Hoh Xil Nature Reserve

Piles of garbage in northwest China's Hoh Xil nature reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, could threaten wildlife in the area, including the near-threatened Tibetan antelope and over 2000 other species, and hundreds of herders that didn’t cause the mess have been forced to clean up a particularly bad stretch of trash. [Source: Matthew Loh, Business Insider, June 22, 2021]

According to Business Insider: One particularly ravaged spot is a 200-meter (656-foot) long and 20-meter (65-foot) wide 'garbage belt,' filled with anything from plastic, cans, and paint buckets to sheep and yak carcasses, said the Beijing-based newspaper. The garbage belt runs along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, a national road used heavily by tourists and long-distance truckers.

“Hundreds of local herders were called in by officials to aid with the clean-up, but are struggling to finish the job due to the sheer amount of trash, reported the South China Morning Post. A local herder who was enlisted to help, Tsering Kunbu, told the Post that only around 200 people live in the area near the garbage belt and that the waste there has accumulated for years because there are no landfill sites nearby. He added that petrol stations, restaurants, and car repair shops in Hoh Xil are also plagued with immense amounts of litter.

“Independent geologist and explorer Yang Yong told the Post that the garbage situation in the area "has not improved for many years." The swells of trash have raised concerns for wildlife in the nature reserve — a 32,000 square-mile area that hosts over 230 animal species, including the Tibetan antelope. Li Junsheng, a deputy director of the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Science at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, told The Global Times that the garbage could poison animals and humans and pollute water in the region. He called for laws that regulate human activity in the region to be amended and published as soon as possible.

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. 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.

Tibet's Permafrost May Be Playing a Surprise Role in Climate Change

On the Tibetan Plateau, climate change is increasing the carbon concentrations within the upper layers of permafrost soils, a study has shown. This represents a negative feedback to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and could potentially slow the pace of climate change.Permafrost soils are known to store large amounts of carbon. As temperature rise and permafrost thaws, some of this carbon is released into the atmosphere. However, the upper layers of the permafrost soils can also trap a certain amount of carbon. [Source: Léa SurugueLéa Surugue, International Business Times, May 8, 2017]

The International Business Times reported: The balance of these carbon fluxes can help scientists determine the contribution of permafrost to global warming. "In these cold regions as it gets warmer, the vegetation grows more and that puts more carbon in the top layers of the soil. What we are concerned about is the carbon that is in the frozen permafrost, deeper in the soil. Whether or not you have a bigger emission of carbon depends on the balance between how much carbon is released from those deep soils when permafrost thaws versus how much enters at the top", permafrost expert Sarah Chadburn from the University of Exeter told IBTimes UK. "Our models tend to predict that more carbon is coming out but it is helpful to get precise measurements of carbon concentrations at the top of the soil to get a better idea of how the whole system affects global warming".So far, the effects of warming on the balance of carbon uptake and loss in permafrost regions has remained unclear. More accurate measurements of carbon concentration in permafrost soils are needed.

The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, is based on repeated soil carbon measurements at more than 100 sites in the Tibetan Plateau, taken in the early 2000s and early 2010s. "This study is particularly interesting because it's coming from an area that was underrepresented in the scientific literature in terms of studying the carbon balance associated with thawing permafrost", Vladimir Romanovsky, from the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks told IBTimes UK.

The study's authors report an accumulation of soil organic carbon in the uppermost 30cm of the permafrost soils over this decade – a period when temperatures kept rising in the Tibetan Plateau. The scientists hypothesise that this increase in carbon stocks is probably the result of climate change-related vegetation growth in the region. Their findings suggest that the upper layer of the permafrost represents a substantial regional carbon sink to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations in a warning climate. As such, it could help offset carbon losses from the deeper thawing permafrost and slow the pace of climate change.

Chadburn commented: "The Tibetan Plateau is a bit different to other permafrost regions. Most regions are at higher latitudes, like the Arctic permafrost region, whereas the Tibet Plateau is Alpine mountain permafrost. It's much further south so it is a different kind of climate. We don't know if these findings could apply to other permafrost regions. But we need to do the same kind of studies in other areas because such measurements are really useful to understand the role of permafrost in furthering climate change".

Deforestation in Tibet


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 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.

The report issued by the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center in March 2009 said the human afforested area in the region jumped from 868 hectares in 1990 hectares to 19,069 in 2007, including 13,132 hectares of shelter forests which plays an important role in ecological protection, the report said. [Source: Xinhua News Agency March 31, 2009]

Between 2004 and 2010, the Chinese and Tibetan government re-grassed 28,000 square kilometers and re-seeded 7,133 square kilometers of forest in the region. Tibet also has the highest ratio of nature reserves in China — one-third of its 1.2 million square kilometers are protected. [Source: Xu Chang'an, Chinanews.com.cn, translated by Li Xiaohua, January 7, 2010]

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]

Chinese Take on How It Has Helped Tibet’s Environment

Xu Chang'an wrote in Chinanews.com.cn; In 2000, it was impossible to boil an egg in Tibet. The lack of oxygen in the air made the boiling point of water too low for proper cohesion of the yolk and egg white. But years of replanting forests and grasslands have restored oxygen into the air, and Tibetans now enjoy hard-boiled eggs every day.[Source: Xu Chang'an, Chinanews.com.cn, translated by Li Xiaohua, January 7, 2010]

The Chinese government has paid unprecedented attention to the ecological construction and environmental protection of Tibet over the past decade, pouring in 6.7 billion yuan (US$981 million) into the region as part of its China Western Development Plan. The policy covers 12 western provinces and regions of China, including Tibet, and aims to bring the areas in line with the more developed eastern China. Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, said the region has benefited the most from the plan.

Green economy has become popular on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. All projects in Tibet are strictly valued on environmental impact. Such protection has kept industry and development relatively low. "Our industrial added value only accounts for 8 percent of our GDP," Qiangba Puncog said. But he noted they also have low carbon emissions. The region even gave up its gold dust mining industry "to better protect Tibet's ecological environment," Qiangba Puncog said. The region no longer mines for iron sand, either.

Qiangba Puncog also defended the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, calling it an "ecological line." Completed in 2006, the railway was the first to connect the Tibetan plateau with inner China. "Constructors put great efforts in environmental protection," Qiangba Puncog said. "Vegetations around the roadbed were first replanted and then restored. Routes are left for animals by building elevated tracks."

China’s State Council approved 15 billion yuan (US$2.2 billion) in February 2009 to create a state ecological security shelter zone on the plateau by 2020. "We will develop [our] green economy and make the sky bluer, the land greener and the water cleaner," Qiangba Puncog said.

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) \=/; 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.

Last updated September 2022

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