Monday, 5 June 2017

Garbage Rampage in Tibet

*By Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen

Why rampant littering on the world's highest Plateau concerns us all

Tibet, once the mystical Shangri-La to the western world, is still one of the most beautiful places and sought after destination for travelers. As per a Xinhua (Jan 3, 2017) News report, a whopping 23 million tourist flocked to the plateau in the year 2016 alone.

But the question is: Is Tibet ready to accommodate such massive number of tourists? 

The so called Tibet Autonomous Region (2017/01/03) says, it’s all set to welcome 25 million tourist this year and 30 million by 2020, ensuring an increase of 1.5 million tourists every year. To realize the 2020 target, the Chinese government has been making huge investments in infrastructural set-up: building roads, railways, airports and cities in the Tibetan areas. With increased access to Tibet, the government is able to mint, billions in tourism revenue.

But the Chinese government has conveniently neglected the imperativeness of the very basic measures and mechanisms needed to cope with increasing human activities in the fragile ecology. That is, garbage management and garbage treatment facilities.  The massive number of visitors to the region leaves behind proportional volume of garbage. The lack of institutional measures and adept governance in waste management has encouraged rampant littering on the mountains and massive waste dumping in the rivers.

Local Tibetan voluntary groups collect waste from mountains sides
Declaring more and more nature reserves or proposing to declare whole of Tibet into a National Park is absurd without providing the very basic infrastructure to deal with the everyday waste.

"Tibet is no longer the same, there are garbage everywhere". Said Tashi who has returned from a recent visit to his home in Karze region (an eastern Tibetan region incorporated into Sichuan Province of China ).  With a sense of frustration, he further added that "the rivers are flooded with garbage and there are no waste management facilities provided by the Chinese government in the rural areas".
The frustration over rampant littering fueled by Government’s apathy is no longer an isolated case in Karze region but is pertinent across Tibet. This is reflected in the numerous local conservation effort of the local Tibetans in recent years.

On 24th of the same month, a management group for sacred mountain Tsari in Nyingtri region of the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ made an appeal to the visitors not to litter on the holy mountain.
Until two decades, garbage was never an issue in Tibet. Domestic wastes were ingeniously managed and processed into manures for use in the farms.

But now with global warming and rising temperatures on the roof of the world, increasing human activities and abundance of food products packaged in plastics, the plateau is inundated with unregulated garbage disposal by tourists, pilgrims and construction workers. The traditional ways of waste management no longer remain a viable solution.

Such formidable scenarios, demands a forward-looking leadership to provide the necessary infrastructure, redressal mechanisms and sustainable measures. But the leadership in Beijing has utterly failed on two fronts in surmounting the pressing challenges:

1.      Failed to make general public aware of the health hazards and the environmental impact of garbage.
2.      Failed to meet the governance and basic infrastructure needs for waste management.

Much of the government investment is concentrated in few selected tourist centers and cities housing government officials. As soon as one travels outer-skirt of towns and cities, littering is rampant and governance on waste management almost non-existent. Such situation has compelled the local communities to step up efforts: voluntary environmental groups are formed and tasked to collect truckloads of garbage from surrounding mountains infested with wastes. In the absence of infrastructural provisions to deal with the garbage, the locals take recourse to burning the wastes, thus unintentionally causing greater environmental hazards.

With an area of 2.5 million km2 and at an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level, Tibet is the largest and highest plateau on earth. The plateau is not only home to world's highest mountains, storing 46,000 glaciers (third largest store of ice on earth beyond north and south pole) but it's also the head-source of Asia's largest rivers, such as Brahmaputra, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong and Salween. Supporting more than 1.3 billion people in the eleven (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China) downstream nations.  Any damage to the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau would have adverse global repercussions.

Millions of tourists flocking to Tibet are predominantly Chinese, rushing to escape from the toxic smog that engulf much of China. Should the current trend of rampant littering continue in Tibet, the 30 million tourists expected to touchdown in Tibet would be contributing substantially to garbage dumping crisis, thus tragically turning the world's highest plateau into a yet another toxic Chinese province. 

In a bid to avert an impending threat facing the roof of the world, the Chinese government must take prudent measures to address the lapses and ensure that any future investment in the region would result in creating a healthy and sustainable environment; - an environment that millions of tourists and generations of Tibetans could continue to enjoy.

*The author is an environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, India

Friday, 2 June 2017

Why is China Planning to turn whole of the Tibetan Plateau into a Park?

*Tenzin Palden

According to a recent report by the South China Morning Post (April 22, 2017), the Chinese government is planning to turn whole of the Tibetan Plateau into a mega national park.

National parks are created to preserve ecology as well as its cultural heritage. China's plan of converting whole of the Tibetan Plateau into a national park is an arduous task, but not impossible since many areas in Tibet have been already declared national parks, such as, the Qinghai Golmud Kunlun Mountain National Park, Jomolangma National Park, Namtso Nyenchen tanglha National Park, Guge National Park and many more.

The Chinese government designates a particular site as national park aiming for ecological sustainability. Provincial and local governments are given responsibilities to operate national parks with no further direction. However, local governments do not have sufficient funds for construction and operation of national park and hence it encourages private sectors to engage in initial infrastructure development and permitting them to operate park for a time period. Private sectors profit from the ticket sales for park entry and other recreational activities in the park. They develop sites within the national park at scenic spots by building hotels, resorts and restaurants. This defeats the objectives to preserve nature and to protect biodiversity and its ecosystem.

Chinese scholars and environmentalists have often critiqued the concept of national park and many argue whether they are for conservation or are aimed at commercialisation. China has followed the United States' method of monitoring its national park without understanding the unified system of governance in United States against the fragmented and often overlapping environmental governance in China.

China's plan of national parks in some of the areas in mainland China encouraged large number of tourists, but a severe loss in biodiversity and its plan to convert Tibetan Plateau into "The Last Piece of Pure Earth" can be considered as the first call to bring tourism to the whole of Tibet. China gained such confidence from success in tourism industry in certain Tibetan cities (Lhasa, Nyingtri and Gyalthang). China's need to construct huge area of national park in recent times is mainly because of emerging middle class with growing interests in outdoor recreational activities and this demand for public recreational sites and hugely profitable tourism sector attract state to build more number of national parks. The impact of tourism is evident in Lhasa where the majority of tourists are Chinese and they have their plans tailored to benefit Chinese businesses providing accommodation and food.

China's plan of converting the whole of Tibet to a national park not necessarily mean a positive effort towards nature conservation. On August 2013, there were reports of mining on a sacred mountain in Zatoe region of north-eastern Tibet. The area is under the jurisdiction of Sangjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. The local Tibetans of Zatoe County protested against the mining company but were violently suppressed by Chinese armed forces. In the year 2003, Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, (head source of three rivers) was declared as a national-level nature reserve.  Nature reserves are highly protected areas where development projects like mining and tourism are strictly prohibited, and national parks are built keeping in mind the economic and social development. When local authorities mismanage a national-level reserve for their economic benefit as evident in Zatoe, there is a clear picture of what Tibet will turn into once it is designated as the third pole national park.

*The author is an environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute

Monday, 21 November 2016


*Dechen Palmo

China’s control over “blue gold” wealth on Tibetan plateau has armed China with tremendous leverage and made them a potential water power in a way Saudi Arabia is an oil power.[1]

Moreover, the country which has the largest number of dams in the world with two -third of it located on Tibetan plateau, is still in the process of developing more dams to satiate its industrial sector’s growing power demand. As of now, China has more than 87,000 dams and in the last decade the country has installed more hydropower capacity than the rest of the world combined.[2] This means that China continues to play a leading role in global hydropower development.

Furthermore, Chinese companies and Chinese banks now fund largest dam projects in the world. By August 2012, Chinese companies and banks were involved in almost 308 dam projects in 70 different countries.[3] As of now, Chinese state-owned Sinohydro Corporation is the largest hydropower company in the world and the China Export-Import Bank (China Exim Bank) has emerged as the biggest funder of large dams.

China is developing at what cost?

On the ongoing debate over the ecological impact of large dams, Mark Tercek, CEO of Nature Conservancy said: “Environmentalists generally hate dams, even though they’re clean energy.”[4]
Unfortunately, the dams are not “Clean Energy” as Tercek has described. In fact, dams are one of the major factors causing Climate change.

According to Ivan Lima and other experts from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), world’s large dams emit 104 million metric tonnes of methane annually, which implies that methane emission from dams are responsible for at least 4% of total global warming caused by human activities.[5]

Taking into consideration the case of Mekong river, Chinese officials claim that the dam which were built on the upper reaches of Mekong river would have a positive environmental impact. They assert that during the wet season, the dam will help control flood and river bank soil erosion and above all provide clean energy. Conversely, releasing water during summer will help ease water shortage during the dry season.[6]
A river can be dammed in environmentally considerate manner. But what China is doing is over-damming of rivers. However, they fail to acknowledge that hydropower development alters the hydrology of the river by forcing variation in water flow such as reducing and delaying wet season flow and increasing dry season flow. This affects the ecosystem and livelihood of people who are dependent on the natural flow of rivers. Also these water fluctuations are made considering the rise and fall in electricity demand.

Moreover, controlling the flow of flood water has another adverse effect. The seasonal flooding is key to productive farms and health of fisheries as the floodwater inundates land with valuable nutrients and sediments. These nutrients stimulate the food web and enrich the soil and thereby promoting farming and fisheries. However with the damming on the Mekong river, it has created a huge net loss to the people dependent on the river for livelihood.

Furthermore, the dams built on the upper reaches of the Mekong river are located on highly seismic area. Although, Chinese regulations stipulate that dams are designed to withstand seismic activity. In case, big dams built on the upper reaches of the Mekong River fail due to natural catastrophe, it will create a “domino effect”, triggering a cascading sequel collapse of dams further downstream.
A 2012 Probe International report noted that “98.6% of all of these dams, and 99.7% of western China’s electricity generating capacity will be located in zones with a moderate to very high level of seismic hazard”.[7]

Adrian Moon, a geologist who has been monitoring earthquake activity on the Tibetan plateau, southeast Tibet and west of Sichuan since 2009 contends that “In an area like South-Eastern Tibet, with such complex geology and fault lines, just because nothing’s happened in the past doesn’t mean nothing will happen in the future,”[8]

China has turned a blind eye to the warnings and continues its frenetic dam building on the plateau including six large hydropower dams on the Lancang(Mekong) river and The Rumei (or Rongmei in Tibetan) hydropower project, which once completed will be the second highest in the world at  315 meters.

More dams in Tibetan plateau and other part of the world.

In March this year, China set out its development plan for the next five years. According to its 13th Five Year Plan, China has successfully taken over European Union in clean energy investment in last five years and they further intend to dominate clean technology market both at home and abroad for the next five years.[9]

So, the question arises, will hydropower be considered as clean energy as described in the 13th Five Year Plan?

If so, then there will be further escalation in dam building on the Tibetan plateau and other parts of the world.

The impacts of China’s dams on the Lower Riparian Countries

China’s control over Tibet brings a special privilege of being the upper riparian country of most of Asia’s major rivers, Beijing is using this vantage point in the game of water diplomacy.

Since late 2015, countries along the Lancang-Mekong river have suffered from severe drought and Chinese government blame it on El Nino phenomenon as they always turn their blame away from its dams.

So, in order to show their leverage over riparian countries, China announced the release of emergency water supply from Jinghong Hydropower Station from May 15 till April 10, 2016 to help overcome drought in Mekong Delta. From this we can observe that Beijing had already highlighted its dominance over the Mekong river and the downstream countries are dependent on China’s good will and charity of this life sustaining resources.[10]

Likewise, Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney had also describes how China could use its leverage to deter downstream countries from challenging its broader regional interests, citing that “smaller downstream countries in Southeast and Central Asia now use only coded language to express their concerns over Chinese dam building. For example, calling for transparency has become a way of referring obliquely to China, which smaller states are wary of mentioning by name.”[11]

One of the most recent example of arm twisting by China using its vantage point as an upper riparian country is the stalled multi-billion dollar Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River backed by China. Once completed, China will import 90% of the electricity generated leaving hardly any profit to the people of Myanmar despite the fact that Myanmar suffer daily power shortages.

With the new government in power, the decision of resuming project rests with the senior leadership, particularly Aung San Suu Kyi. If she decides to resume the project, it would seriously tarnish her claim of moral and political leadership and may even prompt protests in the country.

China continues to put pressure on Myanmar giving them three options regarding the future of the dam.

According to China, Myanmar can cancel the dam project and be liable to pay $800 million in compensation or resume work on the project and earn $500 million a year in revenue when it is completed, or do nothing and pay $50 million in interest for as long as it remains suspended.[12]

Moreover, most of Myanmar’s rivers have its source on the Tibetan plateau and China may use this as a tool to pressurize the new government. Beijing, with its diplomatic and economic clout, has put National League for Democracy (NLD) government in deep dilemma. On one hand, they have their own people who protest against the dam project and on the other, they have the Chinese government pressurizing them to resume the dam project.

In addition, neighboring countries like India and Nepal are concerned over  increased natural disaster in Tibet such as glacial avalanche, mud flood, landslide, dammed river bursting and earthquake.

When asked about the flooding from Tibet, officials from Central Water Commission of India says that they have concerns about flooding from Tibet too but they’re focused on dams building on Tibetan rivers “If waters from them are released in a larger quantity, they may become floods and if we have no storage in the Indian portion, that may create havoc,” the commission’s chairman Ghanashyam Jha told the BBC.[13]

Considering the impact of China’s dam building spree on the Tibetan plateau and in the neighboring countries, this article is an attempt to highlight the importance of the need for South Asian countries to come together to seek sustainable ecological and cost effective solutions instead of continuing dam building through collaborative efforts.

There is no right without responsibility, so China to represent as a responsible Asian power and upstream state on international river, has a duty to allow independent, comprehensive and expert assessment of  risks involved in the extension of dam project in and around Tibet. Findings of the experts should be made available to the affected people and the countries downstream must be given due consideration and acted upon by the Chinese government.


[1] Brahma Chellaney, “Water: Asia’s new battleground”, HarperCollins publisher,2011:p99
[3]H.Jeremy &Mongabay,10 Dec.2012,China funding construction of 308 dams in 70 countries,
[4]Mark Tercek who is CEO of The Nature Conservancy, May 12 New Yorker
[5] Ivan B.T. Lima et al. (2007) “Methane Emissions from Large Dams as Renewable Energy Resources: A Developing Nation Perspective,” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, published on-line March 2007.
[6] Jory Hecht and Guillaume Lacombe “the effects of hydropower dams on the hydrology of the Mekong basin” April 2014.state of knowledge journal.
[7]J. John, April 2012. earthquake hazard and large dams in western China, a probe international study ,
[8] Yunnan Chen, February 28, 2014, Dam building in Tibet increasing earthquake risks,
[9]  M.g.Shinwei ng & G.Jonathan, briefing paper, march 2016, pulling ahead on clean technology: China’s 13th five year plan challenges Europe’s low carbon competitiveness.
[10] China releasing water to draught stricken Mekong river countries , Xinhua,15th March 2016,

[11] Brahma Chellaney: China’s dam boom stokes concerns in Asia, Nikke Asia Review, 16 March, 2016.
[12] M.A Sithu, Frontier.26th June 2016.The Myitsone dam: China’s three option. 2016.
[13] K.S.Navin, 8th Sept.2016, BBC world service. India and Nepal concern over Tibet flood advice gap,.


*Dechen Palmo is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Natural Disasters in Tibet: Is it the New Normal?

*By Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen

World’s highest plateau witness three different natural disasters in a month
A 600 million cubic meters of glacial slide onto the Aru summer pasture of Ruthok County on 17 July 2016, killing nine people, burying more than 110 yaks and 350 sheep. Ruthok is one of the seven counties of Ngari prefecture of the Tibetan Autonomous Regions (TAR), located in the north-western edge of Tibet, bordering Xinjiang in the north and Ladakh (India) in the west.
Far away from Ruthok, in the north-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, mud floods and landslides killed two Tibetans and injured more than 30 people on the 9th day of the same month. The unusual mud flood also killed dozens of wild animals and livestock in the four counties of Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous prefecture of Qinghai Province.
Around the same time, a rare drought hit Chumarleb and Matoe counties (water source of Asia’s major rivers like Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong), leaving behind a dried river bed with hundreds of dead fishes. Ironically, local residents had to drink from lakes and muddy rivers despite Tibet being the ‘Water Tower of Asia’.
Figure1 : Mud flood in Tsolho where dozens of wild animals washed away in the mud
A glacial avalanche, mud floods and a drought within the month of July is a natural disaster too many too quickly. Local Tibetans are worried of the new trend of frequent natural disasters. A trend which might be, unfortunately, becoming the ‘New Normal in Tibet’.
Now, what is the cause behind the increasing number of natural disasters in Tibet in recent months or years?
“Climate change and human development are jeopardizing the plateau’s fragile environment” writes Jane Qui (Double threat for Tibet,Nature, August 19, 2014), precisely answering the causes behind the worrying natural trend.
Tibet is the world’s largest and highest plateau; from where earth’s majestic peaks rise in to the sky and mighty rivers gush through most of Asia, feeding billion plus lives in the riparian states and influencing the weather patterns as far as Europe. But with the temperature rise twice more than the global average, the plateau’s 46000 glaciers are rapidly melting and the streams are quickly drying up.
Despite the Tibetan Plateau facing the severest impact from climate change, there is an absolute lack of public education and awareness program on how to mitigate and adapt to the climate change. Much of China’s environment related policies framed in recent years are aimed at solving urban coastal pollution problems rather than protecting the fragile ethnic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
The local residents of Tsolho blamed the recent mud-flood in the region to excessive mining and tunneling of the mountains. The impact of climate change has been exacerbated by the increasing scale of resource extractions and dam constructions in the Tibetan areas. Mining has become the biggest concern for both the land and people of Tibet, causing landslide, grassland degradation and water pollution. According to the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute, there has been more than 30 known environment related protests in Tibet since 2009.
The dire implication of excessive mining in Tibet has been echoed by Chinese scientist as well.  Jane Qui citing a report from Chinese Academy of Science that the “Tibetan mines produced 100 million tonnes of wastewater in 2007 and 18.8 million tonnes of solid waste in 2009. Because most of the mines are open pits and have limited environmental oversight, air, water and soil pollution is particularly serious.”
A similar horrendous scenario was reported in the (2009) Tibet Handbook, the author of the travel guide writes that “the hills around Chumarleb have heavily eroded by the itinerant 70,000 or 80,000 Chinese gold miners who come here during the summer months. The lawlessness of these prospectors is encouraged by the paucity of the police force assigned to monitor them,” a firsthand account.  This is the same site where a recent drought has been reported and desertification is a serious issue.
Despite a clear warning of increasing natural disasters in Tibet such as landslides, torrential floods and snow disasters in an Environment Assessment Report (2015) published by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau, the Chinese government continue to expand and expedite mining and damming in Tibet.
Thus increasing the likelihood of more natural disasters as well as exacerbating the impact of any natural disaster. The flood in Tashigang township of Lhatse County (August 3, 2016) in central Tibet is one of the most recent disasters.  Fortunately, it was a breach of river embankment and not a dam burst as hurriedly reported by Xinhua news.

Figure 2: Tsenmo Hydropower Dam in Rebkong county of Qinghai Province. Locals are worried that heavy rain or earth quake could breaches the dam and wash away thousands of homes located down the valley
Nevertheless, rising river levels due to increasing rainfall and fast melting of glaciers could burst dams and cause catastrophic disasters to Tibet, China and Asia. Tibet is home to probably the largest number of dams in the world and Chinese government has been investing heavily on building mega dams.  The Suwalong hydropower project on the Yangtze River with a design capacity of 1.2 gigawatts is in the latest list of mega dams on this seismically active plateau.
A sudden rise in temperature and increase in natural disasters has been strongly felt by the local Tibetans in recent years. But the lack of information and infrastructure to mitigate the impact and adapt to the new pattern of global weather system has left Tibetans unprepared and unprotected.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government continue to build railways and dams to accelerate the exploitation of more than 3,000 proven mineral reserves found in Tibet.

*The author is an environment research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Lichu River Poisoned : Case of Minyak Lhagang Lithium Mine Protest

On 4 May 2016, a sudden mass death of fish in the Lichu River in Minyak Lhagang, Dartsedo County in Karze Prefecture brought hundreds of local Tibetans out on the street, protesting against a lithium mining company (Ronda Lithium Co Ltd) that released mine waste into the Lichu River, a tributary of Nakchu/Yalong river, the biggest river that merges with Yangtse downstream.

Mass death of fishes at Lichu river due release of toxic waste in the river
Yet another case of contaminated mine waste released into Tibetan rivers by a Chinese mining company clearly contradicts Beijing's call for Green Development in their 13th Five Year plan. In recent years, there have been an increase in the number of cases of environmental degradation caused by Chinese mining companies in Tibet, resulting in more than 20 large scale mining-related protests since 2009.

The source of lithium at Minyak Lhagang in Dartsedo is pegmatite, economically most profitable lithium minerals from hard rock. Minyak Lhagang lithium mining site may have the same high concentration of lithium as the adjacent Jiajika lithium mine, which is considered as the China's largest pegmatite type lithium deposit.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental impact, resulting in water and soil pollution. Unfortunately, extraction and processing of lithium does not involve clean and green technology as advertised in lithium based products such as electric and hybrid cars.

Many parts of China still carry out traditional lithium mining in both brine and hard rock lithium. Traditional lithium mining for hard rock involves roasting and calcination process at high temperature followed by water leaching. Water leaching is a process in which lithium is treated with high concentration of acids such as hydrochloric acid or sulphuric acid in water for high lithium recovery. Higher the concentration of acid used in the water leaching process, higher is the lithium recovery rate.

Local Tibetans believe that the death of hundreds of fish is caused by the poisoned water from the mining site and suspect leakage from the water leaching site. The highly concentrated acid stored for water leaching process might have leaked and drained into the Lichu River, which in turn may have led to the contamination of water, causing death of hundreds of fish.

The optimum pH level of majority of the aquatic animals lies between pH 6.5 to 9. Any further change in the optimum pH causes strain on animal physiology, reduces hatching and survival rate. Aquatic animals are more sensitive towards acids than alkalis. A change in pH with 0.5 towards acid from pure water (pH 7) causes aquatic animals in an abnormal environment and cannot survive when the pH level is lower than 3. Highly concentrated acids in the local river due to leakage of water leaching site may have altered the level of pH to as low as 3 causing death of fish and damage to the entire local river ecosystem.
During summer, aquatic animals usually have difficulty carrying out full life cycle as the concentration of dissolved oxygen fluctuates seasonally and is lowest during the months of May and June. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen contained in water, one of the indicators of the water's ability to support life and is found to be lower at higher altitude. The water leaching site might contain organic wastes (dead plants and animals) since the mining site was closed for a few years, the organic wastes drained into river water are decomposed by aerobic bacteria. Decomposition of the organic wastes is a major function of aerobic bacteria to provide nutrient to aquatic animals and requires oxygen which in turn cause depletion in oxygen level to other aquatic animals. High concentration of nitrates and phosphate if present in the contaminated water can be a factor lowering dissolved oxygen and causing high mortality rate of fish.

Lithium mine site
The People's Republic of China (PRC) has passed Environment Impact Assessment law, effective from September 2003. According to Article 5 of the EIA law of PRC, it states: "The state shall encourage all relevant units, experts and the public to participate in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) in proper ways."  The authorities at various levels should make local Tibetans well-informed and well-aware about the EIA law. The public or the residents near the mining sites are the chief stakeholders of social as well as environment impact assessment.
The local Tibetans earlier in October 2013 protested against the same lithium mining company when hundreds of fish were poisoned to death due to contaminated mining wastes drained into the Lichu River. If the authorities had treated all the stakeholders equally, environmentalists, NGOs and the local Tibetans might have rejected the proposed mining project from the very beginning due to clear negative environmental and social impact in future. It is evident that the local Tibetans were neither given equal participation while carrying out environment impact assessment nor clear instruction on the proposed project and its possible impact on the environment or EIA wasn't carried out at all.

Is temporary halt to operation at the mining site the heaviest penalty for the mining company which caused huge damage to river ecosystem?  Will the government re-examine the mining project and the company in accordance with Article 27 of EIA law of PRC which states: "In case of any inconsistence with EIA documents during project construction and operation, the construction unit shall organize a post-assessment of the environmental impacts, adopt improvement measures, and report to the original EIA document approval department and original project approval department for documentation. The original EIA document approval department may also request the construction unit to perform a post-assessment of the environmental impacts and adopt improvement measures."

Similarly, Article 85 in the Law of PRC on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution states: "The party whose rights and interests are damaged by a water pollution accident is entitled to ask the party discharging pollutants to eliminate the damage and make compensation for their losses." If the law was to be implemented accordingly, the mining company in question should compensate for damaging river ecosystem to the local Tibetans who are dependent on the river for their daily livelihood or should take voluntary action in depolluting the Lichu River and the local environment.

Local Tibetans of Lhagang Protesting
Local TiChina's move towards Green Development as stated in China's 13th Five Year Plan, a sustainable development with low carbon output and its claim of heading towards energy revolution will see promotion of "green cars". Huge demand for electric and hybrid cars across the world has tripled the price of lithium, "the white petroleum" over the years. Chinese Government's huge subsidy of electric and hybrid cars up to 60,000 Yuan per car has accelerated the demand for electric vehicles in China and is the leading consumer of electric cars and lithium in the world. According to China's Ministry of Land and Resource (MOLAR), the discovery rate of hard rock lithium in 2014 is 36.6% from 5.37 million tons resource whereas brine lithium is 18.8% from 92.491 million tons resource. Most of the brine lithium China has discovered in Amdo (Qinghai Province) provides low cost transportation to lithium manufacturing companies because of their relatively closer proximity to Beijing. However, the rise in demand for lithium will see more mining projects initiated on the Tibetan Plateau. This will in turn cut the cost and reduce China's dependence on other countries for lithium and will aid China's continued influence on lithium price in the global market.

Lithium based batteries have higher capacity to store power, are lighter in weight and cheaper than nickel metal hydride, form of batteries earlier used in electric and hybrid cars. This led to the steep rise in demand for lithium in the past few years. How will the government's huge subsidy of electric vehicles and steadily growing lithium price will meet the demand of China's huge appetite for lithium from other countries in the future? The only solution is to mine the Tibetan Plateau.

The recent reopening of the lithium mining site in Minyak Lhangang in eastern Tibet is to satisfy China's current lithium demand. China's demand for lithium has crossed threshold where it is compelled to reopen a lithium mining site which was earlier closed in 2013, following huge environmental degradation and death of hundreds of fish in Minyak Lhagang. The local Tibetans' protest against the mining site resulted in closing of the mining site but the mining company was never penalised for the damage it caused to the environment.
Minerals are rich in fault lines and Tibetan Plateau lies on the junction of Eurasian and Gondwana continental plates, world's key ore forming region. China's growing demand for minerals put the Tibetan Plateau at the forefront of its policies to profit from potential mining sites. Tibet has more than 90% of China's lithium reserves. The present small lithium mining projects in China will never meet the growing demand for lithium, hence large lithium mining projects in Tibet will serve a lucrative proposition.

Minyak Lhagang mining site, a considerably small lithium mining site, caused huge environmental damage, polluting rivers and death of hundreds of fish. Larger mining projects in Tibet will see remarkably higher damage to the environment and the local communities. Tibet's rivers are the source of fresh water and livelihood for the lower riparian South East Asia and South Asian countries. If mining projects in Tibet are not regulated, the toxins released from mining wastes may also cause huge number of fish mortality affecting fish industry in the downstream countries.

*Auther Tenzin Palden is an Environment Research fellow at the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute     

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Gyama Mine in Tibet On the Global Conflict Mine Map

Here we have re-posted an Interview we gave to Daniela, appeared on EJOLT. This is not only a detailed interview but it also facilitated in putting Gyama Mine Disaster on the Global Map as Conflict Mine. 


Posted on EJOLT or Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade. 
Mining, large infrastructure, turism and forced settlement of nomads lead to social distress and self immolations
By Daniela Del Bene (ICTA, UAB).

“The number of Tibetans setting themselves ablaze is increasing at an alarming rate. […] In addition to several political, social, religious and economic factors, the impact of mining and environmental pollution has been one of the major causes that drive fiery protests across Tibet”; an article from 2013 by the Research Office of the Environment and Development Desk of the Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala makes in this way the connection between self-immolations and environmental distress in Tibet; “On Tuesday 20.11.12 a Tibetan in his mid-’30s […] walked up the hill to the entrance of gold mining site in Gyagar Thang, poured kerosene over his body and set himself on fire”i. According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Dharamsala, this young man wanted to denounce the hardship of local communities affected by mining operation of the Chinese companies. As in many other countries, pain caused by the deterioration of the local ecologies and the disruption of traditional ways of life leads to resistances and constructive struggles but also to extreme acts of dissent and frustration. Moreover, China’s occupation of Tibet since the 1950s opened the door to systematic exploitation of Tibet’s rich minerals (copper, gold, chromite, aluminium, iron ore, boron, lead, zinc, lithium), but also crude oil, potassium, asbestos, natural gas and coal. Pollution of water bodies and additional impacts on the territories due to hydropower stations to provide energy to the mines are aggravating living conditions. Railways and roads made access to local cultural sites and natural amenities much easier and tourism is bringing along severe cultural and environmental impacts. Also, to facilitate extraction of natural resources and to control their movements and use of resources, Chinese authorities are forcing Tibetan nomads to settle down in ad hoc built villages where they are losing their traditional practices and therefore part of their culture.

In December 2014 in Dharamsala, I discussed these issues with Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Here is a short version of our interview. Full text is available as PDF here Please also read about the conflict at the Gyama mine in the EJatlas, the first case we cover in Tibet.

Can you please introduce your work at the Environment and Development Desk and describe the major environmental challenges you are facing now in Tibet?

The Environment and Development Desk has been set up under the Tibetan Policy Institute; we monitor current environmental situation in Tibet, research on the impact of climate change and damage caused by human factors, and then we try to disseminate an unbiased and true information about the global significance of the Tibetan Plateau and its current state of environment to the international community and governments. For Tibetans, environment issue is one of the most urgent tasks. His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) once said that political issue could wait but not environment. Since Tibetan plateau is very fragile, any major damage to its ecological state would be very difficult to restore. As Tibetans, we have a very intimate relation to nature because we believe there is presence of God everywhere, on the mountains, in the rivers, so we try to minimize the impacts as much as possible.

Things have changed ever since Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950s. Intentionally or unintentionally, there have been lots of environmental damages in the Tibetan areas under Chinese rule. China has already built railway lines, which makes mining much easier, cheaper and profitable. Then, they have constructed many hydropower stations that are indispensable for mining. Often, investors in these mining companies are central and provincial government officials. So every time local communities resist, they are first asked to just go away; if they insist, the companies try to convince that it’s meant for community’s development; if they still meet opposition, they try to divide the community and bribe members; lastly, they just deploy police forces to brutally repress resistance (by tear gas, rubber bullets, or opening fire). We managed to document at least 20 big protests against mining since 2009, although there could be many more. Such news will never come up in the Chinese media, so locals have no option but to send such information out to the world at great risk. So it’s very important for us to make this information known to the outside world and the Chinese government, the world has a responsibility to act. Local governments and mining companies always operate in collaboration and are far too powerful actors.

-What does mining entail for Tibetan people living in that area? What kind of resettlement policies is put in place?

To accelerate mining in Tibetan areas Tibetan nomads have to be removed from such areas; Chinese government introduced policies to completely resettle Tibetan nomads into poorly planned concentrated village, so that mining companies could have a free hand in the vast resource rich grassland at the cost of Tibetan nomads. So, we can say it’s another type of displacement, not from a precise spot to which you have official entitlement but from a whole area and way of life.

But it’s not only mining; tourism in Tibet is expanding fast but is concentrated in a few areas during a very short summer season, with massive numbers. Recently, China has built routes for tourists to visit sacred lakes and important environmental sites; such action would hurt both people and the land. But this kind of tourism creates very little wealth and job for the local Tibetans; most of the tourists in Tibet are Chinese. They mostly book travel packages through a Chinese Travel Agencies who books Chinese hotels to stay, a Chinese driver for local travel and a Chinese guide, and mostly eat in a Chinese restaurant.

-Your work in documenting socio-environmental resistances in Tibet is quite unique. Can you recall any interesting case you learnt about and their outcomes?

The most known case is probably a copper mine closed to Lhasa, called Gyama (in Chinese, Jiama) Copper Gold Polymetallic Mine, in an area rich in copper, zinc, lead, lithium. The mine was once declared as a model mine by the Chinese government. How ironic that the Tibetan communities around it have been protesting for over 5 years now as the mine brought disruption to the nomadic life on the mountains in that valley. It also caused river water pollution. Most notably the massive mine induced landslides in 2013 that killed more than 80 workers in the same mine. Though the Chinese government claims that the landslide was due to natural factors and not caused by the Gyama mine, we at the Environment Desk have strong evidence to prove that the 2013 landslide was caused by mismanagement of the mine.
Further details, stories and anecdotes are included in the FULL INTERVIEW (PDF).
For more information:
*Gyama Mine conflict in the EJAtlas
*Environment and Development Desk,
*Shielding the Mountains documentary movie, directed by Kunga Lama. Produced by Emily Yeh.
*Tibet Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “Imposing Modernity with Chinese Characteristics”, Dharamsala 2011
*Jampel Dell’Angelo, The sedentarization of Tibetan nomads: conservation or coercion?, p. 309-332 in H. Healy et al, Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, Routledge, London, 2012.
*“We are here to stay”, a LAMCA-EJOLT documentary movie
*Leah Temper, Daniela del Bene and Joan Martinez-Alier. 2015. Mapping the frontiers and front lines of global environmental justice: the EJAtlas. Journal of Political Ecology.

i Tsering Dhundup “Scarring the land, scraping the wounds”, available at: