Sunday, 5 July 2020

Dalai Lama an Environmentalist: A Commitment of 70 Years

By Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha

"I was born in a small village called Taktser, in the northeast of Tibet, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Wood Hog year of the Tibetan calendar-that is, in 1935", writes the Dalai Lama in his first ever biography 'My Land and My People’, published in 1962

Dalai Lama's message to His Holiness the the UNFCCC and government delegates at the COP25:UN Climate Summit in 2019

85 years since then, on 6 July 2020, people across the world will be celebrating his birthday and his life’s work of promoting universal peace and compassion. As commendation for of the Dalai Lama's immense global contribution to world peace and religious harmony, he has being hailed as one of the world's most respected, admired and influential living figures.

The focus of the Dalai Lama’s colossal endeavors extends from the cause of the Tibetan freedom struggle to universal ethics to religious harmony. Yet another vital aspect of his professed goals towards which he has consistently worked for, has been calling for wildlife conservation and environmental protection ever since he took political responsibility of Tibet in 1950. From ordering measures for forest protection and banning hunting during the period of independent Tibet, ending poultry farming and supporting vegetarianism in the exile Tibetan community in India, calling for tree plantation and wild life protection in Tibet, highlighting ecological importance of the Tibetan Plateau and urging for global cooperation on climate change, the Dalai Lama has consistently worked for environmental conservation for the last seven decades.  

An Environmentalist: A Core Principal

Environmental Conservation has been a core principle that directs the mission goals of the Dalai Lama as its clearly represented in his Three Main Commitments in life. After the devolution of all political responsibility to a democratically elected leader of the Tibetan people in 2011, the Dalai Lama   evocatively stated that he would continue to devote his life to three main commitments - the promotion of human values, the promotion of religious harmony, and the preservation of Tibet's Spiritual heritage and protection of its environment. The last commitment reaffirmed his lifelong objective towards striving for environmental conservation. Such a significant pledge from the   Dalai Lama, who is both the most revered person in Tibet as well as a deeply admired global figure, immensely strengthen the cause of environmental conservation.

Furthermore, the Dalai Lama has been a strong supporter of global cooperation on climate change and global warming. His statement, during the 1992 address to the Parliamentary Earth Summit at the Rio Earth Summit, reads:

I believe that to meet the challenge of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not for his or herself, family, or nation, but for the benefit of all mankind
In a video message to the delegates of Paris Climate Summit in 2015, Dalai Lama rightly noted that human beings are responsible for the current climate crisis and that it is not a question of one nation or two nations. But rather a question of humanity affecting the whole world. In a similar manner, the Dalai Lama sent another written message, delivered in hand by this author, to the Conference of Parties (COP 24) and its delegates on 20 November 2018, the message states:

I extend my greetings and prayers to my dear brothers and sisters, delegates to the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change … I would sincerely like to thank all of you who have selflessly and tirelessly put effort into creating a better environment for the world so that future generation will be able to live a healthy, happy life

An Environmentalist: Being One in Practice

Proposal for Tibet as Zone of Peace for men and Nature in Five Point Peace Plan - 1987

With an increasingly interdependent world and a rapidly degrading ecological situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama put forth the famous Five Point Peace Plan during an address to the U.S. Congressional Human Right's Caucus in 1987. Proposing for a transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace, he stated,

It is my sincere desire, as well as that of the Tibetan people, to restore to Tibet her invaluable role, by converting the entire country - comprising the three provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo - once more into a place of stability, peace and harmony.
The proposal further adds “In the best of Buddhist tradition, Tibet would extend its services and hospitality to all who further the cause of world peace and the well-being of mankind and the natural environment we share."
Concerned of the grave implications from a poor environmental situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama called for 'Restoration and Protection of Tibet's Natural Environment' in the Five Point Peace Plan. Emphatically voicing against the production of nuclear weapons and the dumping of nuclear waste on the plateau.  he further stated that the Tibetan people's inherent respect for all forms of life is enhanced by the Buddhist faith, which prohibits the harming of all sentient beings, whether human or animal. The proposal to transform Tibet as a Zone of Peace stems from his strong desire for a peaceful co-existence among different nations, and a lasting solution for the ongoing conflict between India and China on Tibet’s border would only result from the fruition of this proposal. It would also protect the world’s highest Plateau from further degradation and destruction, which ultimately would result in the conservation of the source of Asia’s most important rivers such as; Senge Tsangpo/Indus, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Machu/Yellow River, Zachu/Mekong River, Drichu/Yangtze River and Gyalmo Nyulchu/Salween River, which together support more than 1.5 billion people in Asia or a fifth of the world’s populations.

Opposing and ending the Tradition of wearing Animal Fur Dress in Tibet

The wearing of Tibetan traditional clothes with a layer of tiger or leopard or Otter skin trimmed on their dress was an extremely popular attire across Tibet, particularly in eastern Tibet. Therefore, an abrupt end to this tradition was an unimaginable scenario until it happened soon after a strong objection from the Dalai Lama in 2006 during the Kalachakra Puja in Amravati, South India.

At the Kalachakra Puja on 9 January, the Dalai Lama strongly spoke out against this practice, (Dalai Lama on Environment, page 114) stating that 

Some insensitive Tibetan in Tibet wear outfits adorned with tiger, leopard, and otter skins. Such behaviors, indeed, makes every one of us feel embarrassed. I have emphasized this so many times before. I once again emphasize to all of you, particularly those from Tibet, the flaunting clothes trimmed with animal skins is nothing but an act of stupidity- a source of embarrassment to you and your fellow Tibetans.
Such a strong objection resulted in scores of Tibetans in Tibet enthusiastically burning, in large number, their much loved and expensive animal fur or skin dresses and pledging never to use them again.  Such scenes of putting an end to the practice emerged from all parts of Tibet. This fundamental change has had immense positive effects towards saving hundreds of tigers and leopards in Asia, particularly in India. It was beyond anyone’s speculation that the Dalai Lama’s statement would receive such a prompt and decisive reaction from Tibet. As an environmentalist myself, this author has long considered it as one of the greatest environmental contribution by the Dalai Lama or anyone else.

First Nobel Laureate to be recognized for Their Environmental Conservation Efforts
The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his decade’s long commitment to a peaceful struggle, even in the face of extreme aggression, for the restoration of freedom in Tibet. However, he also became the first Nobel Laureate to be recognized for his motivation and concern towards global environmental problems as well.
In a Press Release dated 5 November 1989, on their decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wrote,

the Dalai Lama has developed his philosophy of peace from a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature. In the opinion of the Committee the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems.

This recognition was a significant milestone in the Dalai Lama’s endeavors for environmental conservation, one that has been supplemented and strengthened by a global acknowledgement of his efforts as an environmentalist.

A Continuing Quest for the Environment

As the Dalai Lama turns 85 this year, his dedication towards the environment has not dimmed in the slightest but continues to grow stronger. The strength behind such dedication stems from the core principle of environmental conservation that is one of the foundational pillars of his belief while he increasingly advocates for a more compassionate human society and a positive relationship with the global environment.  His three commitments to the world have seen him transcend the perception of being a Buddhist or a Tibetan leader to a global figure that is respected and revered across borders, religions, cultures, and politics. As a consequence of such recognition, the Dalai Lama has been able to highlight the importance of environmental conservation, achieve long lasting results and become not just a beacon for compassion and universal ethics, but also as one of the most important ambassadors for environmentalists all over the world.

The original post was published by ‘The Quint’ on July 5, 2020

Thursday, 28 May 2020

How real is Nature’s Comeback during Covid-19 Lockdown

By Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha

The world saw an unprecedented fall in carbon (CO2) emission and human activities due to the ongoing global lockdown. This has reportedly resulted in the restoration of clear blue sky over smog filled cities and reclamation of their lost territories by wild animals.

But how real is the natural environments’ comeback and its possible benefits for the global health?

According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), economic restrictions due to the global lockdown and changes in weather could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 8% this year, which is the largest decline in 70 years. Such a fall, though under unfortunate circumstances, is a welcome shift as outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people every year, as per data from World Health Organization (WHO).  This is more than 13 times the reported death from COVID-19 till date.
Sadly, around 91% of the world’s population live in places where air quality exceeds World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline limits. But the ongoing global lockdown, though unintended, has resulted in a massive reduction in air pollution to open up the blue sky hidden behind dark smog for decades. The clearing sky gave people in the Indian subcontinent a rare glimpse of famous Himalayan peaks; such as  Mt Everest from Kathmandu, Kangchenjunga from Siliguri and Dhauladhar ranges from Jalandhar, after more  than 30 years. Some of the cities are located as far as 200 km away from the mountain ranges.

Delhi, notwithstanding, been one of the most polluted cities in the world, has seen a stark shift in recent months with 49% reduction in air pollution and less pollutants flowing in the Yamuna River. The residents were elated to see blue sky over the city, which has been blanketed with smog for decades. As per data records (Weather Online), the city also experienced a much cooler weather condition for the first 10 days of the May 2020 compared to the same period in the last five years. No successive governments in Delhi, for decades, has been able to achieve such a reduction in air pollution despite initiating numerous policies and regulations.

Clear Blue sky in New Delhi during the Lockdown (Photo: Choenyi Woeser)
The decline in carbon emission means fewer deaths worldwide, particularly in India. According to Data from WHO, outdoor air pollution contributed to 7.6% of all deaths worldwide in 2016. And as per the State of Global Air 2019 Report, air pollution killed over 1.2 million in India in 2017.
So, could the world’s biggest lockdown ordered by Prime Minister Modi to flatten the COVID-19 curve, contributing to a better air quality and natural environment?

With the enormity of the exercise, which has completely halted the economic engine of the world’s fifth largest economy and restricted the movement of 1.39 billion people for almost two months, logically has to have a tangible impact on the natural environment. An analysis of Indian government data by Carbon Brief, for the first time in four decades, the carbon emission in India fell by an estimate of 15% during the month of March, and the decline could have doubled for the month of April.

The positive impact on the environment from nationwide lockdown is also felt in non-urban areas. About 500km away from Delhi, the hill-station of Dharamshala is experiencing a cold and unusual summer with constantly fluctuating weather condition. Local residents have alluded the over-extended winter to reduced carbon emission during the lockdown. But scientists have linked the milder summer in much of north and central India to a very high western disturbance activity occurring this year. As per an observation by this writer while comparing the temperature records (Weather Online) of the hill-station since 2016, surprisingly found that the first ten days of May 2020 has been the coldest in five years.

China, the first country to enforce lockdowns, also saw a decline in air pollution. As per a paper published in the UK, the lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, from where the virus infection first originated, saw 63% reduction in air pollution. Such a reduction, the paper states, could have prevented 10,822 death in China as a whole, which is twice more than the reported COVID-19 deaths in China. China being the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, any decline means some respite for the nature.

The health crisis, unfortunately, has spread to every corner of the world except for few islands in the Pacific. There are 250 countries or territories dealing with the infection as per the WHO list, which is more than the total number of countries recognized by United Nations. The 15 countries (WHO) with the largest number of COVID-19 infection till date are mostly part of the G7, OPEC and BRICS, basically the wealthiest group of nations on earth with the highest rate of carbon emission. Therefore, a collective lockdown of the fifteen countries, either partial or total, should have naturally contributed to a massive decline in atmospheric pollution.

A global health crisis of even greater proportion could emerge unless we take strong measures to protect the ecological wellbeing of the natural environment. Scientists have recently discovered 28 unknown ancient virus frozen under the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, but glaciers are quickly receding due to global warming. Scientist fear that, as glaciers melt, the ancient virus frozen beneath snow for 15,000 years, could come back to life and release new diseases.

How do we mitigate impending risk depend on how the world move forward post lockdown.

The post lockdown could open up two serious risk to the nature; a huge medical waste and a revenge consumption. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has appropriately forewarned its member states of the risk of increased waste necessitated by the medical response to the health crisis.
The world leaders, rightly took bold decisions to save thousands of lives from the pandemic wave despite a massive economic fallout. A hasty economic revival post lockdown with massive stimulus packages could negate the huge environmental gains made for the first time in decades. As envisioned in the UN sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate poverty and provide a healthy environment by 2030, the world must learn from the coronavirus catastrophe to strive for a more sustainable economic structure to prevent a climate crisis.

The crisis has shown to the world that an unimaginable rate of carbon reduction could be achieved in a short period, if the leaders are willing.
(PS: Data used in the article are up-to-date till 21st May 2020)

 This article originally published on

Friday, 1 November 2019


By Dechen Palmo

At the dawn of a new era of building dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo, countless lives and ecosystems are being risked in the name of “development” and geopolitics.

This Map shows the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Brahmaputra river in Tibet with number of dams on it. Map prepared by Mingyur Tenpa, Environment & Development Desk, Tibet Policy Institute
Over the last seven decades, the People’s Republic of China has constructed more than 87,000 dams. Collectively they generate 352.26 GW of power, more than the capacities of Brazil, the United States, and Canada combined. On the other hand, these projects have led to the displacement of over 23 million people.
The Tibetan plateau is a rich repository of indispensable freshwater resources that are shared across Asia. After damming most of its rivers, China is now casting its eyes on the major international rivers flowing out from the Tibetan plateau, heralding a new era of damming Tibet’s rivers.
Tibet, known as the “Water Tower of Asia,” serves as the source of 10 major Asian river systems flowing into 10 countries, including many of the most densely populated nations in the world: China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan.
China, through its political control over Tibet, has complete upper riparian control over all major rivers flowing out of the Tibetan plateau. Compared to China, Tibet remains a virgin territory with less than 0.6 percent of its hydropower resources being utilized for developmental purposes. But this is changing rapidly. As China seeks to meet its renewable energy targets, Beijing will have to harness yet more hydropower. Chinese hydropower and energy companies have been lobbying the government to allow more hydropower projects to tap into Tibet’s fast-flowing rivers, with as many as 28 proposals awaiting approval.
Tibet is a geologically unstable region with an average elevation of 4,500 meters above sea level (14,800 feet). Despite the critical state of the Tibetan plateau which remains ecologically sensitive and seismically active, China is still moving on with its ambitious plan to expand the hydropower generation on the headwaters of Asia’s major rivers — the Yangtze, Yellow, Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong, and Salween Rivers.
China’s State Council’s energy plan for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) and 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) confirm the government’s intentions to vigorously push forward the hydropower project on the Tibetan plateau. Hydropower is being promoted as the centerpiece of China’s plan to expand its renewable energy sector. By 2020, China wants to triple its hydropower capacity to 300 GW. Therefore it is increasingly damming transboundary rivers to achieve its hydropower targets.
The Brahmaputra, know as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan, is a major international river shared between Tibet, India, and Bangladesh. It stretches over a total length of 1,800 miles (2,900 km) from west to east, starting on the Tibetan plateau from its source, the Chemayungdung glaciers near the sacred Mount Kailash.
Once a free-flowing river, it is now dammed on every section. Starting from Zangmu hydroelectric power station, there has been a cascade of dams being built on the Brahmaputra.  Geologist Yang Yong had rightly said that the activity represents “the start of a hydropower era for Tibet’s rivers.”
In January 2013, China approved three dam projects on the Brahmaputra River as part of its 12th Five-Year Plan, which triggered concerns in the Indian media about the possible impact on downstream flows. In an attempt to downplay India’s concern over these matters, the Chinese government was quick to assure India that the project will be planned and reasoned scientifically. It maintained that the project was a Run-of-River (ROR) hydroelectricity generation project – meaning a part of the river was being diverted to run past electricity generating turbines, and then the water would flow back to join the river. Such a ROR project would, according to that argument, not reduce the water flow and not have any impact downstream.
These assertions are largely untrue. Instead, ROR projects require storing large volumes of water during the day, only to be released all at once in the evening for generating power during peak energy demand. These daily fluctuations in the river cause an incredible disruption to the river ecology. Moreover, large dams also increase the probabilities of earthquakes, destroy precious environments, and shatter the lives of millions of people who are dependent on the Brahmaputra River.
Rather than benefiting populations with non-polluting power, China’s dam builders are making a Faustian bargain with nature, selling Tibet’s soul in their drive for economic growth. Taken together there is much scientific evidence that dams are not the clean, green, or cheap source of electric power they are often made out to be.
This photo shows a construction site of Jiexu Dam. Photo taken on November 10, 2018. Photo@Dechen Palmo
It is no surprise that China has begun the construction of three hydropower dams (Dagu, Jiexu, and Jiacha) on the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra. The Dagu (660 MW) and Jiexu (560 MW) dams are being constructed upstream of Zangmu and the Jiacha dam (320 MW) downstream of Zangmu — all located within a few kilometers from each other.
The Zangmu hydropower station (510 MW) is only the start. China plans to build 11 hydropower stations on the Brahmaputra mainstream and several on its tributaries. Huaneng, Huadian, Guodian and Datang — four major power generation groups — have already taken root in Tibet. Among them, Huaneng is the largest hydropower development in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
Huaneng Tibet Power Generation Co. Ltd. (HTPG), a subsidiary of the state-owned China Huaneng Group, has signed multiple agreements with the TAR government regarding the development of clean energy in the region. According to the agreements between the company and the regional government, Huaneng’s installed capacity in Tibet will reach 10,000 megawatts by 2020. It is believed that hydropower resources in the TAR account for 29 percent of the national total.
According to the plan, Huaneng Group is responsible for the development of the Jiexu and Jiacha hydropower stations whereas Huadian group constructed Dagu.
In addition, the Bayu hydropower station began its survey in November last year. The installed capacity of that power station is 800 MW.
From time to time, whenever water issues such as floods and other disasters occur in the region, India raises its concerns to Chinese counterparts. Those concerns are met with a Memorandum of Understanding  (MoU) or Expert Level Mechanism (ELM), which remains nonbinding and without any governing body that ensures their implementation.
China has so far not communicated officially about the construction of these dams on the Brahmaputra. A lack of transparency about dam building on the Tibetan river raises questions about whether the Tibetan people and the downstream countries were fully informed about the risk and impacts on a river system that supports millions. These proposed dams will pose a serious ecological threat not only to the Tibetan plateau but also to the other side of the border. China, by constructing these dams, will be responsible for the overexploitation of the river, which can jeopardize the river ecosystem as well as alter water flows downstream, affecting the farmers and fishermen of India and Bangladesh.
Moreover, China can also easily manipulate the river flow, which puts India at a strategically disadvantageous position. It is high time for India to take a stand in order to ascertain their user rights on the river and monitor those dam activities on the upper part of the Brahmaputra River.
The environmental health of the Tibetan plateau is critical for around 1.3 billion people who live in the river basins downstream in Asia. The Tibetan river shouldn’t be seen only as a source of hydropower; its geological significance should also be taken into serious consideration.

(The article was originally published by The Diplomat on November 1, 2019)

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Why Tibetans are Embracing Global Climate Strike

By Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha

The weeklong climate strike being observed across 150 countries has received a massive support from one of the most organized refugee communities in the world – the Tibetans in exile. The Tibetan diaspora, which has a presence in at least 40 countries, is participating in the protests while being worried about the severe impact of climate change in their homeland, too.

The impact of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau, one of the most glaciated regions on earth, has been extreme. The plateau has seen unprecedented number of natural disasters occurring simultaneously across the region since 2016, primarily due to rising temperature and increased rainfall. The temperature rise on the plateau is 0.47°C per decade, three times faster than the global average of 0.12°C per decade. This has led to fast melting of glaciers in the east, rapid thawing of permafrost (frozen soil) in the northwest and drastic expansion of deserts beginning from the north. Tibetans are concerned that the new climatic pattern emerging on the world’s highest plateau is changing too quickly for the inhabitants to adapt.

The climate strike initiated by Greta Thunberg, an inspirational teenage environmentalist, got strong support from the Dalai Lama of Tibet, one of the most respected global figures. In a letter to the teenage icon, the Dalai Lama wrote, “It is encouraging to see how you have opened the eyes of the world to the urgency to protect our planet, our only home. At the same time, you have inspired so many young brothers and sisters to join this movement.”

The Dalai Lama himself is an ardent supporter of environmental protection, whose efforts to address the issue began as early as the 1950s, when he was a teenager too. He is probably one of the most consistent environmentalists.

The Tibetan Plateau, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935, is a vast mountainous region with an area of 2.5 million sq. km., which is nearly 2% of the earth’s land surface. The region was perceived as “one great zoological garden” by early explorers to the plateau. Some scientists have compared its known biodiversity to that of Amazon Rainforest.

Unfortunately, Tibet’s forest, which was one of the oldest reserves in all central Asia until Chinese occupation in 1949, was reduced to 13.57 million hectares from 25.2 million hectares, about 46% reduction between 1950 and 1985, with an estimate market value of $54 billion. The alarming scale of logging in some parts of Tibet led to the 1998 Yangtze flood and the 2010 Drukchu (Zhouqu) flood, killing thousands and displacing millions in China.

The once rain-scarce mountainous terrain of Tibet has witness consecutive increased torrential rainfall for last the 4 years, causing simultaneous floods and landslides in many parts of Tibet. A twin landslide (October 11 2018 and November 3, 2018) in Palyul county in Eastern Tibet blocked the Yangtze River – the longest river in Asia and third longest in the world. Eleven days of blockage completely inundated the nearby Bolu Township in Tibet and the horror of a sudden collapse of the artificial barrier caused massive panic in the low lying regions of China through where the river flows.
The Tibetan participants at the climate strike have called for the protection of the “Earth’s Third Pole”, as the Tibetan Plateau is popularly referred to by scientists. The presence of 46,000 glaciers, covering an area of 105,000 sq. km., makes the plateau the largest source of accessible fresh water on the planet and the third largest reservoir of ice, after the North and South Poles.

With the constant temperature rise in Tibet, the once permanently snowcapped mountains are quickly receding at an alarming rate. In 2015, Professor Kang at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research found out that there had been no net accumulation of ice in the region since 1950s, clearly indicating a regular loss of glaciers. Another scientist, Professor Yao Tandong of Chinese Academy of Science, even warned that 2/3rd of all glaciers on the plateau could be gone by 2050 if the current rate of glacier retreat continues.

The Tibetan Plateau has a global ecological importance. Standing at an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level, it influences the timing and intensity of the Indian and the East Asian monsoons. Scientific studies have even linked the worsening heat waves in Europe and northeast Asia to the plateau’s receding snow cover.

The Tibetan participants at the on-going climate strike have also called for respect for Tibetan cultural way of life and its role in environmental protection.

The cultural way of life in Tibet, which was greatly influenced by Bon and Buddhist traditions, both of which strictly forbid hunting of wild animals. For example, successive rulers in Tibet issued stringent edicts to ban hunting at several ecological sites during various periods of its history.

However, with the Chinese occupation, Tibet witnessed a sudden disruption in its age-old tradition of causing minimum harm to the natural environment and its wild life inhabitants. Many elderly Tibetans, who had to flee Tibet during the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, had seen herds of wild animals slaughtered by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with their machineguns. Such hunting practice with a horrifying scale of wild animals been killed instantly was utterly alien to the land and people of Tibet.

The occupation of Tibet also gave China control over the world’s greatest water resources. Asia’s largest rivers, i.e. Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow river, all come from Tibet. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau feed 1.5 billion people in Asia.

Since the ecological health of the Tibetan Plateau is crucial for a stable social, economic and environmental well-being of many countries, any further degradation of the land will exacerbate the dire situation and could bring catastrophic consequences for Tibet, China and the world.

As Tibetans have joined hands with the international community at the global climate strike, the world, too, must support Tibetans in protecting their plateau from any further degradation.

(The article was originally posted on on September 26, 2019)

Saturday, 6 April 2019

China's 60 Years of Environmental Destruction in Tibet

China's latest white paper on Tibet, once again highlights Beijing's absolute lack of understanding of Tibet's History and its unwillingness to read beyond government documents.


Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen
Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute

The paper “Democratic Reform in Tibet – Sixty Years On,” was released on March 27, 2019 to mark the 60th year of Chinese occupation of the Tibetan plateau and suppression of Tibetan people.
With a blatant display of colonial arrogance, the paper includes a brief chapter on Tibet's ecology, it says: "In old Tibet, with an extremely underdeveloped economy, people could only adapt to the natural environment – they used whatever they could exploit from nature." This out-rightly undermines Tibet's glorious history and gives no credit for Tibetan people's environmental conservation efforts for thousands of years.

In fact, it was Tibetan people's belief in the sacredness of its natural environment coupled with their profound wisdom and skill to co-exist harmoniously with its surrounding environment that has helped in the conservation of the world's highest plateau until the Chinese occupation in 1959. According to a response to a  whitepaper on Tibet's ecology issued by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in December 2018, it states "Historically, Tibetans have protected and respected their environment and have not only successfully adapted to the ever-changing climatic conditions of the plateau but also prospered there as a powerful civilization".

Numerous scientific studies in recent years have affirmed the positive role of Tibetan people's cultural beliefs in the sacredness of important ecological sites in environmental conservation.

According to Tibetan historical records, environmental conservation efforts were carried out on a large scale as early as during the glorious Shang Shung period. The conservation efforts were further strengthened in the 7th century during the reign of King Songtsen Gompo, the 33rd emperor of Tibet. He issued edicts that reprimanded his subjects from harming and killing of animals.  The founder of the Phagmodrupa Dynasty in Tibet, Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen (1302-1364), enforced an ingenious policy of planting 200,000 trees annually and appointed a forest officer to protect the newly-planted trees. Similarly, successive rulers in Tibet such as the 5th Dalai Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama issued strict prohibitions on hunting and felling of trees at important ecological sites.

But as People's Liberation Army's (PLA) marched into Tibet from three separate Sino -Tibet border fronts in 1950s, Tibet begins to witness unprecedented scale of environmental destruction across the plateau. This paper will briefly focus on three environmental issues in Tibet to give a quick glimpse into 60 years of China's environmental destruction in Tibet.

1. Mass hunting during and after the Chinese invasion that led to sudden decrease in wild life

The Tibetan Plateau, with 2.5 million square kilometers of area, was perceived as 'one great zoological garden' by early explorers to the region. Some scientists have compared its known biodiversity to that of Amazon Rain forest.

The cultural way of life in Tibet, which was greatly influenced by both Bon and Buddhist traditions, strictly forbid general public from commercial hunting. Successive rulers in Tibet issued strict edicts to ban hunting at several ecological sites during various periods of its history. Prior to 1950s, there were innumerable accounts of Tibetan merchants and pilgrims travelling through vast grasslands of the northern plains, seeing large herds of wild animals.

But with the Chinese occupation, Tibet witnessed sudden disruption in its age old tradition of causing minimum harm to the natural environment and its wild life inhabitants. Many elderly Tibetans in exile have been eye-witness to People's Liberation Army (PLA) engaging in hunting practices employing machineguns to hunt herds of wild animals during the invasion. Some PLA soldiers stationed in Tibet after the occupation often use dynamite in rivers and lakes to instantly catch hundreds of fish, a practice that Chinese officials followed even in 1990s despite strong objection from local Tibetan communities.

 Chinese government authorities in Tibet issued license for commercial hunting of rare animals, and many officials engaged in hunting for leisure. Such government attitude encouraged large scale illegal poaching across Tibet in 1980s and early 1990s. Some emboldened poachers even killed Sonam Dhargay and other wild-life protection volunteers in the region.

2. Excessive deforestation in Tibet by state-logging enterprises causing massive floods

Until 1949, Tibet's the forest cover were one of the oldest reserves in all central Asia, predominantly found in eastern Amdo, south-eastern Kham and Kongpo region of southern Tibet. But the invasion of Tibet opened up the region to hungry Chinese state-logging enterprises. China has been one of the largest consumer of timber in the world, it inflicted unprecedented scale of deforestation across the region. Tibet's forest cover was reduced to 13.57 million hectares from 25.2 million hectares, about 46% reduction between 1950 and 1985, with an estimate market value (2000 market estimate) of US $ 54 billion. The horrifying scale of logging in some part of Tibet lead to the 1998 Yangtze flood and the 2010 Drukchu flood.

A. 1998 Yangtze Flood

The 1998 Yangtze Flood in China was one of the worst flood in 44 years at the time. As per China's official estimate, the flood killed more than 3000 people, displaced 15 million and affected 223 million people - almost one fifth of China's then population. A post disaster study by Chinese scientists put excessive logging in the Yangtze valley, particularly in the Tibetan areas as one of the primary cause of the massive flood.

Excessive deforestation in Tibet as a primary cause was also highlighted in the Final Report by United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) dated September 1998, the UN report stated that the primary causes of the disaster was excessive rainfall, melting of snow accumulated on the Tibet plateau and rampant deforestation around the river's fountains head in eastern Tibet.

Between 1949 and 1998, the forests of eastern Kham generated US $241 million in taxes and profits for the Chinese state-logging enterprises. The extensive and unsustainable industrial logging continued until the disastrous 1998 Yangtze flood, but large scale deforestation still continues in many parts of Kongpo. This might have led to some of recent floods and landslides in the region. Tree logging was a major employer in Tibet, for instance in the Kongpo region alone, over 20,000 Chinese soldiers and Tibetan prisoners were involved in tree felling and transport.

The Research and Markets (January 2019) reported that the consumption of timber in China increased by nearly 18% to 192.5 million cubic meters from 2013 to 2017.

B. 2010 Drukchu Flood

On 8 August, 2010, landslides and mud-rock flow brought about by heavy rains occurred in Drukchu area of Amdo in north-eastern Tibet. As per a Chinese official report, the mud-rock flow leveled an area of about 5 km long, 300 meters wide and 5 meters deep in the county seat with more than 2 million cubic meters of mud and rocks flowing down the valley. This severely damaged the power, telecommunication and water supply in the region. The mudslides destroyed more than 300 homes and damaged another 700.

Local Tibetans have blamed excessive logging along the river valley carried out by local Chinese authorities as part of a new policy issued in 2005 to clear the forest to exploit the Druchu River, thus setting up 156 hydropower stations along the river valley in the region.

A similar conclusion was also echoed in a publication (Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, AGU Publication 2014) which stated that the massive Drukchu landslide of August 2010 was caused by an extreme precipitation, magnified by the Wenchuan earthquake of May 2008, and the severe loss of vegetation cover in the Drukchu region.

3. River water Pollution from toxic mine waste

Systematic and large scale mining in Tibet began in the 1960s with the expansion of Chinese presence in Tibet. China began surveying for mineral deposits in Tibet from the very onset of its occupation. Much of China's infrastructure development in Tibet is aimed at speeding up of large- scale resource extraction in Tibet. The destructive and unethical methods of China’s mining practices has led to protests and disharmony across Tibet. Since 2009, there have been more than 30 known large-scale public protests against mining in Tibet as Chines mining companies continue to destroy grassland and pollute rivers.

A. Mingyak Lhagang water pollution

A lithium mining company called Ronda Lithium Co Ltd released toxic mine waste into a local river called  Lichu in Minyak Lhagang in eastern Tibet, causing serious water pollution and  mass death of fish. This brought hundreds of local Tibetans out on the street on May 4, 2016, protesting against the mining company. The local government informed the protestors that it had temporarily halted the mining activities, but locals Tibetans soon realized that the government has lied to them as continued operation at the mine were reported.   This was not the first time or an isolated case of river water pollution. In 2013, the same river had been polluted with lithium mine waste, causing death of aquatic animals and threatening local drinking water.

B. Dolkar Village Water pollution

In a similar case on September 23, 2014, in Dokar and Zibuk villages of Lhundrup County near Lhasa, the Tibet's capital city, more than 1,000 local Tibetans protested against the poisoning of their river by the Gyama Copper Poly-metallic mine. The mine is located close to a river that locals use for drinking water, irrigation and feeding animals. Predictably, local officials declared that the water pollution in the river was caused by natural factors and not by the mining company. But according to an article in 2010, it says “Environmental impact of mining activity on the surface water quality in Tibet: Gyama valley.”  Xiang, a Chinese scientist firmly stated that many mining and processing sites in the valley pose a great environmental concerns as the deposits contain large amount of heavy metals, such as lead, copper, zinc and manganese etc. Further stating that the deposits are prone to leak its contaminants through seepage water and erosion of particulates, and therefore posing a future risk for the local environment and a potential threat to the downstream water quality.

A local resident of the village told Radio Free Asia (September 2014),In the past, our rivers were crisp and clean, the mountains and valleys were known for their natural beauty. But now the rivers are polluted with poisonous waste from the mines". Clearly describing the rapid destruction of the local environment.


As China's white paper derides Tibetans for their inability to exploit the natural environment before the Chinese occupation, Tibetans are deeply hurt by Chinese government's lack of ethical wisdom by wreaking havoc on Tibet's natural environment.

China claims that they are spending millions in environmental conservation projects in recent years, but they have earned billions more from mining and other resource extraction activities in Tibet. For example, a 2019 Production and Operating outlook released by China Gold International, it states "Copper production from the Jiama Mine increased by 54% to 55,025 Tonne (approximately 121.3 million pounds) from 35,844 Tonne (approximately 79.0 million pounds) for the same period in 2017.  Gold produced was 70,262 ounces compared to 47,710 ounces for the same period in 2017."

The Chinese Geological Survey in 2007 estimated that the Tibetan Plateau holds about 30-40 million tons of copper reserves, 40 million tons of zinc, and several billion tons of iron. The proven reserve of more than 7.8 million tons of copper at the Yulong Copper Mine makes it the largest in China and the second largest in Asia.

While the Chinese state-owned companies continue to make billions from mining, damming, logging and tourism activities across Tibet, the scale of environmental destruction on the Tibetan plateau in the past 60 years have been unprecedented in its long history.