Thursday 13 November 2014

Poisoning Tibetan Rivers: Why is it not so natural?

 “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,”  is what a local resident said to Radio Free Asia hoping that letting the  news out to the world would at least raise pressure on local authorities to act as the  people’s government,  rather than of the mining companies. Such grievances are numerous and wide spread among the Tibetan population in recent years due to the desecration of their mountains and poisoning of their rivers by destructive mining practices followed in Tibetan areas under Chinese occupation.

Fig1. River Poisoned by Gyama Mine
On September 23, 2014, more than 1000 local Tibetans of Dokar and Zibuk villages near Tibetan capital city Lhasa protested against poisoning of their rivers by Gyama Copper Poly-metallic Mine. The mine is located close to a stream that locals use for drinking, irrigation and animal feeding. But as always, the local officials conveniently declared that the water pollution in the rivers was caused by natural factors and not by the mine.

A similar official statement was issued back in 2013, when 83 mine workers of the same mine were killed in a mine induced landslide due to mismanagement of mine waste or over-piling of mine waste rocks on a steep V-shaped valley. The official statement was obediently published by Xinhua News without the slightest hint of journalistic objectivity despite the loss of so many lives. This systematic approach without any legal transparency and with no sense of compunction by the local Chinese government in Tibetan areas has become a dangerous trend and bizarre scenario.

The Gyama Mine is operated by Huatailong Mining Development, a subsidy of the China National Gold Group Corporation, and ironically is praised as eco-friendly and a model mine by China. If the standard and qualification for a model mine is of such, then the plight of the people and state of the environment is seriously in danger. The deliberate and systematic falsification of causes behind the Gyama mine landslide and river water poisoning by Chinese local government could only be explained by themselves.

But a 2010 article titled “Environmental impact of mining activity on the surface water quality in Tibet: Gyama valley,” by Xiang et al., firmly ascertains that “a localized severe heavy metal contamination is documented in the stream water of Gyamaxung-chu (chu means river) and wastewater treatment facilities in the Gyama valley.” It also states that “the environmental risk at the Gyamaxung-chu source area, where the measured contents correspond mainly to geochemical background was zero. However, there was a very high risk at the upper and middle parts of the stream and it appears to be both natural and accelerated by the extensive mining activities. The levels of metals (such as lead, copper, cadmium and zinc) represent the high risk for the environment, including local human populations and their livestock.”
Fig2. Dokar Village where the poisoned river flow through

The article further goes on to say that  “ the  great environmental concern are the many mining and processing deposits in the valley, containing large amount of heavy metals, such as lead, copper, zinc and manganese etc. These deposits are prone to leak its contaminants through seepage water and erosion of particulates, and pose therefore a future risk for the local environment and a potential threat to the downstream water quality.”
Gyamaxung-chu is a mountain spring fed by groundwater, rain and melting snow with continuous flow throughout the year providing life for the many villages situated on its path before draining into the Lhasa river and finally into the Yarlung Tsangpo or Brahmaputra.
A similar Assessment Report by Environment and Development Desk of Central Tibetan Administration back in 2013 after the Gyama mine landslide clearly produced strong evidence to link the landslide with the mismanagement of mine waste.
Considering the evidences, why do the relevant authorities refuse to see the truth and deny justice for its own people? Who granted mining companies so much power that they could get away with killing its own workers and poisoning community rivers? The only conclusion according to the local Tibetans is that there is an absolute cozy camaraderie between mining companies and local officials. The power of this nexus overrides everything else: ethnic cultural rights, local community interests, mineral resource extraction procedures and environmental laws. They could even manipulate official media and experts to validate outright crimes against its own people and the environment.

Fig3. Dokar Village with Gyama Mine Site seen in the background
The recent protest against river water poisoning is a desperate attempt after almost five years of continuous pleas to the  Chinese authorities in Lhasa The so called people’s government threatens and intimidates its own people for raising such issues of public interest. The people are left with no choice but to seek help from the outside world by appealing to international media, hoping Beijing would take notice and the central government would come to their rescue. I am sure Beijing cares about the welfare of its people. According to a report in China Daily (23-01-2013) the central urban areas of Beijing city alone have 300 water quality monitoring stations. How many such stations are there in the Tibetan areas and why are the people of Gyama valley denied of such rights?
The poisoning of Tibetan rivers will have catastrophic consequences to both China and the world, as Tibet is home to the largest store of accessible fresh water and source of Asia's six greatest rivers (Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween, Indus and Brahmaputra), feeding some of the world's most populated nations like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

Tibetans take great pride in the purity of their rivers and  causing river water pollution is simply against their way of life. In the 11th century when Indian Buddhist scholar, Atisha Dipamkara visited Tibet, he was overjoyed by the freshness and purity of Tibetan rivers so much that he recommended the waters of Tibet be served as the greatest offering to Lord Buddha. Since then the unmistakable Tibetan culture of water offering is prominently visible in every home and monastery. But what will the people of Gyama valley would offer to the Gods, when the very basic necessity of drinking water for the community is poisoned?


 Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha is an Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute

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