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

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