Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Transforming Yamdrok Yumtso: Development for Whom and At What Cost?

According to reports, the authorities of Shannan Prefecture in southern Tibet have ordered to stop plans to run lake cruises on sacred Yamdrok Lake.

Recently, as part of the tourism development program of the Nagarze county, a tour company had already bought and launched a tour boat on the Yamdrok Yumtso (Tibetan: ཡར་འབྲོག་གཡུ་མཚོ་, Wylie: yar-'brog g.yu-mtsho) and was planning to offer rides around the lake beginning next month. Besides, the program also included setting up over 200 beach umbrellas on the shore of the lake. On May 24, the tour company and the Langkazi county government launched a tour boat named Qomolangma, which was bought from inland districts in China and also began trial runs reports Global Times.

Reports suggest that  the Nagarze county (སྣ་དཀར་རྩེ་རྫོང་government quashed the plan following directives of Shannan prefecture (Tibetan: ལྷོ་ཁ་ས་ཁུལ།, Wylie: lho-kha sa-khul) government in order "to protect the local environment," a man surnamed Feng from Qomolangma Tourism Development Company (QTDC) told the Global Times, refusing to provide further details.

But, it seems that the authorities were forced to bog down under the growing pressure from the online movement that opposed turning the lake into an ostentatious tourist area. Reports of the cruise plans, which appeared in a Lhasa-based newspaper on Friday (June 15), sparked widespread concern among Tibetans and the tourist development plan had been strongly criticized by Web users around the country, who saw the tour boats and beach umbrellas as an "insult to the lake's heritage and a potential source of pollution". The Netizens called the cancelation of the tourism plan "a victory of the public."

"When I heard the news I was full of tears. Thanks for the power of the Internet and media," Yang Erche Namu, a famous Mosuo ethnic group (originally Tibetan) singer and writer, wrote on her Sina Weibo Yesterday (June 18).

Yamdrok Tso

Yamdrok Tso is one of the largest sacred lakes in Tibet. It is over 72 km (45 mi) long and covers an area of 638 km² in area with its depth still unknown. Lying between Gyantse and Lhasa, the lake is surrounded by many snow-capped mountains and is fed by numerous small streams.  Its form is believed to have the shape of a great scorpion and is sacred to the Tibetan people as one of the four "Great Wrathful Lakes" and abode of the guardian Goddess Dorje Gegkyi Tso. The lake, the islands and all the adjacent hills and mountains are closely associated with the deeds of Padmasambhava who established Buddhism in Tibet in the Eighth Century. A number of important monasteries are situated around the lake, among them Samding, the seat of Dorje Phagmo. 

Yamdrok Yumtso photographed from the Gampa pass (on the road between Lhasa and Gyantse) Courtesy:Wikipedia

Tibetan Buddhists as well as Bonpos hold that the environment is populated by spirits, such as the Naga in the waters and the Sadak in the ground. Polluting the water or digging in the ground will upset these spirits and they are provoked to harm human beings, for example through diseases. In addition, it is believed that Yamdrok Tso is connected with the `life power' (Tibetan bLa) of the Tibetan people. Thus, it is understandable why Tibetans have been so strongly opposed any harm to the sanctity of the lake and any stain caused by its commercialization.

The Controversial Yamdrok Yumtso Hydro Power Plant

Yamdrok Yumtso, has a controversial power station that was completed in 1996 near the small village of Pai-Ti at the lake’s western end. The late Tenth Panchen Lama was able to halt the construction works of this most destructive of all development projects on the Tibetan plateau but just months after His death in 1989 it was announced that the construction would proceed as planned. 

Unlike other hydro dam projects that block a river's course and drain the water through turbines to produce electricity, this project instead drains a natural lake by placing the turbines in 6 km tunnels bored 10 km below the water surface into the mountain sides surrounding the lake.

This unnatural interference with the lake's flow is severely threatening the fragile balance of the lake's ecology and with it the livelihood of the local people as well as the wildlife that flourishes around this lake. Moreover, the plant caters to the needs of the growing numbers of Chinese immigrant population and the industries they are developing while Tibetans stand to gain little.

The issue of the development of tourism as well as generation of electricity and its utilization has once again highlighted the larger issues of Tibetan rights over natural resources; respect for the religious and culture sanctity of sacred sites; and the question of development for whom and at what cost?

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