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