Monday, 26 June 2017

China’s Ploy in the Riparian Countries

*By Dechen Palmo

China, a country known for its smoggy sky and hazardous environmental conditions, has become a prospective global leader on climate change. The environment is already a massive and potentially explosive issue in China and there is a huge domestic pressure on framing and implementation of better environmental policies. With Premier Li Keqiang's pledge during the National People's Congress on March 2017, to "Make the sky blue again,” China understands its severe environmental problems and the need to find a solution as soon as possible. 
The Zangmu Hydropower Dam

China's 13th five-year plan for energy development, covering the period from 2016 to 2020, was officially published in early January, 2017. It outlines a strategy to reduce reliance on coal and to achieve minimum share of 15 percent of non-fossil energy sources. Specific targets include an additional 60GW of hydropower. China having dammed most of its rivers are now looking to explore Tibetan rivers as potential sources of energy. 
The Tibetan Plateau has the largest reserve of fresh water outside the two poles, making it a source of major international rivers running across Asia. China, now in a position of control over these water resources, makes the riparian countries more dependent on incoming water from Tibet. 
Moreover, China voted against the UN Convention on The Law of Non-Navigational Use of International Watercourses which was adopted in 1997. It is not bound by the law and this gives Beijing an opportunity to use the water without hindrance. And China is using this power by engaging in dam-building and river diversion plans and other activities along international rivers without consultation with the riparian states.
It is justified that many of the South Asian countries have not ratified the UN convention as China (upstream) is not a member of the convention with whom they are dependent for water.

Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) is one such river that is causing friction amongst all three recipient countries, especially between India and China. The Zangmu Dam, the largest dam on Yarlung Tsangpo is the cause of serious concern to the downstream countries. Although China’s claim that the dam built on Yarlung Tsangpo wouldn’t impact the flow of the river but the general public who are directly dependent on the river have serious doubts about China’s intention. But the government of India is assuaged by China assurance that the dam built on Yarlung Tsangpo isn't intended to regulate water. 
On January 2013, China's State Council gave a go-ahead for three more hydropower dams on Yarlung Tsangpo, which are Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu in Lhoka in south Tibet. Beside this, China has planned to construct seven more dams on the mainstream of Yarlung Tsangpo. When will the downstream countries raise this issue with China is still an unanswered question. Will it be after the completion of damming the river?
With China isn't having any water sharing agreement with India and Bangladesh, it is not bound to any treaty and doesn't need to consider the concerns of downstream countries.
In recent years the idea is floated that the hydropower is a source of clean energy.
However this idea falls within the realms of debate. The claim that hydropower is a source of clean energy is being used by Beijing to push dam building projects in the region.
Damming of rivers might seem to some as a source of clean energy, while to others is damaging to the ecology. More ominously experts are aware that many of these dams being built are located in highly seismic prone area.  In an event of an earthquake, ineffective water management and deforestation in this region make the region vulnerable to flood or drought. These dams can wreak havoc accidentally or can be used to choreograph such incident in times of conflict and war. 
A dam breach in May 2000 in Tibet led to a massive flood in Arunachal Pradesh and it caused an extensive loss of life and destruction of key infrastructure. The Indian government accused the Beijing counterpart for not sharing vital and timely information about the water level of the Brahmaputra which triggered a flood to Arunachal Pradesh.  This necessitated the 2002 agreement, in which China agreed to supply river flow data to India during the flood season.  But China refused to talk about its proposed dam building plan. So to avoid any political disputes with India, China shows its cooperative face for a short term when pressure arose and when pressure abates, China returns to its actual plan. 
Moreover the flood remains a concern for the downstream countries and may worsen in the long run with the continued melting of Tibetan glacier as a result of global warming. Yao Tandong, a leading Chinese glaciologist, reports that the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau are now melting at an accelerating rate. He believes that the two thirds of these glaciers could be gone by 2060 if the melting continues at the same rate.
The Yarlung Tsangpo has its water source from these glaciers. If the glaciers continue to retreat at such rate then in future there will be a severe water crisis in Asia.
China continues with dam building on international rivers without consulting downstream countries. When the riparian countries voice their concerns, China always maintains consistency in its response to such accusations, which is invariably a complete denial, and then a promise to consult. After this China continue its dam building activities regardless.
In 2010, there was widespread drought in Southeast Asia because of China's construction of hydropower dam on the upper reaches of the Mekong which originates from Tibet. This drought compelled many of the Southeast Asia to lodge their collective and strong protest to Beijing.
In order to prevent India and Bangladesh from lodging any strong protest, China announced its construction of the Zangmu hydropower station. Beijing also explained that the construction of this dam on Brahmaputra would not reduce its volume of water to the downstream countries.  
Until now, India and Bangladesh have been reactive rather than proactive to show their concern about China upstream dam building. A tripartite agreement between them is imperative. It is therefore time for the governments of India and Bangladesh to come together and start initiating talks before it is too late. 
*The author is an environment research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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

Friday, 2 June 2017

Why is China Planning to turn whole of the Tibetan Plateau into a Park?

*Tenzin Palden

According to a recent report by the South China Morning Post (April 22, 2017), the Chinese government is planning to turn whole of the Tibetan Plateau into a mega national park.

National parks are created to preserve ecology as well as its cultural heritage. China's plan of converting whole of the Tibetan Plateau into a national park is an arduous task, but not impossible since many areas in Tibet have been already declared national parks, such as, the Qinghai Golmud Kunlun Mountain National Park, Jomolangma National Park, Namtso Nyenchen tanglha National Park, Guge National Park and many more.

The Chinese government designates a particular site as national park aiming for ecological sustainability. Provincial and local governments are given responsibilities to operate national parks with no further direction. However, local governments do not have sufficient funds for construction and operation of national park and hence it encourages private sectors to engage in initial infrastructure development and permitting them to operate park for a time period. Private sectors profit from the ticket sales for park entry and other recreational activities in the park. They develop sites within the national park at scenic spots by building hotels, resorts and restaurants. This defeats the objectives to preserve nature and to protect biodiversity and its ecosystem.

Chinese scholars and environmentalists have often critiqued the concept of national park and many argue whether they are for conservation or are aimed at commercialisation. China has followed the United States' method of monitoring its national park without understanding the unified system of governance in United States against the fragmented and often overlapping environmental governance in China.

China's plan of national parks in some of the areas in mainland China encouraged large number of tourists, but a severe loss in biodiversity and its plan to convert Tibetan Plateau into "The Last Piece of Pure Earth" can be considered as the first call to bring tourism to the whole of Tibet. China gained such confidence from success in tourism industry in certain Tibetan cities (Lhasa, Nyingtri and Gyalthang). China's need to construct huge area of national park in recent times is mainly because of emerging middle class with growing interests in outdoor recreational activities and this demand for public recreational sites and hugely profitable tourism sector attract state to build more number of national parks. The impact of tourism is evident in Lhasa where the majority of tourists are Chinese and they have their plans tailored to benefit Chinese businesses providing accommodation and food.

China's plan of converting the whole of Tibet to a national park not necessarily mean a positive effort towards nature conservation. On August 2013, there were reports of mining on a sacred mountain in Zatoe region of north-eastern Tibet. The area is under the jurisdiction of Sangjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. The local Tibetans of Zatoe County protested against the mining company but were violently suppressed by Chinese armed forces. In the year 2003, Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, (head source of three rivers) was declared as a national-level nature reserve.  Nature reserves are highly protected areas where development projects like mining and tourism are strictly prohibited, and national parks are built keeping in mind the economic and social development. When local authorities mismanage a national-level reserve for their economic benefit as evident in Zatoe, there is a clear picture of what Tibet will turn into once it is designated as the third pole national park.

*The author is an environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute