Saturday, 6 April 2019

China's 60 Years of Environmental Destruction in Tibet

China's latest white paper on Tibet, once again highlights Beijing's absolute lack of understanding of Tibet's History and its unwillingness to read beyond government documents.


Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen
Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute

The paper “Democratic Reform in Tibet – Sixty Years On,” was released on March 27, 2019 to mark the 60th year of Chinese occupation of the Tibetan plateau and suppression of Tibetan people.
With a blatant display of colonial arrogance, the paper includes a brief chapter on Tibet's ecology, it says: "In old Tibet, with an extremely underdeveloped economy, people could only adapt to the natural environment – they used whatever they could exploit from nature." This out-rightly undermines Tibet's glorious history and gives no credit for Tibetan people's environmental conservation efforts for thousands of years.

In fact, it was Tibetan people's belief in the sacredness of its natural environment coupled with their profound wisdom and skill to co-exist harmoniously with its surrounding environment that has helped in the conservation of the world's highest plateau until the Chinese occupation in 1959. According to a response to a  whitepaper on Tibet's ecology issued by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in December 2018, it states "Historically, Tibetans have protected and respected their environment and have not only successfully adapted to the ever-changing climatic conditions of the plateau but also prospered there as a powerful civilization".

Numerous scientific studies in recent years have affirmed the positive role of Tibetan people's cultural beliefs in the sacredness of important ecological sites in environmental conservation.

According to Tibetan historical records, environmental conservation efforts were carried out on a large scale as early as during the glorious Shang Shung period. The conservation efforts were further strengthened in the 7th century during the reign of King Songtsen Gompo, the 33rd emperor of Tibet. He issued edicts that reprimanded his subjects from harming and killing of animals.  The founder of the Phagmodrupa Dynasty in Tibet, Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen (1302-1364), enforced an ingenious policy of planting 200,000 trees annually and appointed a forest officer to protect the newly-planted trees. Similarly, successive rulers in Tibet such as the 5th Dalai Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama issued strict prohibitions on hunting and felling of trees at important ecological sites.

But as People's Liberation Army's (PLA) marched into Tibet from three separate Sino -Tibet border fronts in 1950s, Tibet begins to witness unprecedented scale of environmental destruction across the plateau. This paper will briefly focus on three environmental issues in Tibet to give a quick glimpse into 60 years of China's environmental destruction in Tibet.

1. Mass hunting during and after the Chinese invasion that led to sudden decrease in wild life

The Tibetan Plateau, with 2.5 million square kilometers of area, was perceived as 'one great zoological garden' by early explorers to the region. Some scientists have compared its known biodiversity to that of Amazon Rain forest.

The cultural way of life in Tibet, which was greatly influenced by both Bon and Buddhist traditions, strictly forbid general public from commercial hunting. Successive rulers in Tibet issued strict edicts to ban hunting at several ecological sites during various periods of its history. Prior to 1950s, there were innumerable accounts of Tibetan merchants and pilgrims travelling through vast grasslands of the northern plains, seeing large herds of wild animals.

But with the Chinese occupation, Tibet witnessed sudden disruption in its age old tradition of causing minimum harm to the natural environment and its wild life inhabitants. Many elderly Tibetans in exile have been eye-witness to People's Liberation Army (PLA) engaging in hunting practices employing machineguns to hunt herds of wild animals during the invasion. Some PLA soldiers stationed in Tibet after the occupation often use dynamite in rivers and lakes to instantly catch hundreds of fish, a practice that Chinese officials followed even in 1990s despite strong objection from local Tibetan communities.

 Chinese government authorities in Tibet issued license for commercial hunting of rare animals, and many officials engaged in hunting for leisure. Such government attitude encouraged large scale illegal poaching across Tibet in 1980s and early 1990s. Some emboldened poachers even killed Sonam Dhargay and other wild-life protection volunteers in the region.

2. Excessive deforestation in Tibet by state-logging enterprises causing massive floods

Until 1949, Tibet's the forest cover were one of the oldest reserves in all central Asia, predominantly found in eastern Amdo, south-eastern Kham and Kongpo region of southern Tibet. But the invasion of Tibet opened up the region to hungry Chinese state-logging enterprises. China has been one of the largest consumer of timber in the world, it inflicted unprecedented scale of deforestation across the region. Tibet's forest cover was reduced to 13.57 million hectares from 25.2 million hectares, about 46% reduction between 1950 and 1985, with an estimate market value (2000 market estimate) of US $ 54 billion. The horrifying scale of logging in some part of Tibet lead to the 1998 Yangtze flood and the 2010 Drukchu flood.

A. 1998 Yangtze Flood

The 1998 Yangtze Flood in China was one of the worst flood in 44 years at the time. As per China's official estimate, the flood killed more than 3000 people, displaced 15 million and affected 223 million people - almost one fifth of China's then population. A post disaster study by Chinese scientists put excessive logging in the Yangtze valley, particularly in the Tibetan areas as one of the primary cause of the massive flood.

Excessive deforestation in Tibet as a primary cause was also highlighted in the Final Report by United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) dated September 1998, the UN report stated that the primary causes of the disaster was excessive rainfall, melting of snow accumulated on the Tibet plateau and rampant deforestation around the river's fountains head in eastern Tibet.

Between 1949 and 1998, the forests of eastern Kham generated US $241 million in taxes and profits for the Chinese state-logging enterprises. The extensive and unsustainable industrial logging continued until the disastrous 1998 Yangtze flood, but large scale deforestation still continues in many parts of Kongpo. This might have led to some of recent floods and landslides in the region. Tree logging was a major employer in Tibet, for instance in the Kongpo region alone, over 20,000 Chinese soldiers and Tibetan prisoners were involved in tree felling and transport.

The Research and Markets (January 2019) reported that the consumption of timber in China increased by nearly 18% to 192.5 million cubic meters from 2013 to 2017.

B. 2010 Drukchu Flood

On 8 August, 2010, landslides and mud-rock flow brought about by heavy rains occurred in Drukchu area of Amdo in north-eastern Tibet. As per a Chinese official report, the mud-rock flow leveled an area of about 5 km long, 300 meters wide and 5 meters deep in the county seat with more than 2 million cubic meters of mud and rocks flowing down the valley. This severely damaged the power, telecommunication and water supply in the region. The mudslides destroyed more than 300 homes and damaged another 700.

Local Tibetans have blamed excessive logging along the river valley carried out by local Chinese authorities as part of a new policy issued in 2005 to clear the forest to exploit the Druchu River, thus setting up 156 hydropower stations along the river valley in the region.

A similar conclusion was also echoed in a publication (Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, AGU Publication 2014) which stated that the massive Drukchu landslide of August 2010 was caused by an extreme precipitation, magnified by the Wenchuan earthquake of May 2008, and the severe loss of vegetation cover in the Drukchu region.

3. River water Pollution from toxic mine waste

Systematic and large scale mining in Tibet began in the 1960s with the expansion of Chinese presence in Tibet. China began surveying for mineral deposits in Tibet from the very onset of its occupation. Much of China's infrastructure development in Tibet is aimed at speeding up of large- scale resource extraction in Tibet. The destructive and unethical methods of China’s mining practices has led to protests and disharmony across Tibet. Since 2009, there have been more than 30 known large-scale public protests against mining in Tibet as Chines mining companies continue to destroy grassland and pollute rivers.

A. Mingyak Lhagang water pollution

A lithium mining company called Ronda Lithium Co Ltd released toxic mine waste into a local river called  Lichu in Minyak Lhagang in eastern Tibet, causing serious water pollution and  mass death of fish. This brought hundreds of local Tibetans out on the street on May 4, 2016, protesting against the mining company. The local government informed the protestors that it had temporarily halted the mining activities, but locals Tibetans soon realized that the government has lied to them as continued operation at the mine were reported.   This was not the first time or an isolated case of river water pollution. In 2013, the same river had been polluted with lithium mine waste, causing death of aquatic animals and threatening local drinking water.

B. Dolkar Village Water pollution

In a similar case on September 23, 2014, in Dokar and Zibuk villages of Lhundrup County near Lhasa, the Tibet's capital city, more than 1,000 local Tibetans protested against the poisoning of their river by the Gyama Copper Poly-metallic mine. The mine is located close to a river that locals use for drinking water, irrigation and feeding animals. Predictably, local officials declared that the water pollution in the river was caused by natural factors and not by the mining company. But according to an article in 2010, it says “Environmental impact of mining activity on the surface water quality in Tibet: Gyama valley.”  Xiang, a Chinese scientist firmly stated that many mining and processing sites in the valley pose a great environmental concerns as the deposits contain large amount of heavy metals, such as lead, copper, zinc and manganese etc. Further stating that the deposits are prone to leak its contaminants through seepage water and erosion of particulates, and therefore posing a future risk for the local environment and a potential threat to the downstream water quality.

A local resident of the village told Radio Free Asia (September 2014),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". Clearly describing the rapid destruction of the local environment.


As China's white paper derides Tibetans for their inability to exploit the natural environment before the Chinese occupation, Tibetans are deeply hurt by Chinese government's lack of ethical wisdom by wreaking havoc on Tibet's natural environment.

China claims that they are spending millions in environmental conservation projects in recent years, but they have earned billions more from mining and other resource extraction activities in Tibet. For example, a 2019 Production and Operating outlook released by China Gold International, it states "Copper production from the Jiama Mine increased by 54% to 55,025 Tonne (approximately 121.3 million pounds) from 35,844 Tonne (approximately 79.0 million pounds) for the same period in 2017.  Gold produced was 70,262 ounces compared to 47,710 ounces for the same period in 2017."

The Chinese Geological Survey in 2007 estimated that the Tibetan Plateau holds about 30-40 million tons of copper reserves, 40 million tons of zinc, and several billion tons of iron. The proven reserve of more than 7.8 million tons of copper at the Yulong Copper Mine makes it the largest in China and the second largest in Asia.

While the Chinese state-owned companies continue to make billions from mining, damming, logging and tourism activities across Tibet, the scale of environmental destruction on the Tibetan plateau in the past 60 years have been unprecedented in its long history.

The World's Third Pole Is Melting

How can Asian countries survive without Tibetan glaciers and water?

Image Credit: Flickr / laika_ac

Dechen Palmo,
Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute
The Tibetan plateau, which holds the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) ice sheet, is known as the world’s “Third Pole.” It holds the largest number of glaciers and snow after the Arctic and Antarctic. The Tibetan plateau has more than 46,000 glaciers, 14.5 percent of the world’s total. These glaciers give birth to Asia’s major river systems — the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers that provide lifelines to many countries and support a population of around 2 billion people.

But due to climate change, the Tibetan plateau’s glaciers are depleting faster than anywhere else on earth. The loss of Tibetan glaciers means the loss of livelihood for the people who are dependent on these rivers — over a quarter of the world’s total population.

Under the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), experts from different regions have come together to develop the first Hindu Kush Himalayan assessment report, which was released on January 5, 2019. The report corroborates a 2014 report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showing that as temperatures rise with climate change, at least one-third of the Hindu Kush Himalayan glaciers will be depleted by 2100, even if global warming is held at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This report has received much media attention due to its alarming scientific findings of glaciers melting on the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, which would, in turn, would impact the overall water, energy, and food security in the region.

Impact of Glacier Retreat on Water Resources

Glaciers on the Tibetan plateau play a key role in supplying perennial water for many countries. But there is a growing concern about the impact of glaciers melting on the Tibetan plateau and the availability of water in the region.

The Tibetan plateau has seen an increase in temperature of approximately 0.3 degrees C every 10 years. This means that over the past 50 years the temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees C, which is three times the global average. If this current trend continues, many Chinese scientists believe that 40 percent of the plateau’s glaciers could disappear by 2050. Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) also predict that temperature on the plateau will increase by up to 4.6 degrees C by the end of the century. Professor Liu Shiyin, who led a survey on these glaciers, said that retreating glaciers will release meltwater and create lakes, and ultimately it will lead to disaster.

As a unique and high plateau, the Tibetan plateau is highly sensitive and vulnerable to global climate change. In the past few years, the Tibetan plateau has seen a record number of floods, landslides, and mudslides as well as increases in lake volume in different parts of Tibet.

The impact of natural disasters on the Tibetan plateau is not only restricted to the plateau, but it has consequences far beyond it — for example, in a downstream country like India. The entirety of agriculture in northern India is highly dependent on rivers originating in Tibet and any changes in the flow of these rivers will have significant consequences. Then there are also extreme events such as glacier lake outburst floods (GLOF) that could pose an immense danger for many countries. In October 2018, debris blocked the flow of Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, which threatened downstream India and Bangladesh with flooding.

The melting of glaciers will initially cause more floods in the region until they melt completely, providing more water in the short term. But in the long run, with depleted glacial ice, a runoff will be dramatically reduced. Many scientists predict that the quantity of runoff water from melting glaciers is likely to increase at least until 2050, and then it will decrease.

The Voice of America (VOA) quoted a former researcher of the Chinese Academy of Science who wanted to remain anonymous. In the interview, he said, “Diminished glacial runoff had already reduced water levels on the Yangtze and Yellow river.”

An average of 247 square kilometers of glacial ice has disappeared every year since the 1950s. Continued shrinking of glaciers will affect runoff and water resources downstream, then it will induce water scarcity.

Moreover, in addition to climate change, the unregulated construction of Chinese dams and canals might further exacerbate the impact of climate change and increase the problem of water scarcity. With China’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions by developing clean energy, China is likely to build more dams along transboundary rivers.

Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney writes: “China, by building increasing control over cross-border water resources through hydroengineering structures, is dragging its riparian neighbors into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues.” Hence, Tibet’s water resources have become an increasingly crucial strategic, political, and cultural element that the Chinese are intent on managing and controlling.

With a large proportion of the region’s population already living in poverty and dependent on natural resources for food and livelihood, limiting access to fresh water will push the entire region deeper into vulnerability.

Conflict and Water Scarcity

China has control over Tibet, “the Water Tower of Asia,” and thus the future of Asia’s water lies in China’s hands. China, a water scarce country due to uneven distribution of water resources, is facing considerable pressure on water resources to meet its own industrial growth, urbanization, and population growth.

China is expected to face a 25 percent supply gap on projected water demand by 2030, with two-thirds of its cities already facing difficulty in accessing water. In 2006, a World Bank working paper on water scarcity claimed that “China will soon become the most water-stressed country in East and Southeast Asia.”

Moreover, China is facing domestic water conflicts, mainly on issues like inter-jurisdictional water pollution and hydropower dam construction. These domestic water conflicts and water scarcity could provoke civil unrest. Therefore, these concerns might compel China to utilize transboundary rivers to meet its water scarcity challenge. The development of water infrastructure projects on Tibet’s transboundary rivers has already infuriated many downstream countries and triggered international criticism. For example, China’s construction of hydroelectric dams along the Brahmaputra River has become a source of friction between China and India. China has also dammed the upper Mekong River, which has become a major source of conflict between China and Southeast Asian countries.

There is no formal agreement between China and downstream countries over the use of shared river systems. By 2025, water scarcity is predicted to affect 1.8 billion people, particularly in Asia. Therefore, any alteration to the flow stemming from Tibet could have dire consequences for all. These reports add another concern and challenges to the region. As the volume of water decreases, the likelihood of conflicts between China and downstream countries is likely to increase. Chellaney predicted in 2014 that these rivers are destined to become “Asia’s new battleground.”

Many scholars and experts have warned about possible future “water wars” between China and India, and the same dynamics could play out in Southeast Asia. The key to mitigating transboundary water conflicts and advancing water cooperation in Asia is largely in the hands of China.

It is a time to recognize Tibet’s importance to regional security. The ICIMOD assessment report is one of many reports confirming the melting of glaciers on the Tibetan plateau, which could cause significant disruptions to future water scarcity. To effectively address the impacts of climate change on the Tibetan plateau and transboundary water conflict, there is a need for a regionally integrated approach to water resources management.

If unsustainable practices and mismanagement of water resources are not addressed, fresh water will become a precious commodity, the control of which could spark conflicts in Asia. Mistrust over shared rivers remains high between China and its neighbors. If China and the rest of the continent want to turn potential water conflict into constructive engagement, then a water dialogue is necessary.

Source: The aritcle orginally appeared on, Date - March 28, 2019

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

CTA issues Response to China’s White Paper on Tibet’s Environment

Dharamshala: The Central Tibetan Administration on Monday issued an official response to China’s White paper on Tibet’s environment entitled ‘Central Tibetan Administration’s Response to the People’s Republic of China’s White Paper on Tibet’s Ecology, 2018′.

At a press conference held at DIIR, Secretaries Sonam Norbu Dagpo and Tenzin Dhardon Sharling and Head of the Environment desk of  Tibet Policy Institute, Tempa Gyaltsen unveiled the official document.
“Environmental concerns are apolitical and universal in impact. The ecological health of the Tibetan Plateau which also functions as the roof of the world is vital for the well-being and sustainability of the entire world including China,” said Secretary Sonam Norbu.

Head of the Environment research desk of Tibet Policy Institute, Tempa Gyaltsen called out China on its failure to mitigate the alarming climatic conditions in Tibet and for further aggravating the environmental crises by increasing scale of resource extraction and dam construction across Tibet.

While he welcomed China’s past initiatives in environmental protection, including the introduction of the 2015 new Environment Protection Law, Researcher Tempa Gyaltsen said the recent policies pursued by the Chinese leadership are not reflected in the ground practices and implementation.

Further, he cited the increase in the building of mega dams, expansion of resource extractions, and suppression of peaceful environment-related protests as a sharp contradiction to the environmental law of 2015. “Cases of such contradictions and insincerity are numerous,” he said. 

The 21-page official response covers extensively on the impact of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau; Destructive mining, breach of environmental norm; Irresponsible damming: Mega dams destabilizing the fragile plateau and threatening millions of lives in Asia; Forceful removal of Tibetan nomads; Rampant littering with garbage treatment facilities provided only in cities; and Increasing natural disasters in Tibet.

“Since their occupation of Tibet, the Chinese authorities have imposed a destructive and irresponsible mode of development that ignores the actual social, environmental and economic needs of the Tibetan people. Their declaration of mining and tourism as pillar industries across Tibet clearly contradicts the claim of following a “sustainable path compatible with the harmonious co-existence of economy, society and ecological environment,” the official response said.

In order to effectively tackle the environmental issues in Tibet, CTA urged the Chinese government to put into practice the following recommendations:

1. Chinese government must respect and protect the rights of the Tibetan people’s cultural beliefs in the sanctity of the sacred mountains, lakes and rivers of the Tibetan Plateau.
2. The Chinese government must set firm, uncompromising and transparent license procedures for mining permits in Tibet based on competitive and reliable Environmental Impact Assessments and Social Impact Assessment reports.
3. The Chinese government must also strictly monitor and prohibit mining companies from dumping hazardous mine waste into the surrounding areas and rivers.
4. The Chinese government must also promptly address the poorly planned resettlement programs of Tibetan nomads. Having lost their traditional, self-reliant ways of life, the Chinese Government must provide the newly-resettled nomads with jobs, education, healthcare services and business opportunities to restore their dignity.
5. The Chinese government must involve the local Tibetan population in decision-making processes for any major development projects in Tibet.