“China’s feverish plans of developing Tibet into a military front post for South and Central Asia and developing new cities and towns to permanently settle millions of Han migrants have played havoc with the Tibetan environment over the past 70 years. ”
Recently BBC referred to a research report of US-based Rhodium Group which has revealed that China is emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire developed world combined and accounts for more than one fourth (27 per cent to be exact) of the entire world emissions. According to this report, China’s emissions have more than tripled over the past three decades. This report has, obviously, alarmed the concerned citizens because this act of China is bound to derail the international community’s plans to put a check on the upcoming disaster. But what is still escaping the world’s attention is the havoc caused by China on the environment in Tibet. And how its policies of ruthless exploitation of natural resources of this colony are severely endangering lives of over 3 billion Asians and threatening the existence of over 1.3 billion lives in 11 Asian countries which are directly fed by Tibetan rivers.
It is not a happy comment on the world conscience that Tibet was occupied and colonized by China at such a time of history when colonialism had started vanishing from the rest of the world. Unfortunately in later years too, the world has hardly paid any worthwhile attention either to the human rights situation in Tibet or exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources by its Beijing rulers. This 70 yearlong indifference and failure of collective world conscience is today emerging as a new danger of ecological disaster which is staring at a large part of the world, especially Asia.
Interestingly Tibet has been among the richest regions of the world, blessed in almost every way by Mother Nature. It is rich in water, good air, forests, fauna, and minerals… everything suitable for human habitation. It is home to a vast range of animals that are either rare in the rest of the world or are exclusive to Tibet alone. China’s feverish plans of developing Tibet into a military front post for South and Central Asia and developing new cities and towns to permanently settle millions of Han migrants have played havoc with the Tibetan environment over the past 70 years.
The resulting cultural change to has led to serious danger for many species of Tibetan animals. Tibet is home to more than 530 species of birds belonging to 57 families, which account for about 70 per cent of entire PRC’s birds. In sharp contrast to Tibetan Buddhist social values of treating all sentient beings with respect and care, the wildlife in Tibet suffered heavily at the hands of trigger happy Han settlers who love eating anything that moves. The impact has been so serious in many areas of Tibet, especially in Kham and Amdo provinces that the Chinese government had to introduce news laws to put a check on the indiscriminate killing of animals. Some of the threatened animal species in Tibet today include the snow leopard, Tibetan Takin, Himalayan Black Bear, Wild Yak (Drong), Blue Sheep, Musk Deer, Golden Monkey, Wild Ass (Kyang), Tibetan Gazelle, Himalayan Mouse Hare, Tibetan Antelope, Giant Panda and Red Panda. It is interesting to note that the Giant Panda that has become a national symbol of today’s China, actually belongs to the Amdo province of Tibet.
A major victim of colonial exploitation of Tibet by its Chinese masters has been the forest wealth of Tibet. Although the Tibetan plateau is more popular for its snow and glaciers, yet it is very rich in vegetation. The Plateau is home to over 17,000 species of plants and many of them are of high timber and medicinal value. Unfortunately, the flux of millions of Han settlers and soldiers over the past seven decades into Tibet and China’s needs for its own developmental requirements has resulted in over-exploitation of timber and medicinal plants.
“According to Tibetan and other sources, illegally extracted timber from Tibetan forests and statues and religious scripts of high antique value from Tibetan monasteries helped China’s communist leaders and high ranking military and civil officers to mint money from the international markets via Hong Kong. ”
According to Tibetan and other sources, illegally extracted timber from Tibetan forests and statues and religious scripts of high antique value from Tibetan monasteries helped China’s communist leaders and high ranking military and civil officers to mint money from the international markets via Hong Kong. While travelling through the Lithang region I passed by many kilometres long stretches of mountain slopes that were almost completely denuded of its trees and one could easily see the signs of timber exploitation. Watching huge trucks, loaded with perfectly straight and massive coniferous tree trunks along many highways was a common sight.
The mineral wealth of Tibet to has been a major attraction for the Chinese leaders even before Mao invaded Tibet and occupied it. Even before the occupation, Tibet was named ‘Xizang’ in the Chinese language which literally means ‘Western Treasure House’. Tibet is home to about 132 exploitable and high-value minerals and some of these reserves account for a significant share of the entire reserves across the world. Many of these reserves have remained almost untouched for centuries because Tibetans did not believe in disturbing Mother Nature for their own greed. Some of the prominent mineral reserves of Tibet include gold, lithium, copper, chromite, borax and iron.
The lithium reserves of Tibet are considered to be among the largest ones in the world and it has given a big boost to the lithium-ion battery export industry of China. With the increasing popularity of electric vehicles across the world, Tibetan Lithium has become a prized possession for China. Studies by Chinese geologists suggest that Tibet has reasonably good deposits of Uranium too.
However, the uncontrolled expansion of the metal extraction industry from Tibetan mines across Tibet over the past few decades has resulted in an increase in pollution and poisoning of many rivers and lakes of Tibet. The takeover of local Tibetans’ lands for these mining projects and rise in diseases caused by the pollution from associated industries has led to frequent public demonstrations and anger against the Chinese authorities.
The nuclear activities and militarization of Tibet have been big contributors to the deterioration of the environment in Tibet with a serious impact on the overall Asian environment. For example, China has constructed over 90 thousand km of highways and roads in the TAR region alone of the original Tibet. This includes good quality roads all along the 4000 km long borders which Tibet shares with India, Nepal and Bhutan. Construction of these roads, military cantonments, airfields and other civil and military installations has obviously made a big dent on the ecology of the region. Especially road work in the Himalayan region along the borders has been a big cause of land erosion which has seriously affected the health of rivers that invariably enter India and Nepal.
Another serious issue that has impacted the ecology of Tibet and had a serious impact on entire Asia around Tibet and Xinjiang is the nuclear policy of China. According to International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), the first nuclear weapon was brought onto the Tibetan Plateau in 1971 and stationed in the Tsaidam (Ch: Qaidam) Basin of northern Amdo. Reports say that nuclear missiles are stationed at Nagchuka, 150 miles north of Lhasa and that there are three nuclear missile deployment sites in Amdo which house Dong Feng Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (DF- ICBMs )with a range of 7,000 km. A new missile production centre is located at Drotsang (Ch: Ledu), 63 km east of Siling (Ch: Xining).
The “Ninth Academy” or “Factory 211” or “North Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Acadamy” is China’s top-secret nuclear city adjacent to the town of Haiyan in the Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Amdo (Qinghai Province). Some years ago doctors from this area reported cases of Tibetan nomad children, who grazed cattle around the facility, developing blood cancer with the same symptoms as reported from Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing sites of Japan.
In the early 1980s when the process of economic and industrial development had just started picking up and the US$ was a great attraction for China’s policymakers, China offered its services of dumping nuclear waste from many Western countries in Tibet. China later admitted officially of a contract involving the dumping of about 4000 tons of such waste at US$ 1500 per kg in the Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture near Kokonor lake which is the most famous and largest lake of Tibet.
Another issue that has impacted Tibet’s ecology in a big way is the Chinese government’s policy of stopping the Tibetan nomads from practising their traditional lifestyle of shifting between grasslands in mountains and low lying areas with changing seasons. Their total number is about 2 million which comes to about a third of the original Tibetan population. Beijing has started a massive programme of weaning the Nomads away from this system and settle them in specially developed housing colonies across TAR as well as in the ‘Chinese’ provinces of Tibet. The dual purpose of this plan is one, to take full control of the grasslands for military, industrial and other profitable activities and two, to wean away from the nomads from the direct influence of international radio broadcasts like the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia which have been playing a big role in fortifying anti-China sentiments among the nomads. Interestingly Beijing is trying to sell this idea of rehabilitation in the name of ‘protecting the environment with the argument that grazing causes damage to the grasslands.
However, the most serious environmental impact, caused by China’s occupation of Tibet, is being felt in the form of a serious water crisis that a major part of Asia is fast slipping into. Thanks to its snow-mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers, Tibet has come to be known as the ‘Third Pole as well as the “Water Tower of Asia”. Snow melting in Tibetan mountains and glaciers and flowing through Tibetan rivers feeds and directly affects the lives of over 1.3 billion people in China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangla Desh, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
Scientist of China’s own Chinese Academy of Science has warned that at a current melting rate of 7 per cent annually, two-thirds of the glaciers on the plateau will be gone by 2050. NASA too has revealed that 20 per cent of Tibetan glaciers have retreated in the past 40 years and over 60 per cent could be lost in the next 40 years. There are studies that say that the industrial black soot from China’s industry is accelerating the rate of this meltdown further.
But China’s maddening speed of damming of Tibetan rivers and diverting the stored water to its own regions instead of allowing it to flow down to the riparian countries has caused a serious problem for countries along with their flow. For example, China has already built 11 massive dams over Tibet’s Zach river (the Mekong in China) and 7 more are planned. It has already controlled its water flow to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and can easily blackmail these countries into political and economic submission by turning the tap off. This damming of Mekong has seriously impacted the water quality, fish habitats, wetlands and livelihood of people in these countries.
For a country like India, the immediate neighbour of Tibet, the impact of China’s river policies in Tibet has raised far more serious and multidimensional alarms. On two occasions in 2000 China deliberately diverted floodwaters to Arunachal Pradesh and in 2005 blasted an accidental lake caused by landslides in Pari Chu towards Himachal Pradesh to cause havoc in deep areas of India.
In its latest five-year plan China has cleared construction of a super hydroelectric project on Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo river only 30 km away from Indian borders. The capacity of this project will be three times China’s own and the world’s largest ‘Three Gorges Dam. Compared to well-known Indian hydroelectric projects this is going to be 111 times of the Bhakra-Nangal Dam; 27 times that of India’s largest Tehri Dam and 9 times larger than all top 5 Indian projects put together. Experts are fearing that China can use the electricity produced from such Tibetan hydro projects to pump waters of Tibetan rivers to remote areas like its Gobi desert and other water shortage areas. All this shows that the occupation of Tibet and manipulation of its natural resources by China has all elements of a sure disaster for entire Asia.
(Author is a senior Indian journalist and a keen watcher of the Tibet-China scene for five decades. He is Chairman, Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies and Engagement, New Delhi)