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Meltdown in Tibet

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Issue 398

This excellent book looks at the state of the Tibetan Plateau and the effects of climate change. It paints a very worrying picture. Global warming will have a dramatic effect on the plateau. Equally, the changes already occurring, both through climate change and rapid development, are going to have an immediate impact for the half of the world’s population who live on or near rivers flowing off the plateau.

This includes everyone living in an arc from Pakistan, through India and the South East Asian mainland, to China as far north as Beijing. The plateau has many important natural functions. It contains a huge area of permafrost, which keeps water on the surface and helps keep methane deposits locked up (methane is a very potent greenhouse gas). The altitude and temperature variations help drive the monsoons, on which much of India and South East Asia depend.

Glacial meltwater from Tibet supplies a significant part of the flow for many rivers — the Sutlej and Indus in Pakistan, the Ganges and Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh, the Salween, Irrawaddy and Mekong in South East Asia, the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in China.

As the glaciers shrink, initially there will be greater flows in spring — but in the long run, much lower flows overall. The Indus and Yellow rivers now often dry up completely hundreds of miles from the sea.

The dams already built have meant delta erosion in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and China as far less silt reaches the sea. Soil fertility is also reduced, and saltwater incursions are reducing water supplies tens of miles inland. Glacial melting also means more heat is absorbed by the land, accelerating warming on the plateau.

The book looks at the effects of the railway arriving in Lhasa in 2005, opening up the route for mass immigration and the exploitation of Tibet’s vast mineral wealth. The cost to the environment of unrestricted hunting of wildlife has been appalling, but is dwarfed by that of the huge mines and dams already operating.

The plans for the future are even worse, and the building of dams on the upper reaches of the major rivers of South East Asia has already led to countries downstream (Laos, Cambodia) taking the attitude that they can now build dams too. China has the expertise — and desire for electricity — to assist with this.

Developments in Tibet are often carried out in secret. The main companies are tied into the highest tiers of the Chinese government. Some environmental opposition is allowed and has even stalled developments for a time — but opposition within Tibet is forbidden, with activists serving long jail sentences and protests being met with lethal force. The pollution from the mines is poisoning Tibetans and threatening many water supplies — including that of the capital, Lhasa — but this goes unreported, and again protesters can expect prison or death.

The development is doing nothing for Tibetans — quite the reverse. The forced settlement of nomads, when their land is wanted for mines or dams, leaves them with no means of subsistence.
Their skills at managing the high grasslands are being lost, and environmental degradation — even where the land is not being scarred by mines or dams — is the result. The Tibetans themselves end up relying on state handouts. Some turn to prostitution, many to alcohol.

If there is a criticism of this book to be made, it is that the author appears to romanticise slightly pre-invasion Tibet. It was a theocracy with an aristocratic ruling class, not an egalitarian society.
When he travels to Bhutan, he talks of the smal-scale development there — but with a population of 1 million, and far less accessible than Tibet, whether Bhutan will be able to resist the desires of its neighbours China and India is a question he doesn’t ask.

Buckley discusses the problems in Tibet with activists in Tibet, India and China, and credits them wherever possible. It is depressing reading — but only by successfully challenging capitalism, and development for the sake of accumulation, will the damage be stopped.

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