By Thubten Samphel
Michael Buckley points out that China’s relentless exploitation of Tibet’s resources could spell environmental disaster for Asia
The Dalai Lama was the first to suggest that tackling Tibet’s looming environmental crisis deserves precedence over efforts to resolve its protracted political problem. According to WikiLeaks, in a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the American ambassador to India, Timothy J Roemer, on 10 August 2009 in New Delhi, the Tibetan spiritual leader recommended that America lead the international community to engage China on climate change in Tibet. The Dalai Lama said that Tibetans could wait five to 10 years for a political solution to the issue of Tibet. Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from rampant mining were problems that ‘cannot wait.’ These mounting environmental challenges on the Roof of the World are the focus of Michael Buckley’s stunning new book, Meltdown in Tibet, to be launched in November. Meltdown joins a growing chorus of voices that cry foul on China’s development juggernaut rolling across the Tibetan plateau, triggering deforestation, increased flooding downstream, permafrost melting and polluted rivers. In his groundbreaking study, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Brahma Chellaney, says water is Asia’s new oil. River waters of Tibet are Asia’s lifeline. Buckley, a travel writer and an environmentalist, brings this chorus to a higher pitch. His book draws attention to the critical importance of Tibet’s environment to the sustainability of development of Asia and even to the survival of the continent’s billions who live downstream. Buckley’s argument is that Asia can ignore what China is doing in Tibet at its own peril. He says, “We have only one Tibet. There are no backups, no second chances. If the water resources of the Tibetan plateau should be blocked or diverted or become polluted, then Asia will tumble into chaos.”
Tibet is the world’s highest and largest plateau consisting of 2.5 million sq km, stretching 2,400km from west to east and 1,448 from north to south. Tibet’s average elevation is 4,000m from sea level and its mountains thrust almost three miles up into the sky. Its rarefied air makes the Asian monsoon. Tibet is the world’s Third Pole and Asia’s Water Tower, being the repository of the largest concentration of glaciers outside of the two poles. These glaciers feed Asia’s ten major river systems that originate from Tibet and sustain more than two billions downstream. The reality is that China, firmly ensconced in Tibet, has its determined but unpredictable hand on Asia’s water tap.
China is re-engineering Tibet’s environmental landscape to facilitate the exploitation of its mineral resources and guzzle its water. China completed linking Lhasa by railway line in 2006 on permafrost ground that has become increasingly unstable because of the steady warming of the plateau. It now plans to expand its railway line network to neighbouring Nepal. Beijing is also on a massive dam-building programme in regions of high seismic activity. China’s south-north water diversion project includes plans to dam the Brahmaputra River to generate hydroelectric power and divert it to meet the water needs of north China. Mining across Tibet is polluting the rivers with deadly consequences for the fishery industries in South-east Asia. In Tibet environmental protests over poisoned river waters, unheard of before, have erupted only to be crushed. An estimated 2.5 million Tibetan nomads have been sequestered in permanent housing structures. The grasslands where they and their herds of yaks once roamed freely are now the target of mining companies.
Amidst these scenes of environmental doom and gloom, of impending ecological apocalypse, Buckley finds a beyul, a hidden valley and a sanctuary of environmental protection. He says. “The kingdom of Bhutan has some tremendous advantages over its neighbors. Its population is tiny — under a million. Its people do not need to be convinced about the value of conservation: they follow a sect of Tibetan Buddhism that imbues respect for nature. There is minimal mining and industry, so no real sources of pollution. Here’s the lucky part: Bhutan has abundant water resources. Most of its rivers rise on the Bhutanese side of the Himalayan range, although a few trans boundary rivers course in from Tibet. Bhutan’s real bliss is to be upstream and not having to deal with China: most of Bhutan’s economy is linked to India.”
Buckley believes Asia should make a collective effort to persuade China to account for Tibet’s receding glaciers, shrinking grasslands and reduced and polluted water flows in rivers that originate from Tibet. The author’s point is that Tibet will become an all-Asia problem if corrective actions are not taken. And the most effective corrective action is for all of Asia to form a united front to persuade China to give autonomy to the Tibetan people. Restoring the Tibetan people once again to being the stewards of the Tibetan plateau which they have done with responsibility for thousands of years will resolve Asia’s water problem. With deep reverence for the innate sacredness and sanctity of their home which they refer to as “the Land of Snows,” the Tibetan people have nurtured the plateau sustainably down the ages. For the sake of Tibet and for the environmental good of China and Asia, Tibetans deserve the right to become responsible stewards of Tibet again within a prosperous and confident China.
The writer is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a research centre of the Central Tibetan Administration and author of Falling Through the Roof, a work of fiction