ucanews.com reporter, BeijingUpdated: November 27, 2015 12:10 AM GMT
Ice melts from a glacier outside of Maduo, Qinghai province, on the Tibetan Plateau, known as the "roof of the world." (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP)
When the Dalai Lama and state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences recently issued separate takes on environmental dangers facing the Tibetan Plateau, there was rare agreement.
The academy warned of dangerous rises in temperature above the world average on the "roof of the world," while Tibet’s spiritual leader delivered an emotional warning that two-thirds of the region’s glaciers could disappear by 2050.
"The Tibetan Plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibetans but for the environmental health and sustainability of the entire world," said the Dalai Lama.
But his demands for a stake in the critical climate talks in Paris, which begin Nov. 30, enraged the Chinese government.
"The Dalai Lama clique" was angling for Tibetan independence with "sinister intentions," state-run news site Tibet.cn said in an editorial on Nov. 23.
As Beijing officials, state-approved nongovernmental groups, representatives of Tibet’s exiled government and activists head to Paris, all sides claim to represent the best interests of this fragile Himalayan region. Can they finally strike a balance to curb alarming signs of environmental degradation?
The third pole
Known as the "third pole" — the largest source of freshwater outside of the Arctic and the Antarctic — the Tibetan Plateau represents a water tower of glaciers, permafrost and freshwater lakes that trickle down to form among the mightiest rivers in the world. The Yellow River, the third-largest in Asia, originates here, so too India’s holy Ganges and the Brahmaputra, which join before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
About 25 percent of the world’s population depend on rivers originating from the snow and ice on the Tibetan Plateau.
When Chinese officials arrive in Paris for the United Nations climate change conference, they will submit a report that points to worrying trends. Glaciers are melting at faster speeds than during the 1990s, and the number of fresh water lakes on the plateau has increased from 1,081 to 1,236 due to melting glaciers or permafrost — scientists don’t agree on this yet.
Meanwhile, natural disasters on the Tibetan Plateau are increasing in number. The cause: Temperatures here are rising more than the world average, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences report.
A boat travels across the Mekong River near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. About 25 percent of the world's population depend on rivers originating from the snow and ice on the Tibetan Plateau. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
While the warnings are stark, it remains unclear whether Beijing is telling us the full picture. Chinese scientists have become increasingly willing to share their data on Tibet in recent years. But there is still a sense that findings are being held back, said Walter Immerzeel, a hydrologist at Holland-based consultants FutureWater, who has worked on and around the Tibetan Plateau for more than a decade.
"The most critical, I think, is for hydrological data in particular of the large river systems like the Brahmaputra, which flows in Bangladesh," he said. "There are geopolitical tensions between those countries and this is usually why hydrological data is restricted. So even though it’s there, it’s usually not accessible to the scientific community."
Countries like Bangladesh have complained that Beijing essentially controls the levers to the floodgates that determine water flow downstream following the construction of hydropower dams on the Tibetan Plateau. Beijing argues they are vital for providing clean energy as the country moves away from coal.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences report to be presented in Paris will note government policies to combat climate change that "have received remarkable results," according to the nationalistic tabloid Global Times.
In recent years, China has gone from zero to hero during global environmental meetings. Last September, China signed a landmark agreement with the United States targeting a one-fifth reduction in carbon dioxide emissions — currently the highest in the world — by 2030. Beijing has also been more proactive in punishing river and air polluters, at least in more developed eastern China, while dramatically increasing the use of renewable energy including solar, wind and hydropower.
But critics warn a drive to develop Tibet’s economy — while restricting access to this politically sensitive region — means that while polluting industries are being scaled back in the booming east, on the Tibetan plateau in the west they are expanding.
'A growing cancer'
In August last year, Greenpeace reported a huge illegal coal mine on the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai province risked polluting the source of the Yellow River. Fourteen times the size of London, the Muli coalfield had "destroyed" alpine meadows connecting glaciers to the plateau.
"The Muli coalfield is a growing cancer on an otherwise intact alpine ecological system," Greenpeace said.
China Kingho, the company operating the coal field, says on its website the local area had benefitted from its construction of a highway where once there was only a single road "which gives easy access to major traffics [sic]." The company did not respond to emailed questions.
Among the estimated 7.5 million-plus Tibetans who live on the plateau, the majority of whom are Buddhist, protests against mining and hydropower projects remain common.
In October 2013, a contaminated pond at a mine overflowed into nearby rivers in Tagong township on the eastern edge of the plateau, causing fish and livestock to die up to 30 kilometers away, London-based Tibet Watch reported in February.
"If you don’t stop doing this, one day we will die like the fish killed by contaminated water," wrote one of many angry Tibetans on the microblogging site Weibo.
Locals dumped dead fish outside of government offices as they took their protest to county officials, who promised to raise the issue with higher authorities. But nothing was ever done, reported Tibet Watch.
While Chinese consider all protests in Tibet a challenge to Communist Party rule and therefore the unity of China, ordinary Tibetans see environmental damage as a blow against everything: livelihood, life and faith.
"The very nature of life on this planet is that of interdependence," Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje, the third-most senior Tibetan spiritual leader, told ucanews.com. "Therefore if the environment suffers, we suffer as well."
A decade after fleeing Tibet in 1999, Karmapa set up an association of monasteries in India, Nepal and Bhutan to set up environmental projects, including solar power and reforestation aimed at reversing climate change on the Tibetan Plateau.
Remaining cautiously optimistic about the crucial climate summit in Paris, he said there were growing signs environmental problems were being taken more seriously by many governments — without naming China.
"I sincerely pray that a global agreement emerges from the Paris negotiations and it serves the greater good rather than a handful of countries," he said.
Next week in the French capital, China will be represented by an army of state officials as it engages in complex negotiations designed to thrash out a global cap on emissions. By contrast, the exiled Tibetan government’s delegation is made up of just one person, said Mandie Keown, a campaign coordinator for the International Tibet Network.
A team of campaigners in and around the meetings will meet with ministers while others generate discussion on social media, she said — the aim being to generate awareness of issues hushed up by Beijing, including hydropower.
"It’s obviously a battle doing that because China is seen as one of the main countries that is going to help alleviate climate change," Keown told ucanews.com. "So it is a very difficult time to raise these serious issues. It’s such a closed off region."