World’s highest plateau witness three different natural disasters in a month. A 600 million cubic meters of glacial slide onto the Aru summer pasture of Ruthok County on 17 July 2016, killing nine people, burying more than 110 yaks and 350 sheep.
Ruthok is one of the seven counties of Ngari prefecture of the Tibetan Autonomous Regions (TAR), located in the north-western edge of Tibet, bordering Xinjiang in the north and Ladakh (India) in the west.
Far away from Ruthok, in the north-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, mud floods and landslides killed two Tibetans and injured more than 30 people on the 9th day of the same month. The unusual mud flood also killed dozens of wild animals and livestock in the four counties of Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous prefecture of Qinghai Province.
Around the same time, a rare drought hit Chumarleb and Matoe counties (water source of Asia’s major rivers like Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong), leaving behind a dried river bed with hundreds of dead fishes. Ironically, local residents had to drink from lakes and muddy rivers despite Tibet being the ‘Water Tower of Asia’.
A glacial avalanche, mud floods and a drought within the month of July is a natural disaster too many too quickly. Local Tibetans are worried of the new trend of frequent natural disasters. A trend which might be, unfortunately, becoming the ‘New Normal in Tibet’.
Now, what is the cause behind the increasing number of natural disasters in Tibet in recent months or years?
“Climate change and human development are jeopardizing the plateau’s fragile environment” writes Jane Qui (Double threat for Tibet, Nature, August 19, 2014), precisely answering the causes behind the worrying natural trend.
Tibet is the world’s largest and highest plateau; from where earth’s majestic peaks rise in to the sky and mighty rivers gush through most of Asia, feeding billion plus lives in the riparian states and influencing the weather patterns as far as Europe. But with the temperature rise twice more than the global average, the plateau’s 46000 glaciers are rapidly melting and the streams are quickly drying up.
Despite the Tibetan Plateau facing the severest impact from climate change, there is an absolute lack of public education and awareness program on how to mitigate and adapt to the climate change. Much of China’s environment related policies framed in recent years are aimed at solving urban coastal pollution problems rather than protecting the fragile ethnic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
The local residents of Tsolho blamed the recent mud-flood in the region to excessive mining and tunneling of the mountains. The impact of climate change has been exacerbated by the increasing scale of resource extractions and dam constructions in the Tibetan areas. Mining has become the biggest concern for both the land and people of Tibet, causing landslide, grassland degradation and water pollution. According to the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute, there has been more than 30 known environment related protests in Tibet since 2009.
The dire implication of excessive mining in Tibet has been echoed by Chinese scientist as well. Jane Qui citing a report from Chinese Academy of Science that the “Tibetan mines produced 100 million tonnes of wastewater in 2007 and 18.8 million tonnes of solid waste in 2009. Because most of the mines are open pits and have limited environmental oversight, air, water and soil pollution is particularly serious.”
A similar horrendous scenario was reported in the (2009) Tibet Handbook, the author of the travel guide writes that “the hills around Chumarleb have heavily eroded by the itinerant 70,000 or 80,000 Chinese gold miners who come here during the summer months. The lawlessness of these prospectors is encouraged by the paucity of the police force assigned to monitor them,” a firsthand account. This is the same site where a recent drought has been reported and desertification is a serious issue.
Despite a clear warning of increasing natural disasters in Tibet such as landslides, torrential floods and snow disasters in an Environment Assessment Report (2015) published by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau, the Chinese government continue to expand and expedite mining and damming in Tibet.
Thus increasing the likelihood of more natural disasters as well as exacerbating the impact of any natural disaster. The flood in Tashigang township of Lhatse County (August 3, 2016) in central Tibet is one of the most recent disasters. Fortunately, it was a breach of river embankment and not a dam burst as hurriedly reported by Xinhua news.
Nevertheless, rising river levels due to increasing rainfall and fast melting of glaciers could burst dams and cause catastrophic disasters to Tibet, China and Asia. Tibet is home to probably the largest number of dams in the world and Chinese government has been investing heavily on building mega dams. The Suwalong hydropower project on the Yangtze River with a design capacity of 1.2 gigawatts is in the latest list of mega dams on this seismically active plateau.
A sudden rise in temperature and increase in natural disasters has been strongly felt by the local Tibetans in recent years. But the lack of information and infrastructure to mitigate the impact and adapt to the new pattern of global weather system has left Tibetans unprepared and unprotected.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government continue to build railways and dams to accelerate the exploitation of more than 3,000 proven mineral reserves found in Tibet.
*Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen is an environmental Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute.