13 July 2015

Tibet's environment

In recent years, China's exploitation of Tibet's natural resources has gathered pace significantly.

Tibetans have no power to protect their own land and must watch the economic benefits of its resources flow out of their country.

Major rivers sourced in Tibet (source: Michael Buckley)

The Tibetan plateau, dubbed the “Third Pole”, holds the third largest store of water-ice in the world and is the source of many of Asia’s rivers.

The glaciers, snow peaks, rivers, lakes, forest and wetlands of Tibet provide major environmental services to Asia, from Pakistan to Vietnam to northern China.

Tibetan climate generates and regulates monsoon rains over Asia.

An estimated 70% of China’s own water is polluted from uncontrolled dumping of chemicals.

Instead of dealing with this the Chinese government is diverting water from Tibet to north and west China to supply over 300 million Chinese people.

It is also damming rivers to generate hydroelectricity which is in turn used to power industrial developments in China.

Dams on rivers and their major tributaries cause massive interruptions to wild mountain rivers and the ecosystems dependent on them. They also give China strategic power over neighbouring countries.

Chinese government owned mining companies are quickening their extraction of copper, gold and silver in Tibet. These mines are usually based close to rivers.

Tibet is also rich in other resources including lead, zinc, molybdenum, asbestos, uranium, chromium, lithium and much more. Tibet is China's only source of chromium and most of its accessible lithium is in Tibet.

These raw materials are used in manufacturing of household goods, computers and smart phones, among much else.

China is the world’s largest producer of copper and the world’s second biggest consumer of gold. The World Gold Council predicts that the consumption in China will double within a decade. Tibet's reserves of copper and gold are worth nearly one trillion dollars.

Chinese companies have traditionally mined on a small scale but now large scale extractions are taking place, mainly by large companies, owned by or with close links to the state.

Most workers in Tibetan mines are Chinese and the extraction takes place without regard to the local environment and areas of religious significance.

Most of Tibet is vulnerable to earthquakes and highly volatile. Threats posed by this instability are exacerbated by mining and damming projects.

In 2013 a landslide in the Gyama Valley highlighted the fatal destruction of Tibet’s environment.

Tibetans have frequently protested against mining projects, including the fatal anti-mining protest of Phakpa Gyaltsenin May 2014.
Fossil fuels

China has recently drilled a 7 km borehole, to reach and explore Tibet's oil and natural gas resources. China National Petroleum Corporation estimates the basin's oil reserves at 10 billion tonnes.
Climate change

As well as global climate change, industrial projects such as mining, damming and deforestation are leading to the Tibetan glacier melting at a faster rate, contributing in turn to further global warming.

Before the Chinese occupation there was almost no Tibetan industrialization, damming, draining of wetlands, fishing and hunting of wildlife.

Tibet remained unfenced, its grasslands intact, its cold climate able to hold enormous amounts of organic carbon in the soil.

China has now moved millions of Tibetan nomads from their traditional grasslands to urban settlements, opening their land for the extraction of resources and ending traditional agricultural practices which have sustained and protected the Tibetan environment for centuries.
Government support

The mining companies benefit from state financing of railways, power stations and many other infrastructure projects.

Much of China’s significant transport infrastructure developments in Tibet have been intended to facilitate the movement of military forces into the country and the removal of natural resources from it.

Companies also benefit from finance at concessional rates to corporate borrowers, tax holidays, minimal environmental standards and costs, no requirement to compensate local communities and subsidised rail freight rates to get concentrates to smelters or metal to markets.
Tibet’s resistance

Tibetans will have to bear the environmental costs and are not permitted to establish NGOs to give voice to environmental concerns.

Nor will Tibetan communities receive royalties from these projects.

Tibetans regularly protest against mining and other environmentally destructive practices (see video below), such as the relocation of nomads.

Source: Gabriel Lafitte - Spoiling Tibet

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