Monday, 8 August 2016

Natural Disasters in Tibet: Is it the New Normal?

*By Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen

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’.
Figure1 : Mud flood in Tsolho where dozens of wild animals washed away in the mud
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.

Figure 2: Tsenmo Hydropower Dam in Rebkong county of Qinghai Province. Locals are worried that heavy rain or earth quake could breaches the dam and wash away thousands of homes located down the valley
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.

*The author is an environment research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Lichu River Poisoned : Case of Minyak Lhagang Lithium Mine Protest

On 4 May 2016, a sudden mass death of fish in the Lichu River in Minyak Lhagang, Dartsedo County in Karze Prefecture brought hundreds of local Tibetans out on the street, protesting against a lithium mining company (Ronda Lithium Co Ltd) that released mine waste into the Lichu River, a tributary of Nakchu/Yalong river, the biggest river that merges with Yangtse downstream.

Mass death of fishes at Lichu river due release of toxic waste in the river
Yet another case of contaminated mine waste released into Tibetan rivers by a Chinese mining company clearly contradicts Beijing's call for Green Development in their 13th Five Year plan. In recent years, there have been an increase in the number of cases of environmental degradation caused by Chinese mining companies in Tibet, resulting in more than 20 large scale mining-related protests since 2009.

The source of lithium at Minyak Lhagang in Dartsedo is pegmatite, economically most profitable lithium minerals from hard rock. Minyak Lhagang lithium mining site may have the same high concentration of lithium as the adjacent Jiajika lithium mine, which is considered as the China's largest pegmatite type lithium deposit.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental impact, resulting in water and soil pollution. Unfortunately, extraction and processing of lithium does not involve clean and green technology as advertised in lithium based products such as electric and hybrid cars.

Many parts of China still carry out traditional lithium mining in both brine and hard rock lithium. Traditional lithium mining for hard rock involves roasting and calcination process at high temperature followed by water leaching. Water leaching is a process in which lithium is treated with high concentration of acids such as hydrochloric acid or sulphuric acid in water for high lithium recovery. Higher the concentration of acid used in the water leaching process, higher is the lithium recovery rate.

Local Tibetans believe that the death of hundreds of fish is caused by the poisoned water from the mining site and suspect leakage from the water leaching site. The highly concentrated acid stored for water leaching process might have leaked and drained into the Lichu River, which in turn may have led to the contamination of water, causing death of hundreds of fish.

The optimum pH level of majority of the aquatic animals lies between pH 6.5 to 9. Any further change in the optimum pH causes strain on animal physiology, reduces hatching and survival rate. Aquatic animals are more sensitive towards acids than alkalis. A change in pH with 0.5 towards acid from pure water (pH 7) causes aquatic animals in an abnormal environment and cannot survive when the pH level is lower than 3. Highly concentrated acids in the local river due to leakage of water leaching site may have altered the level of pH to as low as 3 causing death of fish and damage to the entire local river ecosystem.
During summer, aquatic animals usually have difficulty carrying out full life cycle as the concentration of dissolved oxygen fluctuates seasonally and is lowest during the months of May and June. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen contained in water, one of the indicators of the water's ability to support life and is found to be lower at higher altitude. The water leaching site might contain organic wastes (dead plants and animals) since the mining site was closed for a few years, the organic wastes drained into river water are decomposed by aerobic bacteria. Decomposition of the organic wastes is a major function of aerobic bacteria to provide nutrient to aquatic animals and requires oxygen which in turn cause depletion in oxygen level to other aquatic animals. High concentration of nitrates and phosphate if present in the contaminated water can be a factor lowering dissolved oxygen and causing high mortality rate of fish.

Lithium mine site
The People's Republic of China (PRC) has passed Environment Impact Assessment law, effective from September 2003. According to Article 5 of the EIA law of PRC, it states: "The state shall encourage all relevant units, experts and the public to participate in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) in proper ways."  The authorities at various levels should make local Tibetans well-informed and well-aware about the EIA law. The public or the residents near the mining sites are the chief stakeholders of social as well as environment impact assessment.
The local Tibetans earlier in October 2013 protested against the same lithium mining company when hundreds of fish were poisoned to death due to contaminated mining wastes drained into the Lichu River. If the authorities had treated all the stakeholders equally, environmentalists, NGOs and the local Tibetans might have rejected the proposed mining project from the very beginning due to clear negative environmental and social impact in future. It is evident that the local Tibetans were neither given equal participation while carrying out environment impact assessment nor clear instruction on the proposed project and its possible impact on the environment or EIA wasn't carried out at all.

Is temporary halt to operation at the mining site the heaviest penalty for the mining company which caused huge damage to river ecosystem?  Will the government re-examine the mining project and the company in accordance with Article 27 of EIA law of PRC which states: "In case of any inconsistence with EIA documents during project construction and operation, the construction unit shall organize a post-assessment of the environmental impacts, adopt improvement measures, and report to the original EIA document approval department and original project approval department for documentation. The original EIA document approval department may also request the construction unit to perform a post-assessment of the environmental impacts and adopt improvement measures."

Similarly, Article 85 in the Law of PRC on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution states: "The party whose rights and interests are damaged by a water pollution accident is entitled to ask the party discharging pollutants to eliminate the damage and make compensation for their losses." If the law was to be implemented accordingly, the mining company in question should compensate for damaging river ecosystem to the local Tibetans who are dependent on the river for their daily livelihood or should take voluntary action in depolluting the Lichu River and the local environment.

Local Tibetans of Lhagang Protesting
Local TiChina's move towards Green Development as stated in China's 13th Five Year Plan, a sustainable development with low carbon output and its claim of heading towards energy revolution will see promotion of "green cars". Huge demand for electric and hybrid cars across the world has tripled the price of lithium, "the white petroleum" over the years. Chinese Government's huge subsidy of electric and hybrid cars up to 60,000 Yuan per car has accelerated the demand for electric vehicles in China and is the leading consumer of electric cars and lithium in the world. According to China's Ministry of Land and Resource (MOLAR), the discovery rate of hard rock lithium in 2014 is 36.6% from 5.37 million tons resource whereas brine lithium is 18.8% from 92.491 million tons resource. Most of the brine lithium China has discovered in Amdo (Qinghai Province) provides low cost transportation to lithium manufacturing companies because of their relatively closer proximity to Beijing. However, the rise in demand for lithium will see more mining projects initiated on the Tibetan Plateau. This will in turn cut the cost and reduce China's dependence on other countries for lithium and will aid China's continued influence on lithium price in the global market.

Lithium based batteries have higher capacity to store power, are lighter in weight and cheaper than nickel metal hydride, form of batteries earlier used in electric and hybrid cars. This led to the steep rise in demand for lithium in the past few years. How will the government's huge subsidy of electric vehicles and steadily growing lithium price will meet the demand of China's huge appetite for lithium from other countries in the future? The only solution is to mine the Tibetan Plateau.

The recent reopening of the lithium mining site in Minyak Lhangang in eastern Tibet is to satisfy China's current lithium demand. China's demand for lithium has crossed threshold where it is compelled to reopen a lithium mining site which was earlier closed in 2013, following huge environmental degradation and death of hundreds of fish in Minyak Lhagang. The local Tibetans' protest against the mining site resulted in closing of the mining site but the mining company was never penalised for the damage it caused to the environment.
Minerals are rich in fault lines and Tibetan Plateau lies on the junction of Eurasian and Gondwana continental plates, world's key ore forming region. China's growing demand for minerals put the Tibetan Plateau at the forefront of its policies to profit from potential mining sites. Tibet has more than 90% of China's lithium reserves. The present small lithium mining projects in China will never meet the growing demand for lithium, hence large lithium mining projects in Tibet will serve a lucrative proposition.

Minyak Lhagang mining site, a considerably small lithium mining site, caused huge environmental damage, polluting rivers and death of hundreds of fish. Larger mining projects in Tibet will see remarkably higher damage to the environment and the local communities. Tibet's rivers are the source of fresh water and livelihood for the lower riparian South East Asia and South Asian countries. If mining projects in Tibet are not regulated, the toxins released from mining wastes may also cause huge number of fish mortality affecting fish industry in the downstream countries.

*Auther Tenzin Palden is an Environment Research fellow at the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute     

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Gyama Mine in Tibet On the Global Conflict Mine Map

Here we have re-posted an Interview we gave to Daniela, appeared on EJOLT. This is not only a detailed interview but it also facilitated in putting Gyama Mine Disaster on the Global Map as Conflict Mine. 


Posted on EJOLT or Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade. 
Mining, large infrastructure, turism and forced settlement of nomads lead to social distress and self immolations
By Daniela Del Bene (ICTA, UAB).

“The number of Tibetans setting themselves ablaze is increasing at an alarming rate. […] In addition to several political, social, religious and economic factors, the impact of mining and environmental pollution has been one of the major causes that drive fiery protests across Tibet”; an article from 2013 by the Research Office of the Environment and Development Desk of the Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala makes in this way the connection between self-immolations and environmental distress in Tibet; “On Tuesday 20.11.12 a Tibetan in his mid-’30s […] walked up the hill to the entrance of gold mining site in Gyagar Thang, poured kerosene over his body and set himself on fire”i. According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Dharamsala, this young man wanted to denounce the hardship of local communities affected by mining operation of the Chinese companies. As in many other countries, pain caused by the deterioration of the local ecologies and the disruption of traditional ways of life leads to resistances and constructive struggles but also to extreme acts of dissent and frustration. Moreover, China’s occupation of Tibet since the 1950s opened the door to systematic exploitation of Tibet’s rich minerals (copper, gold, chromite, aluminium, iron ore, boron, lead, zinc, lithium), but also crude oil, potassium, asbestos, natural gas and coal. Pollution of water bodies and additional impacts on the territories due to hydropower stations to provide energy to the mines are aggravating living conditions. Railways and roads made access to local cultural sites and natural amenities much easier and tourism is bringing along severe cultural and environmental impacts. Also, to facilitate extraction of natural resources and to control their movements and use of resources, Chinese authorities are forcing Tibetan nomads to settle down in ad hoc built villages where they are losing their traditional practices and therefore part of their culture.

In December 2014 in Dharamsala, I discussed these issues with Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Here is a short version of our interview. Full text is available as PDF here Please also read about the conflict at the Gyama mine in the EJatlas, the first case we cover in Tibet.

Can you please introduce your work at the Environment and Development Desk and describe the major environmental challenges you are facing now in Tibet?

The Environment and Development Desk has been set up under the Tibetan Policy Institute; we monitor current environmental situation in Tibet, research on the impact of climate change and damage caused by human factors, and then we try to disseminate an unbiased and true information about the global significance of the Tibetan Plateau and its current state of environment to the international community and governments. For Tibetans, environment issue is one of the most urgent tasks. His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) once said that political issue could wait but not environment. Since Tibetan plateau is very fragile, any major damage to its ecological state would be very difficult to restore. As Tibetans, we have a very intimate relation to nature because we believe there is presence of God everywhere, on the mountains, in the rivers, so we try to minimize the impacts as much as possible.

Things have changed ever since Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950s. Intentionally or unintentionally, there have been lots of environmental damages in the Tibetan areas under Chinese rule. China has already built railway lines, which makes mining much easier, cheaper and profitable. Then, they have constructed many hydropower stations that are indispensable for mining. Often, investors in these mining companies are central and provincial government officials. So every time local communities resist, they are first asked to just go away; if they insist, the companies try to convince that it’s meant for community’s development; if they still meet opposition, they try to divide the community and bribe members; lastly, they just deploy police forces to brutally repress resistance (by tear gas, rubber bullets, or opening fire). We managed to document at least 20 big protests against mining since 2009, although there could be many more. Such news will never come up in the Chinese media, so locals have no option but to send such information out to the world at great risk. So it’s very important for us to make this information known to the outside world and the Chinese government, the world has a responsibility to act. Local governments and mining companies always operate in collaboration and are far too powerful actors.

-What does mining entail for Tibetan people living in that area? What kind of resettlement policies is put in place?

To accelerate mining in Tibetan areas Tibetan nomads have to be removed from such areas; Chinese government introduced policies to completely resettle Tibetan nomads into poorly planned concentrated village, so that mining companies could have a free hand in the vast resource rich grassland at the cost of Tibetan nomads. So, we can say it’s another type of displacement, not from a precise spot to which you have official entitlement but from a whole area and way of life.

But it’s not only mining; tourism in Tibet is expanding fast but is concentrated in a few areas during a very short summer season, with massive numbers. Recently, China has built routes for tourists to visit sacred lakes and important environmental sites; such action would hurt both people and the land. But this kind of tourism creates very little wealth and job for the local Tibetans; most of the tourists in Tibet are Chinese. They mostly book travel packages through a Chinese Travel Agencies who books Chinese hotels to stay, a Chinese driver for local travel and a Chinese guide, and mostly eat in a Chinese restaurant.

-Your work in documenting socio-environmental resistances in Tibet is quite unique. Can you recall any interesting case you learnt about and their outcomes?

The most known case is probably a copper mine closed to Lhasa, called Gyama (in Chinese, Jiama) Copper Gold Polymetallic Mine, in an area rich in copper, zinc, lead, lithium. The mine was once declared as a model mine by the Chinese government. How ironic that the Tibetan communities around it have been protesting for over 5 years now as the mine brought disruption to the nomadic life on the mountains in that valley. It also caused river water pollution. Most notably the massive mine induced landslides in 2013 that killed more than 80 workers in the same mine. Though the Chinese government claims that the landslide was due to natural factors and not caused by the Gyama mine, we at the Environment Desk have strong evidence to prove that the 2013 landslide was caused by mismanagement of the mine.
Further details, stories and anecdotes are included in the FULL INTERVIEW (PDF).
For more information:
*Gyama Mine conflict in the EJAtlas
*Environment and Development Desk,
*Shielding the Mountains documentary movie, directed by Kunga Lama. Produced by Emily Yeh.
*Tibet Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “Imposing Modernity with Chinese Characteristics”, Dharamsala 2011
*Jampel Dell’Angelo, The sedentarization of Tibetan nomads: conservation or coercion?, p. 309-332 in H. Healy et al, Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, Routledge, London, 2012.
*“We are here to stay”, a LAMCA-EJOLT documentary movie
*Leah Temper, Daniela del Bene and Joan Martinez-Alier. 2015. Mapping the frontiers and front lines of global environmental justice: the EJAtlas. Journal of Political Ecology.

i Tsering Dhundup “Scarring the land, scraping the wounds”, available at:

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Tibet’s Economic Development and China’s ‘Boomerang Aid’

On 1st September 2015, the Central Tibetan Administration or the Exile Tibetan Government responded to the Chinese White Paper on Tibet issued back in April 2015. 

The response  was realistically and responsibly titled "Tibet was not Part of China but Middle Way Remains a Viable Solution ". Fortunately, the response from the Exile Tibetan Government  has more reliable information and realistic approach than the Chinese white paper which contains nothing more than absolute rhetorics and deliberate lies.

As an Institution that deals with environment and developmental issues in Tibet, the most interesting part of the Chinese White Paper  and the response from Exile Tibetan Government is the current state of Environment and path of development in Tibet under Chinese rule. We were encouraged by the Chinese government's latest effort to tackle environmental issues in China, but appalled by the lack of similar effort in Tibetan areas where extensive mining and damming causing extreme damage to the fragile ecosystem of the World's highest Plateau and marginalizing its rightful inhabitants of any real benefits.

Following is an extract from the Tibetan Response on the Chinese white Paper which claims environmental protection and economic progress for the Tibetan people.


Tibet’s Economic Development and China’s ‘Boomerang Aid'

While the Chinese government attempts to rationalise its occupation of Tibet stating that it was backward and feudal, Tibet today is far from current international standards in terms of human development. Tibet today is off-limits to any scrutiny by independent international media and rights groups. On the issue of the current state of Tibet’s development, the United Nations Development Programme says, “Tibet still lags behind other areas of China in terms of human development. Harsh conditions, scarce resources, and insufficient infrastructure limit potential sources of economic growth. Meanwhile, the growth that does take place is concentrated in cities and yields little benefit to many ethnic Tibetans, most of whom live in rural areas and lack skills compared to migrant workers from other parts of China.” There is an acute need for a shift in the basic approach towards the development of Tibet. Beijing’s approach has led to chronic dependence on subsidies, referred to as “blood transfusion economy” by economists. There is massive central government aid to Tibet to develop infrastructure, highways, railway lines, airports and communications system, all aimed to facilitate Beijing’s control of Tibet. But what the central government’s right hand gives to Tibet is also taken away by its left hand. Economists define this sleight of hand as “boomerang aid.” Tibet’s expanding network of highways and railway lines is helping Beijing to exploit the region’s abundant natural resources. Tibet’s water and hydro energy resources and its minerals are exploited with no or little compensation for the local Tibetans. On the other hand, Beijing’s focus on urbanisation and infrastructure, plus settling the Tibetan plateau with immigrants, has not really helped to improve the life of the majority of Tibetans but has increased their marginalisation. Nor has there been a transfer of skills to Tibetans. Tibet continues to rely on outside aid, both capital and labour. “This urban-oriented growth has contributed to rapidly increasing income disparity between urban and rural areas, and between Han and Tibetan populations” (Holcombe, Arthur. 10 June 2002. Testimony to US Congressional Executive Commission on China). The Chinese government often talks about spending millions on boosting development in Tibet, but how much of that money is actually spent on improving health, education, job and social welfare that benefit the local Tibetans is a big question. China’s own statistics show that most of the money as part of China’s Western Development programme is being spent on mega projects like extending and expanding highways, railways and airports to transport minerals from Tibet and bring in tourists, officials and Chinese migrants to the plateau. What Tibetans actually need are good schools with qualified teachers, hospitals with modern facilities and doctors, jobs and employment opportunities in their own villages and towns.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Why Tibet Matters.
Can download this Infographic at

Monday, 20 April 2015


The toxic smog engulfing Beijing and other Chinese cities has forced the Communist government to amend its development model and bring in a new environmental protection law in a bid to calm ever growing public anger. Unfortunately, as in the past, the new environment law may prefer to stay within China proper rather than extend into the ethnic regions of the PRC.
Ever since the former President Hu Jintao’s scientific development concept slogan in 2003, there has been loud government rhetoric on environment protection, but the lack of genuine efforts was evident from Chai Jing’s ‘Under the Dome’ documentary film. The film reveals that the giant state-owned companies continue to flout environmental laws and still pride themselves as patriots
Site of the Lianghekou Dam currently under construction will be the highest embankment Dam in China
So, how might the new environmental protection law be enforced is a question which needs analysis.
The swift approval of the new law and the appointment of Chen Jining as the minister to enforce the law is a step forward. This is a welcome indication that President Xi Jinping is serious about environmental protection. But the commercial interests of the giant state-owned companies are deeply intertwined with the wealth of the Chinese central and provincial officials. So any moves directly affecting this lucrative business would mean serious internal friction.
Therefore the Chinese government may take an approach that aims to appease both the officials and urban citizens. Beijing would enforce the new environmental law as strictly as possible in China proper to calm growing public dissent, while leaving the law ambiguously enforced in the ethnic regions like Inner Mongolia, East Turkestan and Tibet (as it often does in the ethnic regions where constitutional rights are misinterpreted and curbed in the name of development and stability). Such an approach would thus enable the Chinese companies to continue making money far away from Beijing; in places where the laws are interpreted and manipulated as it suits the interests of the central and local officials, or where environment protests are ruthlessly suppressed as they are deemed ‘anti-national’ or ‘influenced by the Dalai clique’.
The more than 20 large-scale mining protests in Tibetan areas brutally suppressed by the Chinese government in the past 5 years is a dreadful reminder of the ambiguity of such laws.

  • The Gyama (near Lhasa) mine landslide in March 2013 which killed 83 mine workers was clearly induced by mismanagement of the mine, but the company was not punished.
  • The same mine was blamed for the poisoning of a stream flowing through Dokar village in September 2014, but the officials again sided with the mining company. The stream is a tributary of Lhasa Kyichu River which joins the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Brahmaputra.
  • On August 2013, the locals of Zatoe in Kham (north-eastern Tibet) protested against mining in the Sianjainyun (Source region of Machu, Drichu and Zachu River) Nature Reserve. The officials fired tear gas and detained the locals instead of enforcing the nature reserve protection laws.
  • Mining has been declared the pillar industry in the Tibetan areas, despite being the biggest threat to the fragile ecosystem of the world’s highest plateau, thus hurting both the land and the people of this ancient civilization.
So the terrifying visible outcome is that the Tibetan plateau is being plundered and poisoned, and gradually being turned into another toxic Chinese province. Environmental protection means not repeating past errors, but Beijing seems completely indifferent when it comes to the need of protecting the environment of the ethnic regions.
This indifference is apparent if we take a careful assessment of President Xi Jinping’s commitment to peak carbon emissions by 2030. This surely is a way forward, but it means drastically reducing coal consumption. So as Grace Mang of International Rivers put it so aptly in her article ‘No need to sacrifice rivers for power’,  that the devil is in the details, and how will Beijing plan to quench the ever rising energy thirst of the world’s second largest economy?
Unfortunately, the Chinese government is set to dam and divert water from Tibetan rivers to light cities and factories in China. Like the removal of Tibetan nomads from grasslands to bring in mining, the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau is now being put at risk to reduce smog in coastal cities of China.
The risk from 510 megawatt Zammu hydropower dam on Yarlung Tsangpo in Gyatsa county  of Southern Tibet and the 295 meter high Lianghekou dam on Nyakchu River in the Nyarong area of the eastern Tibet is simply too great. The impact on the region’s wildlife habitat and reduced river flow into the downstream areas are apparent, but the most dreadful threat would be from (RIS) Reservoir-Induced Seismic activity like the horrifying Wenchuan and Ludian earthquakes. Experts have voiced the possibility of 2008 Wenchuan earthquake (which killed 80,000 people) induced by the nearby Zipingpu Dam and the 2014 Ludian earthquake in Yunnan, which was similarly induced by the Xiluodu dam.
Sadly, China has planned more such mega dams on Tibetan rivers and destructive mining on the mountains, a rapidly surging threat on the fragile plateau.
The call for the rule of law in China by President Xi Jinping is a glimmer of hope that the laws would be enforced and the unruly state-owned companies would be disciplined. But the question is, will the new environmental protection law be equally and fairly enforced and extended into Tibet?
*The writer, Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen is a research fellow at Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Poisoning Tibetan Rivers: Why is it not so natural?

 “In the past, our rivers were crisp and clean, the mountains and valleys were known for their natural beauty. But now the rivers are polluted with poisonous waste from the mines,”  is what a local resident said to Radio Free Asia hoping that letting the  news out to the world would at least raise pressure on local authorities to act as the  people’s government,  rather than of the mining companies. Such grievances are numerous and wide spread among the Tibetan population in recent years due to the desecration of their mountains and poisoning of their rivers by destructive mining practices followed in Tibetan areas under Chinese occupation.

Fig1. River Poisoned by Gyama Mine
On September 23, 2014, more than 1000 local Tibetans of Dokar and Zibuk villages near Tibetan capital city Lhasa protested against poisoning of their rivers by Gyama Copper Poly-metallic Mine. The mine is located close to a stream that locals use for drinking, irrigation and animal feeding. But as always, the local officials conveniently declared that the water pollution in the rivers was caused by natural factors and not by the mine.

A similar official statement was issued back in 2013, when 83 mine workers of the same mine were killed in a mine induced landslide due to mismanagement of mine waste or over-piling of mine waste rocks on a steep V-shaped valley. The official statement was obediently published by Xinhua News without the slightest hint of journalistic objectivity despite the loss of so many lives. This systematic approach without any legal transparency and with no sense of compunction by the local Chinese government in Tibetan areas has become a dangerous trend and bizarre scenario.

The Gyama Mine is operated by Huatailong Mining Development, a subsidy of the China National Gold Group Corporation, and ironically is praised as eco-friendly and a model mine by China. If the standard and qualification for a model mine is of such, then the plight of the people and state of the environment is seriously in danger. The deliberate and systematic falsification of causes behind the Gyama mine landslide and river water poisoning by Chinese local government could only be explained by themselves.

But a 2010 article titled “Environmental impact of mining activity on the surface water quality in Tibet: Gyama valley,” by Xiang et al., firmly ascertains that “a localized severe heavy metal contamination is documented in the stream water of Gyamaxung-chu (chu means river) and wastewater treatment facilities in the Gyama valley.” It also states that “the environmental risk at the Gyamaxung-chu source area, where the measured contents correspond mainly to geochemical background was zero. However, there was a very high risk at the upper and middle parts of the stream and it appears to be both natural and accelerated by the extensive mining activities. The levels of metals (such as lead, copper, cadmium and zinc) represent the high risk for the environment, including local human populations and their livestock.”
Fig2. Dokar Village where the poisoned river flow through

The article further goes on to say that  “ the  great environmental concern are the many mining and processing deposits in the valley, containing large amount of heavy metals, such as lead, copper, zinc and manganese etc. These deposits are prone to leak its contaminants through seepage water and erosion of particulates, and pose therefore a future risk for the local environment and a potential threat to the downstream water quality.”
Gyamaxung-chu is a mountain spring fed by groundwater, rain and melting snow with continuous flow throughout the year providing life for the many villages situated on its path before draining into the Lhasa river and finally into the Yarlung Tsangpo or Brahmaputra.
A similar Assessment Report by Environment and Development Desk of Central Tibetan Administration back in 2013 after the Gyama mine landslide clearly produced strong evidence to link the landslide with the mismanagement of mine waste.
Considering the evidences, why do the relevant authorities refuse to see the truth and deny justice for its own people? Who granted mining companies so much power that they could get away with killing its own workers and poisoning community rivers? The only conclusion according to the local Tibetans is that there is an absolute cozy camaraderie between mining companies and local officials. The power of this nexus overrides everything else: ethnic cultural rights, local community interests, mineral resource extraction procedures and environmental laws. They could even manipulate official media and experts to validate outright crimes against its own people and the environment.

Fig3. Dokar Village with Gyama Mine Site seen in the background
The recent protest against river water poisoning is a desperate attempt after almost five years of continuous pleas to the  Chinese authorities in Lhasa The so called people’s government threatens and intimidates its own people for raising such issues of public interest. The people are left with no choice but to seek help from the outside world by appealing to international media, hoping Beijing would take notice and the central government would come to their rescue. I am sure Beijing cares about the welfare of its people. According to a report in China Daily (23-01-2013) the central urban areas of Beijing city alone have 300 water quality monitoring stations. How many such stations are there in the Tibetan areas and why are the people of Gyama valley denied of such rights?
The poisoning of Tibetan rivers will have catastrophic consequences to both China and the world, as Tibet is home to the largest store of accessible fresh water and source of Asia's six greatest rivers (Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Salween, Indus and Brahmaputra), feeding some of the world's most populated nations like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

Tibetans take great pride in the purity of their rivers and  causing river water pollution is simply against their way of life. In the 11th century when Indian Buddhist scholar, Atisha Dipamkara visited Tibet, he was overjoyed by the freshness and purity of Tibetan rivers so much that he recommended the waters of Tibet be served as the greatest offering to Lord Buddha. Since then the unmistakable Tibetan culture of water offering is prominently visible in every home and monastery. But what will the people of Gyama valley would offer to the Gods, when the very basic necessity of drinking water for the community is poisoned?


 Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha is an Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute