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Author Explains Tibet’s River Crisis


Editor’s note: Below is a transcription of an interview by Losang Gyatso, head of the Tibetan language service at the Voice of America, with author Michael Buckley, describing recent environmental issues on Tibet’s rivers, some of which feed the Mekong River, itself under environmental stress from dams there.

Can you start off by telling us what are the major activities going on inside Tibet that is causing the environmental degradation, and especially on the rivers inside Tibet?

Well, what’s been happening lately and ever since the railway reached Lasa in 2006, it is an acceleration of Chinese plans to develop the west. There’s a program called, “Develop the West,” and part of that development is, it’s not a benefit to the locals. It’s in two phases. Basically it’s damming and mining. And those two go together. And previously the dams have been on the lower edges of the Tibetan plateau; now they’re starting to move up onto the plateau, because China builds in cascades. So, the dam cascades they build three, four and then they get the power from there, and then they start building more upstream. So, that was happening with the dams, and then the mining, of course is accelerated because the train is a very economical way by which to exploit the mineral resources and carry it back into China.

And, of course, none of this benefits Tibetans at all. It’s all exported. Tibet has huge reserves of lithium, copper, all kinds of minerals, probably worth, the estimate by the Chinese is $125 billion, but, the real value could be $900 billion, probably more. So, these things are happening ever since the railway really accelerated this system has been going on for a long time, but now they have acceleration.

Is there a system of consultation with the local communities inside Tibet, as to where mining can occur, where dams can be started?

The system of consultation consists of firing guns at Tibetans. That’s the system of consultation. There is no involvement at local level, any local level of Tibetans. They are just treated as spectators, in their own way. And, I mean, there’s one Tibetan who visited Tibet once and put it down in a book and said that, “We have become a land of beggars. That’s what we are. You know, we used to own the land. We used to manage the land. We did whatever. Now we’re just beggars, mute spectators.”

You first went to Tibet 1985, and then you traveled there in the later ’90’s. What do you feel? Do you see any clear changes in the environment yourself, by traveling, in the condition of the rivers?

Most certainly! It’s very hard to detect changes in rivers because you’d have to follow the rivers from the source all the way down, which is a difficult thing to do because they’re hidden down really deep gorges. For example the Salween and the Mekong. But, I can give you an example. I’d bicycled across Tibet back in ’86, and we passed through Yamdrok Tso, the sacred lake of Yamdrok Tso. And I’ve passed by this lake numerous times over the last 20 years, and each time it gets worse and worse, what’s happening to that lake. I mean, first of all, you had these Austrian turbines that came in. You had the Chinese building this pumping station for no particular reason that we can work out, which is changing the whole nature of the lake, and this is a sacred lake. This is one of the top four sacred lakes in Tibet. And the Tibetans have this belief that if something is disturbed with this lake then the whole Tibetan culture and their race is at stake. That’s the legend. And you can see that I couldn’t tell you if the lake is changing color, but suddenly it’s as if there seems to be no particularly reason for this pumping storage station into a generating power to Lasa.

Here’s one example. The rivers, themselves, well, I mean, things are changing on the rivers. There’s no doubt about that. When you put in five huge dams on the Mekong, that’s going to change the whole ecosystem. I mean, the last end that opened on the Mekong [was] 5.8 gigawatts. It’s the size of five nuclear reactors. You can’t put in a dam that size and not affect, and not expect it to affect, what’s happening on that river. It has a huge impact.

Now, let’s discuss, for instance, coming out of Tibet or the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Indus, the Sutlej, the Irrawaddy and the Yazoo rivers that flow into China. What is the impact of dams building for instance on the rivers and on the downstream countries?

Well, the impact depends on how many dams are in the upper reaches. But already on the lower reaches, you’ve got enormous impact coming up on the Mekong, the Salween less, because what happened on the Salween was that the Chinese NGOs, environmental groups, managed to stop, managed to block the building of the mega-dams a few years back, and they thought they had won a victory. But now under China’s new 10-year plan, there’s been a revival of five of those dams. They’re mega-dams. And actually, work has started on two of them, which means there has not been a victory stopping those dams being built on the Salween.

Though what’s happening on the Indus is rather peculiar, because recently we came across some reports that those, that there’s consideration to divert the water from the Indus to the north. And this is something else that goes hand in hand with dams, is diversion. Because once you have the dams up you also have the water. And there are plans that we have come across on Chinese websites to divert the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong and the Indus all going north. Why are they going north, northwest? Because of mining. There’s fracking coming up in China. China’s one of the largest, probably has the largest deposits of shale gas and shale oil in the world. And a lot of those deposits are in either Chenghai or Shin Jin. And you need enormous quantities of water to process those.

So, what you’re saying is there’s a direct correlation between the dam building and the mines that are cropping up all over Tibet?

Well, they work hand in hand. They work together. You need the dams to power up the mines. They need power. And then, dams, I mean, mining also needs lots of water, tons of water. If you want to process copper, if you want to process coal, you need enormous quantities of water. And what’s even more worrisome now is that China is looking at exploiting oil sands and tar stands. And for that you need mega amount of water. For example, one barrel of oil will need three barrels of water. And then, also, mining contributes the export of energy from dams because what’s happened now, they have U-H-V lines that run from dams in Tibet all the way to the east coast, two or three thousand kilometers. And they’re using the technology of U-H-V, ultra-high voltage, which uses copper. Copper is the main ingredient in those lines. And, of course, copper comes from Tibet because Tibet has the largest deposits of copper in the whole of China, the whole of the sea. And so you need one to get the other. And they work in tandem.

So, what are some of the possible direct results of damming in upriver in Tibet or in, for instance, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc.?

Huge impact. We may not have seen. We have seen a lot on the Mekong River. A lot of people think that dams are just involving water. It’s a lot more than water. It’s a very complex situation of the root. You can’t even talk about individual rivers. There’s tributaries. There’s all kinds of things connected. But,I would talk about a few things like silt, for example. Dam builders hate silt because it clogs up the turbines, but silt is the lifeline for agriculture. You need silt because silt is like a cocktail of potassium, nitrogen, calcium, all kinds of chemicals and minerals that the agriculture needs. And if you don’t get that silt, you’re going to have to replace it with artificial fertilizer, which is usually in the form of nitrogen. And nitrogen is very bad for the environment, usually, because it produces nitrous oxide, which is something like 300 times more powerful than greenhouse gasses.

So, the dams are actually stopping the silt from flowing downstream?

Yes. They would block up to 90 perecent of the silt, and probably even more. And when you get too much silt, the dam itself cannot operate because it becomes so clogged up that the turbines don’t work. So, they have to figure out a way of unblocking the silt. But, that silt is not, you know, tons and tons of silt would come through on that river if it was not for the dam. And here’s another problem. If that silt does not come through, it is not going down to the deltas. And the deltas are sinking because they’re not getting the same volume of silt. And if the deltas start sinking, then the sea level rise will be more pronounced and then you get salt intrusion into the crop. So, you know, when you talk about rice, rice is very water intensive. You need a lot of things for rice. You need tons and tons of water, but you also need silt and you have to make sure you don’t get salt water intrusion coming from the coast because that’ll ruin your crops.

But, the other thing that rivers bring, and this goes together with the silt, is fish. In a place like Cambodia, something like 70 to 80 percent of their protein comes from fish. Where do fish come from? Bangladesh is also heavily dependent on protein from fish. They have a lot of fishing going on in Bangladesh. So, those two nations in particular. A lot of this, some fish farming that goes on in Vietnam. It’s an alternative. You can produce the fish, but that’s not as easily done as just catching fish in the river. It requires a bit more investment. But, as an alternative there’s fish farming, but, you know, you can only go so far with fish farming. It’s much better to use the wild fish from the rivers, and in the case of Cambodia, the fish catch is way down in Lake Tonle Sap. And Lake Tonle Sap was the backup system for the Mekong. It depends on annual flooding from the Mekong. You don’t get the annual flooding, you won’t get the fish.

I just want to get back to your point about the deltas. How extensively are we talking about? How many deltas are there in Asia? And the areas that we’re discussing that are impacted by river degradation, about how many people are we talking about in Asia?

Well, you’re looking at the world’s biggest deltas. The biggest deltas in the world with the Ganges, Brahmaputra, is by far the biggest delta in the world and it’s the breadbasket for Bangladesh and India. And then we’re talking about the Irrawaddy Delta for Burma, sort of the rice basket for Burma. Then you have the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, Cambodia—huge provider of resources to those two countries. And you’ve also got the Indus Delta, Pakistan. And then you’ve got the Anti Delta and also the Yellow River Delta in China. So you’ve got a lot of deltas there. And most of those ones are in trouble. Or, I’d say all of those deltas are in trouble. The one that’s striving mostly is the one in Vietnam because they put a lot of energy into [the delta] in Vietnam. But, the place like the Indus delta is dying. The Indus devil in Pakistan, in fact a lot of people have moved away from the Indus Delta. Number one, it’s sinking. And number two, the mangrove protection that used to be there is gone, and they got a lot of salt water intrusion. And the same kind of fate could happen to the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta.

So, we’re talking about possibly an impact on roughly half a million people or a billion people or so?

If you look at, I would calculate that overall the rivers in Tibet would be, in one way or another, connected to the lives of a billion, possibly 2 billion people. The deltas, themselves, are very, very highly populated and the Ganges-Brahmaputra is extremely, highly populated. And I couldn’t give you exact figures, but for example, the Mekong River is supposed to support, maybe 60 million people along its banks, not counting the delta. So, there’s a lot … you know, we’re talking about the two most populous nations on Earth – China and India. And in the middle, you know, between them, around them are these rivers and the deltas. And you know, the populations of Bangladesh, Bangladesh is a huge population. It’s got 180 million people, and it’s the same for Pakistan, another huge population. So, any impact of the rivers is a major impact.

So, I’d like to turn to the two rivers that flow out of Tibet into China, the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers. Can you tell us a little bit about the condition of those two river systems and the impact of dam building on those rivers?

Well, those two rivers, as far as I’m concerned they’re dead rivers. The rarely reach the sea these days. They haven’t for some time, not for the last 10 years. And there’s so much industry along the banks of the Yangtze that there’s so much water diversion. Both water diversion and industry is so heavily polluted that apparently there are stretches of the Yellow of the Yangtze that are not suitable for irrigation for crops. When you get to that stage, when you can’t even use the river for agriculture, you are in deep trouble. And the, recently there’s been a report from Green Peace about huge coal mining concerns in Inner Mongolia, which belongs to China, and showing these massive pole benches along the banks of the Yellow, to the point where the river is totally destroyed. You can’t have a situation where they have so many coal mining ventures along the side of the banks and not expect it to affect the river. This coal mining that’s happening in both inner and outer Mongolia is rather alarming because of the scale of what’s happening there. It’s a huge scale. So these rivers are polluted, devoted, they’re dead.

So, for possible outcome of mining and dam building in Tibet, on the river system of Asia, essentially almost all of them, do you think China is aware of the negative impact of the mining and damming in Tibet on those rivers? And if so, is China engaging in any kind of mitigation of what’s happening and our river agreements a possibility between nations to work out some kind of solutions?

China actually has a huge number of neighbors, I think it’s 14 on its borders. And out of those 14, I think it has ongoing disputes with 12 of them, not counting the South China Sea. We’re counting the land borders. So, it gives you an idea. China is not renowned for dialogue. That’s one thing Beijing is not really famous for. So, I don’t think … they basically just disregard all the downstream countries. So, the only person that could really take them on, I guess is India. And India has made no headway in water-sharing agreements, you know, even in Beijing they haven’t made any headway. So, Beijing has no water-sharing agreements with any country on its borders, not a single one. India has an agreement with Pakistan. Bangladesh has an agreement with India. They have to avoid water, yet the agreement’s on the water – sharing. You know, like Pakistan took the Indus and India took the Sutlej River to avoid disputes. But, China has no such thing. And, furthermore, China claims, and it said this openly that it owns the high ground, and it has sovereignty, and it does not care what happens downstream. It said as much, that the water belongs to it, in the upstream reaches and it does not care what happens when the water leaves the borders of China, or in this case, Tibet.

Finally, do you see any hope for the rivers and countries downstream from Tibet?

Yes, I see hope because, you know, 50 years ago this was not a problem. These were not problems. There was no problem with the rivers. There was no dams. There were no problems with the mining. So, what is the difference is that a lot of these projects can be cancelled at the stroke of a pen, it just take one person to say, “okay, we’re going to cancel the dam project.” So, I think what has to happen is you need a change of attitude amongst the Chinese overseers of Tibet, or actually, within China itself to have some more respect for nature. And they just don’t have a moral system in place where they have a respect for nature. It’s the opposite. Mao Zedong’s dictum was that man must conquer nature. That was the … and it’s still around, that same process. So, we need … you don’t have to tell Tibetans to do this. They have a belief system that venerates nature. You know, they go on pilgrimages to sacred peaks and lakes. The attitude of change needs to come from within China to solve this problem.

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