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Floods, Logging, and Hydro-Electricity; the impact on Tibetan Areas

By Daniel Winkler

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 99/01/27 Compiled by Nima Dorjee]


Every day late this summer in China the omnipresent TV heralded heroic People's Liberation Army soldiers in white underpants hauling around sand bags fighting the devastating floods along the lower Yangtze, which killed 3,656 people, doused 260,000 km2 of land and impacted 5.6 million houses.  The disaster caused $30 billion in damage and affected 230 million people according to Niu Maosheng, vice director of China's flood control bureau. While these floods in lowland China were instantaneously reported by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua (Aug. 27th 1998), floods in Tibet Autonomous Region were reported with a delay of several weeks. In Central Tibet AR at least 53 people have been killed since mid-June in the heavy floods and mudslides that have affected more than 40 counties, and had blocked and hampered traffic on most south Tibetan roads. The floods have pushed water levels of the Tsangpo, Lhasa's Kyi Chu and other rivers up to record levels, affecting more than 80,000 people and killing more than 4,000 yaks and sheep. The most affected area has been Shigatse prefecture.

Floods have increased in general in Tibetan areas in recent decades. In West Sichuan flood frequency has risen from once in 15 years to once in 5 years, which has been attributed to excessive logging (ZHAO 1992).

The logging bans

After decades of forest overexploitation policy changes of the last months indicate a very promising step towards forest conservation and sustainable management in the Tibetan areas. The floods triggered the reconsideration of present logging practices in the headwaters of Asia's greatest rivers,  which emerge from Tibetan areas, such as the Yellow River (Tibetan: Ma Chu,  Chinese: Huang He), Yangtze (Dri Chu, Jinsha Jiang), Yalong (Nya Chu),  Mekong (Dza Chu, Lancang Jiang) Salween (Ngu Chu, Nu Jiang) and Tsangpo / Brahmaputra. Over a billion people depend on their waters. First in late August the Central government's State Council ordered 151 forestry enterprises to halt all logging on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and the Yellow River in Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai. For several months it was feared that Tibet AR forest areas along the eadwaters of Mekong, Salween and Tsangpo might now face a much higher logging pressure. In the past logging companies from Yunnan already had operated in neighboring Tibet AR counties. However, on December 9 the Tibet AR Government ordered the shut down of operations of all lumber processing mills in southeast Tibet AR and announced that reforestation projects should begin immediately by employing former loggers as tree planters (communication D.TAYLOR-IDE). The directive applies to all of Chamdo and Nyingchi (Linzhi) Prefectures, an area of nearly 200.000km2, which contain over 85% of Tibet AR's pproximately 1.5 billion m3 of standing timber volume. The logging ban is expected to be of transient nature in all of Nyingchi Prefecture and in Chamdo's counties which drain into the Tsangpo, Salween and upper Mekong. In Chamdo's forested counties along the Yangtze, such as Markham, Jomda and Gonjo,  logging might be halted for an extended period.

Following the central announcement from mid August the Sichuan governor Song Baorui announced a logging ban for the Yangtze and its tributaries Min Jiang (Zhung Chu), Dadu He (Gyarong Ngulchu) and Yalong (Nya Chu). The ban affects the two Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAP) of Aba (Ngawa) and Ganzi (Kandze). The desperate condition of vast forest areas in West Sichuan has been reported since 1980 and had been recognized officially in 1990 (EPIGPA). Felling had already dramatically dropped in the early 1980s in the more accessible Tibetan counties due to resource exhaustion and has moved to more and more remote areas, where the cut was also reduced in recent years. With this in mind the ban is the logical consequence of decades of mismanagement.

It is interesting to note that also the Sichuan government issued a ban,  since provincial authorities have been the driving force behind the irrational and irresponsible exploitation of the forests. Annually prescribed timber procurement quotas which had to be met by the state controlled county forest bureaus, for decades exceeded annual growth by a factor between 2 to 3. In addition this timber often had to be sold below production prices, forcing the forestry bureaus to cut even more, to balance the losses and secure income for active and retired employees. Also the dictated low prices commonly made reforestation impossible. Yang Yupo,  a leading Sichuan forestry professor, came to the conclusion that the government policies in Aba Prefecture caused an annual timber harvest up to five times higher than natural production.

In early September at a WWF China / Tibet AR Forest bureau workshop on biodiversity management and conservation in Lhasa I talked to Peng Jitai,  Ganzi TAP forest bureau deputy director. He seemed very aware of the crisis and apparently had tried to improve forestry practices in recent years. He has very mixed feelings about the centrally issued logging ban. He welcomes the recognition of the crisis and the support for solving it, but there are a lot of problematic details. In many places the main source of cash income will be lost and the local administrations as well as the forestry industry will be fully dependent on state subsidies until logging can be resumed. Hopefully sufficient funds will be allocated to ameliorate these problems.  A forest bureau official from Chamdo Prefecture refuted in length the idea of conservation, based on his conviction that there is no alternative source of income. His colleagues tried to convince him that there are models which combine sustainable development and conservation, but he would not accept the idea of conservation due to the dependence of many counties on logging.

The reforestation program and its impact on local people

In connection with the bans the government plans a gigantic forest-conservation project for all of China, which encompasses over 2.3 billion US$ for the first-phase from 1998 to 2000 (XINHUA Sept.4th). In Sichuan and Tibet AR ten thousands of former loggers are now supposed to be trained in tree planting. The efficiency of these grand projects is debatable, often they have yielded at best mixed results. Commonly central programs do not take local realities into account. There is a Chinese saying: 'The top has a policy, the bottom has a way around it'. Not too surprisingly logging was reportedly still being carried out after the ban  (INDEPENDENT 1998). In Hongyuan (Mewa) County, Aba TAP, local administration defied central regulations, and kept on logging. Furthermore central and provincial environmental laws, which in general are excellent,  have required for years immediate reforestation after cutting. Too often the implementation of the laws is seriously lacking.

Successful reforestation will not only depend on sufficient funds, but also on the availability of seedlings and expertise, both presently very limited in the region. There are some good nurseries, i.e. in Drango (Luhuo, Ganzi TAP), but in general the whole nursery sector needs to be developed.  Riwoche County in Tibet AR for example has only several square meters of neglected spruce seedlings (see WINKLER submitted). Furthermore seedlings need 3-4 years before they can be planted out on the slopes, where they need initially some consistent care and protection from grazing. This issue will affect many Tibetans directly. To facilitate afforestation the Sichuan government already has announced the closing off of nearly 90,000 km2 to livestock grazing, a third of W-Sichuan, nearly the size of Austria. Pastoralism is the main subsistence economy of rural Tibetans, which still represent 85% of the population in the Tibetan Prefectures and over 95% in rural areas of Tibet AR. It is not clear yet which areas will be closed for grazing. From a locals perspective these 90,000km2 hopefully include mostly areas which are not part of the 168,000 km2 classified as grasslands  (figures based on YANG 1987). For example, 'poorly stocked forests', 'brush areas', and 'potential reforestation areas' cover 76,000 km2 and further 42,000km2 are classified as 'well stocked forested land'. On a local level most likely many Tibetans will lose grazing grounds they have used in recent decades. There have been no announcements regarding possible compensations.

Due to the absence of real management the forest resource has already been mined for three generations to come, since forest regeneration in Tibet takes about 70 to 100 years. Also Tibetans and other 'minority' peoples,  such as the Yi and Qiang have been deprived of their traditional forest resources, which go much further than timber supply. A wide range of nontimber products such as medicinal and edible plants as well as raw materials for handicrafts and daily life necessities are collected in the forests. But most importantly forests supply wood for construction and firewood, which have become very scarce in some areas where there used to be plenty. Supposedly meeting these subsistence needs is exempted from the ban. Also forest destruction causes extensive loss of wildlife habitat, a conservation issue which received international attention in Sichuan regarding giant panda habitat. Presently panda habitat is only to be found in Tibetan, Yi and Qiang areas, with one exception in Shaanxi Province's Qinling Mountains. Not too surprisingly the name 'Panda' itself is probably Tibetan, meaning striped monkey (sPra Da).

Overexploitation of forests inflicts a number of hardships on local people.  Increased run-off can wash away fields or cover them with debris. In the dry season springs might dry up. Bridges get washed away and roads blocked. Construction wood becomes scarce and firewood collection becomes much harder. After felling there is a period of increased availability of wood debris. Once this resource is exhausted, stumps are being chopped and dug out. This practice explains often the absence of stumps, which would elsewhere indicate recent felling. However traditional firewood extraction practices cause serious damage to forests as well. There is no doubt that many traditional landuse strategies are not sustainable from a forest ecosystem point of view. This negative impact has manifested itself slowly through the centuries and most commonly was perceived as pasture creation.  Taken into account that forest clearing can be dated back at least 5000 years, it is not too surprising that the Tibetan landscape has been transformed extensively. Wide areas of Tibet have the character of a cultural landscape, an environment shaped by human activity, rather than a wilderness, as still many like to perceive it. In wide areas of Kham it is estimated that the forest area was reduced by half, in central Tibet nearly completely destroyed (see WINKLER 1998/submitted). Pollen analysis indicates that a thousand years ago juniper forests were present in the Lhasa valley (MIEHE 1998), but have been destroyed by unsustainable exploitation.

Tibetans in the timber industry

In the modern timber industry local Tibetan people are clearly underrepresented. Partially this can be attributed to a general lack of education. Often there is a language barrier, since all the state sector activities are actually carried out in Chinese. However, many Han officials simply prefer hiring Han, which have been mostly recruited from the Sichuan basin. The logging ban will most commonly affect these forest workers. Involvement of Tibetans increases in more remote areas and is more common in the forest area of Tibet AR. Some Tibetans might have found work in local forest administrations, county saw mills or in small gasoline-powered mills, which follow logging activities. Yet most Tibetans are being hired on a short-term basis for logging and on site transport. Interestingly since the mid 1980s some Tibetans ventured into trucking, an booming industry. These Tibetan entrepreneurs were able to buy their own trucks,  often generating their income by transporting timber to the lowland and bringing consumer goods to markets in Tibetan areas. In conjunction with the trucking industry a whole range of business opportunities mushroomed along the routes, ranging from improvised teashops, to small restaurants and lodges, not to mention prostitution. There is good reason to believe that all these small businesses will be negatively affected by the logging ban, which proclaimed the prohibition of all timber transports after October 1st, 1998. Especially the truckers, who have not paid off their huge loans might face dire times.

Logging, run-off and hydro-electricity

  The logging is being stopped due to its negative impact on water run-off schemes and to increased erosion. Clearcutting extensive areas tends to increase immediate run-off thus increasing the chances of flooding in the rainy season, which in Eastern Tibet brings over 80% of the annual precipitation between June and September. Quicker run-off in the summer monsoon also reduces run-off in the dry season, which has severe negative impact on the availability of much needed premonsoonal irrigation water.  Especially for Sichuan basin's rice paddies, the loss is figured at an annual average of 160 million US$ (EPIGPA 1990). Run-off extremes also cause great problems for hydroelectricity plants. Not surprisingly the powerful hydro-engineer community is presently one of the best allies for forest protection. Some years ago I had speculated (WINKLER 1996) that with the construction of the controversial gigantic Three Gorges Dam - which some regard as the mausoleum of Li Peng, a Russian trained hydro-engineer - the actual condition of the Tibetan forest will hopefully receive some central support. This finally came through and this summer's flood sped up the process. However, the common perception that the floods are caused in remote cloud-enshrouded 'minority' areas is a convenient assumption. This year's water peak was not much higher than in previous years, actually Chinese statistics state that the lower Yangtze flow peaked around 55,000 m3/s, a rate it had surpassed 23 times since 1949 (POMFRET 1998). This gives a clear indication that the volume was not the only problem, rather a combination of downstream land reclamation from flood plains, poor dykes and population growth.

Hydroelectricity is regarded as a key industry for the development of the mountainous Tibetan areas. After having mined the forests hydel development is supposed to guarantee a steady regional source of income. The potential is extremely high, 250,000 MW, 57% of PR China's exploitable hydro-electrical potential lies within the plateau region, surpassing any other country's potential (DIIR 1992). Its development faces a lot of logistic problems, especially in more remote areas with hardly any infrastructure, where hydel plant construction has to be preceded by extensive road construction and many other infrastructural basics. Presently there is a lot of road work taking place in West Sichuan, the Dardo (Kangding) - Derge road is being paved up to Drango and shall be continued to Manigango and in Tibet AR. The availability of electric power is also a prerequisite for tapping Tibet's mineral resources. In Tibet AR mining is regarded as one of the four 'pillars' for the economic development, the others being forestry, tourism & handicrafts and agriculture & animal husbandry. For example, there are plans to build a dam in Chamdo County to generate power for the development of the Yulong mine,  which is supposed to contain a deposit of 6,500,000t of copper (XINHUA Aug.1st, 1997). There are several disadvantages to generating electricity with great dam projects. Local people will be displaced, fertile valley grounds flooded. Mountain rivers carry a high sediment load. Dams will cause sediment accumulation filling in reservoirs and thus terminating the actual function of a dam. The 700 MW Hongzui power plant at the lower Dadu  (Gyarong) River, which drains the east of the heavily deforested Ngawa  (Aba) TAP, had a reservoir of 360 Mm3. After 10 years of sediment accumulation only 94 Mm3 are left (EPIGPA 1990). Also much of Tibet is seismically a very active zone, endangering all people living downstream of dams. In August 1993 the breakage of a gravel dam in Qinghai (Amdo), not inflicted by earthquake, but by poor engineering, killed 1257 people according to an UN organization statement, Xinhua had reported 300 victims  (WTN 1993). Moreover, large-scale projects like dams or diversion hydel plants require new housing facilities for workers, who are usually recruited from ethnic China. Diversion hydel plants can be much less harmful to the environment and local people assuming that they consistently leave enough water for aquatic life in the riverbed, by avoiding big dams and reservoirs. However, all of these developments put a very high burden on the environment, with very little direct benefits or added value for local people, who are usually neither included in the planning phase nor addressed as beneficiaries.

Future outlook

The shift in policy will give the forests a badly needed break to regenerate. Perceiving the forests not solely as a timber mine but a multifunctional resource with crucial hydrological functions, is a great break-through for securing resources for local people and for forest conservation. Also now some administrations push harder for lifting the unpopular restrictions on foreign travel in Tibetan areas, arguing the loss of timber money should be compensated by accessing the international tourist market. However, official logging surely will be resumed in the not too distant future, but then hopefully based on sustainable silvicultural management principles. The reforestation program has a clear potential of long-term benefits for the Tibetan areas, provided that local people will not only lose landuse rights, but will be empowered to become the forests' stewards. As pointed out Tibetans themselves will need to redefine their forest use practices. However, such a change is only possible if local people will directly benefit from forestry related activities. The minimum benefits for local Tibetans need to be guaranteed right of access to their forest resources to satisfy subsistence needs, but furthermore there need to be direct benefits from the announced investments in form of job opportunities. Presently it seems like the greatest beneficiaries of this summer's floods and the resulting programs have been the PLA soldiers. The omnipresent reports on heroic soldiers caused a surge in requests for soldiers in Chinese marriage agencies, a segment of society, which had not been sought after in recent years.

** Daniel Winkler (M.Sc.) is a freelance geographer/ecologist. For the last twelve years his research focus and work is the environment of Tibet. He has published frequently in scientific journals, on topics ranging from geobotany and forest ecology, to traditional land use practices and modern deforestation.

Daniel Winkler. 7840 126th Ave NE. Kirkland WA 98033 - USA


DIIR (1992): Tibet: Environment and Development Issues 1992. publ. by Department of Information and International Relations - Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala, India, 1-124. EPIGPA (1990): 'Environmental Degradation in NW-Sichuan and Amelioration by Comprehensive Utilisation',  by Environ. Protection Invest. Group of the Pol. Ass. (CPPCC) of Sichuan. Bull. Soil and Water Conservation 10.1: 20-25 (in Chin.).  INDEPENDENT (1998): China's 'friends of nature' join the Tibetan antelope on the list of endangered species (SI). In: Independent on Sunday, London,  November 22nd.

MIEHE, G. (1998): Assessment of naturally forested areas in Southern Xizang. Presentation at "WWF China Programme International Workshop 'Tibet's Biodiversity: Conservation and Management, Lhasa, September 1998.

POMFRET, J. (1998): Yangtze Flood Jolts China's Land Policies Development Curbs Set To Protect Environment. In: Washington Post, Nov. 22nd .

TIN (1998): Tibet Information Network News Update ISSN: 1355-3313, August 26th 1998

WINKLER, D. (1996): The Forests, Forest Economy and Deforestation in the Tibetan Prefectures of West-Sichuan. In: Commonwealth Forestry Review 75.4,  295-301.

WINKLER, D. (1998): Deforestation in Eastern Tibet: Human Impact - Past and Present: In: G.E.CLARKE (ed.) Development, Society and Environment in Tibet. Proc. 7th Seminar IATS, Graz 1995, Vol.5, Vienna, 79-96.

WINKLER, D. (submitted): Major Threats to Tibetan Forest Ecosystems and Strategies for Forest Biodiversity Conservation. In: Proceedings of WWF China Programme International Workshop 'Tibet's Biodiversity: Conservation and Management,  Lhasa September 1998. WTN (1993): World Tibet News, Water Power & Dam Construction Sept/Oct 1993 (http://www.tibet.ca)

YANG, YUPO (1987): Alpine Forests in W-Sichuan and the Effects of Forest Management. In: T.Fujimori & M.Kimura (eds.) Human Impact and Management of Mountain Forests, Proc. Intern. Workshop (IUFRO), Ibaraki, Japan, 67-79.

ZHAO, ANG (1992): 'The crisis of the forest industry in the Tibetan area of Sichuan and ways towards positive development'. In: Jinji Dili (Economic Geography) 12.1, 55-61 (in Chin.)

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