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New Reserve Covers Sources of Asia's Largest Rivers

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/05/24 Compiled by Thubten (Sam) Samdup]

BEIJING, China, May 23, 2000 (ENS) - China will establish a national nature reservation zone high on the Tibetan plateau encompassing the sources of three of Asia's largest rivers - the Jinsha Jiang (Yangtze River), the Huang He (Yellow River) and the Lancang Jiang (Upper Mekong) River. The new reserve was announced this month by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The Upper Mekong River travels through five downstream countries afterleaving the Chinese province of Yunnan - Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The other two rivers travel through China.

The headwaters of the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers lie high on the northeastern Tibetan plateau. Downstream 1.25 billion Chinese depend on their flows to supply four fifths of China's water. Referred to by the ministry as "China's water bank," the source area for all three rivers is full of streams and lakes. It has a wetland area of 10,000 square kilometres (3,861 square miles), which makes it "the largest wetland of highest elevation and most concentrated biodiversity in the world," the ministry claims.

The new reserve is being established to combat deterioration of pastureland, accelerated soil erosion and sedimentation of the waterways. River and lake water levels have been declining, the ministry said. "Excessive herding, illegal poaching, irrational gold mining and medical herb digging have accelerated the shrinkage of water resources and caused damages to biodiversity."

The ministry called the three river source area "a very sensitive and vulnerable ecological system," which would be difficult to recover once damaged.

"It will not only have serious implications on the river sources themselves but also on east China as a whole," the ministry said in a statement. Critics of China's environmental policies agree.

A report on the state of Tibet's environment released by the Dalai Lama's government in exile on April 26, says, "China has already suffered the devastating results of its interference in the Yangtze and Yellow River headwater regions. Now, with mining nominated as one of Beijing's "Four Pillar" industries in the Tibet Autonomous Region, South and East Asia's Indus, Salween, Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers will face pollution from toxic mining wastes infiltrating soil and so contaminating downstream flows."

Lakes cover 25,000 square kilometres of the plateau - many of them held sacred, the Tibetan government report says. "Yamdrok Tso in U-Tsang has special spiritual significance. Yet its pristine ecology is being destroyed by a pumped-storage plant to supply Lhasa's electricity needs - a project whose design is now judged to be faulty and leading to lowering water levels, increased salinity, and habitat loss for the diverse and rich wildlife including birds and fish."

The new nature conservation zone covers an area of 236,000 square kilometres (91,120 square miles). It is home to an estimated 262,000 people.

The Ministry of Science and Technology says the conservation zone is still inhabited by rare wildlife species including Tibetan wild donkeys, yaks, Tibetan antelopes known locally as chiru, Tibetan foxes, goa, snow panthers and Himalayan marmots.

"Tibet's biodiversity has been compared to the Amazon Rainforest," says environment specialist Catherine Moore with the Canada-Tibet Committee, "but it is being lost at a phenomenal rate. The Tibetan Plateau provides the headwaters for ten major Asian rivers, which supply freshwater to 47 percent of humanity. The diversion, damming, and degradation of these waters has far reaching consequences. Changes in its hydrology and vegetation cover will inevitably echo through weather patterns worldwide," Moore said.

The new nature reserve will be divided into a core section, a buffer section and an experimental section, the ministry said.

The core section - an area over 100 square miles which includes the three major river sources as well as lakes, wetlands, and some of the wildlife habitats - will be closed to all human activities.

Outside the core section, the buffer section will allow limited animal husbandry "according to the bearing capacity of pastures" and relevant scientific research activities, the ministry said.

The experimental populated section including towns, farmland and cultural relics will host eco-tourism and research activities.

In another environmentally related move, China's State Bureau of Environmental Protection has listed Yanqing County of Beijing and other 32 prefectures and counties as national ecological demonstration zones. These zones are the first of their kind in the country approved by authorities to demonstrate Chinese sustainable development strategies.

The 33 ecological demonstration zones were selected from 154 candidate areas to be the role models for the coordinated economic, social and environmental development, said Zhu Guangyao, deputy administrator of environmental protection.

China has worked out 19 strict standards and targets for the demonstration zones. These include amount of forest coverage, utilization of new energy, control of deteriorated land, decreasing rate of chemical fertilizers and pesticides applications, recycling rate for thin plastic film, water and air quality and comprehensive utilization of solid wastes.

Social development targets include control of the population growth rate, education and number of technicians per 10,000 inhabitants.


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