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Tibet Pours Troubled Water on Asia

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/09/20; September 20, 2000.]

Shrinking forests are causing flood havoc, reports Lynne O'Donnell in Lanzhou

The Australian, 19 Sep 2000.

THE Chinese Government has established a nature reserve on the Tibetan plateau in a last-ditch effort to reverse decades of environmental degradation that is threatening the water supply of hundreds of millions of people throughout Asia.

The pollution levels of six of Asia's biggest rivers, originating in Tibet, have risen as Chinese exploitation of natural resources in the remote and isolated Himalayan region has expanded unchecked.

The new nature reserve, covering 318,000sq km of Qinghai province, was set up last month to protect the headwaters of the Yangtse, Yellow and Lancang rivers, officials said. Experts fear it may be too late to prevent long term and far-reaching damage to the ecological balance across an area that stretches from Calcutta to Shanghai.

The latest floods in the Mekong basin - said to be the worst in decades - have been blamed on logging in Tibet that has left vast swaths of the Chinese-controlled region denuded of forest cover.

The tragedy echoes devastating floods on the Yangtse in 1998 that prompted the Government to introduce limits on logging in the river's upper reaches. Indiscriminate tree-felling destabilises topsoil, which is washed by rain into rivers, raising the water level and diminishing the rivers' ability to absorb annual rains.

In Tibet and areas that were formerly part of the region annexed by Chinese troops in 1950, the impact is felt far beyond its borders, as rivers with their source on the Tibetan plateau flow through almost a dozen countries, nourishing the land and providing drinking water.

The recurrence of flooding indicates that China's program of extracting Tibet's natural resources to fuel the development of its eastern provinces has neither slowed nor become sustainable. "Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, widespread environmental destruction has taken place due to logging of virgin forests, uncontrolled mining, water pollution and nuclear waste dumping, which has resulted in the degradation of grasslands, extinction of wildlife, desertification, floods, soil erosion and landslides," says a report, called Tibet 2000: Environment and Development Issues, compiled by the Tibetan government-in-exile.

"Projects to build dams and reservoirs to harness Tibet's rivers for hydro-electricity schemes to power western China have caused fragmentation of ecology and fish species and finally extinction to already endangered plant and aquatic species," the report says.

As Beijing escalates mining in Tibet, main rivers in Asia, including the Yangtse, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra, risk devastating pollution.

Experts on China's colonisation of Tibet said Beijing regards the region as sovereign territory and claims rights to all its resources.

"China has a voracious appetite for Tibetan resources," said Steven Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke, authors of a recent study on Chinese policy towards Tibetan areas.

China's media provides a constant stream of reports on the discovery of minerals, metals, oil and gas in Tibet. The region, which before 1950 had never been fully incorporated into China as Beijing claims, is rich in high-quality minerals and metals such as iron, uranium, copper, gold and magnesite.

It also has the biggest salt lake in the world in the Tsaidam basin that Tibet policy analyst Gabriel Lafitte, of the University of Melbourne, said could meet global demand for table salt for 10,000 years. The Tsaidam basin potash reserve is the world's largest, and provides fertiliser for agriculture in central and eastern China.

China's exploitation of these reserves had "failed to produce real benefits for Tibetans as the majority still live in impoverished conditions", the government-in-exile's report says. Tibetan farmers and nomads were being forced off the land, mostly without compensation, to make way for new mines.

The International Campaign for Tibet has linked deaths, injuries, and human and animal birth deformities to mining in Tibet. Rivers with their source in Tibet flow through China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Kashmir, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Experts fear that as China pursues the same destructive development policies in Tibet that have led to widespread water shortages and pollution throughout China, the water resources of these countries will be similarly spoiled.

About 700 million Chinese consume water polluted with human and animal waste as 45 billion tonnes of untreated waste water enter China's rivers annually.

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