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Tibet Devastated, While The World Looks On

26 April, 2000

[Tibet 2000: Environment and Development Issues, Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, INDIA.]

This report was submitted on April 26, 2000 at the Eighth Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, New York.

This is the first in-depth study of the impact of 41 years of Chinese rule on Tibet's environment. The study shows that Chinese policies have led to widespread environmental damage in the Tibetan Plateau; they have been of no benefit to the Tibetan people. Beijing is only interested in grabbing Tibet's natural resources for its own advantage and, in the process, is destroying an ancient lifestyle and culture through environmental degradation and population transfer of Chinese settlers. More than 70% of the Tibetans in the 'TAR' (Tibet Autonomous Region) live below the poverty line.Here are some Key Findings:


Ecologically catastrophic mining, which earned China over US$2 billion from 1952-1990 will continue to escalate. Mineral reserves found in U-Tsang (Central Tibet) alone are valued at US$81.3 billion.

The Tsaidam Basin, which covers an area almost the size of Britain, has oil reserves of 42 billion tons and natural gas reserves of 1,500 billion cubic meters. The exploitation of this basin will intensify with the planned construction of a natural gas pipeline from the gas fields near Terlingkha (Ch:Delingha), to Lanzhou initially and to Shanghai. The first stage will be completed in October 2001. And by 2010 China plans to build a national pipeline network, which will provide one fifth of China's total gas consumption. 100 percent of the natural gas reserves in the Tsaidam Basin will be utilized to supply China's booming industrial cities, like Shanghai, Wuhan and Nanjing. The Tibetan people will receive no benefit from this, as all profits will go to CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation).


Tibet is the planet's largest and highest plateau and has 10 major rivers flowing from its glaciers. These rivers sustain 85% of Asia's population which is 47% of the world's population. Widespread clear-felling has led to heavy siltation of these rivers.

The felling of 46% of pre1950 forest cover has led to growing desertification and floods in China and South Asia. Reports from the World Watch Institute estimate that the heavily forested region from Amdo (Ch:Qinghai) to the Yangtze River Basin has lost 85 per cent of its original forest cover. As a result, the Yangtze now discharges 500 million tons of silt a year into the East China Sea a volume equal to the total discharge of the Nile, Amazon and Mississippi rivers combined.

In 1998, China saw its worst floods since 1954, when the deluge of the Yangtze killed 3,656 people. Unofficial estimates of the death toll, however, are as high as 10,000. Over 240 million people were affected and it cost the Chinese economy US$37.5 billion in losses. Again, in 1999, the deluge of the Yangtze killed 400 and affected 66 million people.

In 1998, the Brahmaputra too saw unprecedented floods in the Indian subcontinent. Landslides and soil erosion caused by deforestation have increased the silt flow into the Bay of Bengal. One third of the two billion tons of sediment is deposited in the plains of Bangladesh, reducing the depth of rivers and causing disastrous floods every year.


The largest hydropower potential in the world is the gorge at the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, which Chinese scientists claim could supply 70,000 MW of power, nearly four times the capacity of China's Three Gorges Dam. Major dams and reservoir projects under construction may solve the power shortage crisis in China, but will destroy the ecology of Tibet. China is now permitting a private corporation to build, own and operate hydropower dams which will only displace Tibetan nomads and not generate any electricity for Tibetans.


The once pristine waterways of Tibet are now polluted by chemical, nuclear and industrial waste. The TAR' environment report stated (1996) that 41.9 million tons of liquid waste was discharged into the Kyichu River in Lhasa.

In 1971, the first known nuclear weapon was brought into Tibet. Today China has 17 secret radar stations, 14 military air bases, 8 missile bases, 8 ICBMs, 70 medium range missiles and 20 intermediate range missiles in Tibet. With, the closure of the Ninth Academy, a nuclear weapons development facility in Amdo, there was a limited de-nuclearisation of the plateau.

To support its nuclear programme, China has established uranium mining sites in many regions of Tibet. These mines are adding an even more dangerous component to the existing water pollution problems of Tibet's waterways.


A biodiversity comparable to the Amazon Rainforest in its richness is endangered by Beijing's economic exploitation of Tibet, even before all of it has been documented. The massive deforestation and mining has accelerated the destruction of the fragile, once untouched, environment. Rare species of animals, birds and plants are now on the brink of extinction. There are at present 81 known endangered animals on the Tibetan plateau.


Incorporating Tibet into China's economic development programme has intensified the migration of Chinese to the plateau, further marginalising and impoverishing Tibetans. Tibet's population has more than doubled as a result of both military and civilian Chinese immigration. The military and security personnel alone are estimated at 500,000 to 600,000. Today, six million Tibetans are outnumbered by 7.5 million Chinese migrants.

In 1999, for the first time in its history, the World Bank designated funds that support China's policy of population transfer of over 60,000 Chinese into Tibet. The Western China Poverty Reduction Project will reduce the percentage of Tibetans in Dulan County, Qinghai from 19 to 10.1 percent. The World Bank is expected to contribute US$160 million to this population transfer.

The International Commission of Jurists state (1997)," 70% of Tibetans in the 'TAR' are living below the poverty line". Even the Poverty Alleviation Projects launched by China, such as the US$5.5 million UN World Food Program Project in Amdo, are aimed at increasing wheat production for Chinese consumption rather than barley which is the subsistence food of Tibetans.


Environmental rights and human rights are inter-linked in international law and in the Tibetan nomadic lifestyle. The destruction of Tibet's grasslands, forests, watersystems and sacred sites by over-grazing, deforestation, mining and nuclear proliferation is a gross violation of the rights of every Tibetan.

As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen states, freedom is indispensable to development. China's claim to "developing" Tibet is based on Beijing's policies of pursuing economic growth at the cost of destroying Tibet's environment and further disempowering Tibet's people in their homeland. Thus, in reality, Chinese policy is creating two economies and two societies in Tibet: the urban, wealthy Chinese economy, and the rural poor, undercapitalised Tibetan economy.

The report's findings make it more critical and urgent that the international community and the United Nations consider the our guidelines for development and pressure the Chinese government to ensure the protection of Tibet's unique environment, culture and tradition of its people.

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