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New Railway to Lhasa Raises Environmental Concerns

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/04/24; April 24, 2002.]

A December 2001 Report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

As one of four major infrastructure projects launched as part of the 10th Five Year Plan, China recently began building a railway from Qinghai Province to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the first rail link ever to Tibet. The project has received critical attention from Chinaís environmental community, which worries about the impact of the new railroad on the pristine but fragile high-altitude environment of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

In response, the government has imposed particularly strict environmental protection standards and methods for construction of the railway, and has promised to spend over $100 million on measures to protect the environment both during and after construction. Experts have also expressed concern that the building of the railway will encourage more Han Chinese to move to Tibet, further diluting Tibetís unique cultural environment. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the latest and most obvious representation of Tibetís fundamental dilemma -- that improving local economic conditions will require more contact with the outside (primarily Han Chinese) world. China has embarked on many major infrastructure projects in recent years, the largest and most famous being the colossal Three Gorges Dam. The 10th Five Year Plan, which starts this year, features a "big four" set of projects, including:

* the West-East Gas Pipeline,
* the South-North Water Transfer;
* the West-East Electric Power Transmission; and
* the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad.

Of these, the Qinghai-Tibet railway has perhaps received the most critical attention from Chinaís environmental community. The South-North Water Transfer also features major plusses and minuses in terms of its environmental impact (see the Beijing EST Report Issues Surrounding China's South-North Water Transfer Project, dated April 2001). The West-East Gas Pipeline is welcomed by most environmentalists for its ability to decrease Eastern Chinaís reliance on coal (although some worry about safety and construction impact along the pipeline route). The West-East Electric Power Transmission -- which will bring hydroelectric power eastward from Guangxi Province -- raises few environmental concerns in and of itself, although some of the larger dams being built to generate the electricity have been closely watched for their environmental impact.

A Railway to Lhasa

Construction of a long-anticipated rail line from Golmud City in Qinghai Province to Lhasa in Tibet officially started on June 29. According to recently-released government estimates, the cost of construction (at current prices) will total about 26 billion RMB ($3.2 billion), exceeding the total sum spent on infrastructure investment in Tibet during the 9th Five-year Plan, which ends this year. The per-kilometer cost of the railroad will be a staggering 23 million RMB ($2.8 million). The project will be funded entirely from central government coffers, without any specific bond issue to support it. Of the 1,142-kilometer railroad, some 960 kilometers will be built on plateau land exceeding 4,000 meters in elevation, and 552 kilometers will be built on permafrost. The entire project is expected to take eight years.

To date, survey work has been completed for the entire rail line, and design drawings are finished for the Golmud to Wangkun section, which includes large swathes of permafrost land. Design work for the next segment, between Wangkun and Tangula Mountain, is now under way. By the end of October, 147 kilometers of roadbed had taken shape, construction had commenced on 55 bridges and 3 tunnels, and about 770 million RMB ($93 million) in contracts had been signed. The railway will be built in stages, from north to south, since there are no materials available to simultaneously start construction from the Lhasa end.

Route Long Debated

Four candidate routes were considered for what will be the world's highest railroad. The rejected routes were:

Gansu-Tibet (2126 kilometers, $7.7 billion, 1771 kilometers of permafrost, linking from Yongjing near Lanzhou);
Sichuan-Tibet (1927 kilometers, $9.3 billion, 819 kilometers of tunnels and bridges, linking from Dujiangyan near Chengdu); and
Yunnan-Tibet (1594 kilometers, $7.7 billion, 601 kilometers of bridges and tunnels, linking from Dali).

The Golmud-Lhasa route was chosen as the cheapest and easiest to build. Passenger estimates for the sparsely-populated route are not available.

Environmental Impact Concerns

Chinese experts have been worried about the impact of the new railroad on the pristine but fragile high-altitude environment of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. An open two-lane highway already exists from Golmud to Lhasa, but environmentalists worry that a railway will bring in larger numbers of workers and visitors, both in the short term and long term, in turn increasing pressure on local wildlife and plant life. Others have expressed concerns about the safety of a railroad built across permafrost ®C- which can settle dramatically when it melts -- and in an area prone to severe earthquakes. (In fact, on November 14 a major 8.1 magnitude earthquake did strike the area, opening 40 centimeter cracks in the ground, cutting the telephone cable linking construction sites to Golmud, and toppling some buildings at railway construction sites; no one was killed, although a few people were injured.)

At a November 7 press conference, State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) Vice Minister Wang Yuqing attempted to assuage environmental impact concerns by stating that the Qinghai-Tibet railway would be built using particularly strict environmental protection standards and methods, to make it an "ecologically-friendly railroad on the plateau." An environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been completed for the entire line -- although it has not been publicly released. Investment dedicated to enhance environmental protection along the railroad is expected to total over 1.2 billion RMB ($145 million), and SEPA, the Ministry of Land and Resources and the Ministry of Railways have asked work units involved in design and construction to build the rail line and associated environmental protection infrastructure simultaneously. Environmental protection measures will include:

* Programs to replant vegetation destroyed by construction;
* Routing around rather than through key nature reserves such as Kekexili, Chumar River and Suojia;
* Building 33 underpasses for wildlife migration;
* Building bridges rather than causeways when traversing lakes and wetland ecosystems;
* Special measures to protect permafrost from melting and to protect roadside scenery;
* Strict controls on pollutant discharge from trains and railway stations, and the use of clean energy sources such as solar power, wind power, or other non-fossil sources of electric power for the railway stations; and
* Special measures to ensure that garbage from along the route is transported away.

Impetus for the Project

Proponents of the project have responded to concerns about the environment by saying that the railroad is essential to the economic development of Tibet. They point to the fact that, since 1984, when the first stage of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was completed, reaching Golmud by crossing salt lakes and the Gobi Desert, the cityís annual GDP growth has consistently exceeded 21%. (GDP growth was 16% or higher in per capita terms, since Golmudís population has doubled since 1984.)

Another obvious, though less explicit, motivation for the large Chinese investment in the Golmud-Lhasa railway is the projectís ability to enhance the central governmentís ability to enforce internal and external security. Currently, relatively few Chinese troops are stationed in the Tibet Autonomous Region, despite the long and (in places) contested border with India. Although China-India relations at present are fairly stable, the new railroad will increase the ability of the Chinese government to move additional troops and equipment into the region if needed. (Although getting them transported around using Tibet's bumpy internal infrastructure is another matter.) Concern about protecting the border with India was sometimes stated as a point in favor of the rejected Dali(Yunnan)-to-Lhasa route, since it would run closer to Chinaís border with the Arunchal Pradesh region of India.

Concerns About Social Impact on Tibet

In addition to the environmental impact of the project, numerous experts have also expressed concern that the building of the railway will encourage more Han Chinese to move to Tibet, further diluting Tibetís unique cultural environment. Currently, according to official statistics, there are only roughly 65,000 Han Chinese residing permanently in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or 2.6% of the official population of 2.5 million. However, officials in Lhasa confirm that the unregistered or temporarily-registered "floating population" of Han Chinese living in Tibet -- although it varies by season (peaking in the summer) -- is about 300,000 persons, bringing the total Han proportion of the region's population to about 13% of a revised total population.

Chinese officials respond that the number of Han Chinese living in Tibet will continue to be limited both by government policy and by the difficulty many experience in adjusting to an isolated and high-altitude environment. They also reemphasize that the railway should help support Tibetís economic development. Vice Minister of Railroads Sun Yongfu, for example, told a November 7 press conference that in addition to employing 11,000 workers, the construction of the railway will result in the training of 700 new university graduates and 900 new vocational school graduates -- primarily Tibetans -- over the next three years.

In fact, a fundamental dilemma for Tibet is that economic development, very much needed to help in lifting Tibetan residents out of poverty, will almost by definition involve increased contact with the outside- primarily Han Chinese- world. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the latest and most obvious representation of that dilemma.

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