The real motives behind China’s scientific expedition to Tibet?


Dharamshala — China’s second scientific expedition to the 4,000-metre-high, so called Qinghai-Tibet plateau was widely covered by the Indian media, expressing its concern that China has extended its area of study to cover the controversial China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The official reasoning behind this expedition is to study climatic and environmental changes over the past decades in the region.

According to the media reports, India has not delayed in conveying its protests to China for allowing scientists from the Chinese academy of Sciences (CAS) to go through the CPEC as it passes through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) and is a major point of contention between the two rival nations. The area covers the Karakoram mountain ranges, including the Siachen glacier.

The expedition will last five to 10 years and the first stop will be Serling Tso, a 2,391-square-km lake that was confirmed to have replaced the Buddhist holy lake Namtso as Tibet’s largest in 2014. In the coming months, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) will take over 100 scientists to the lake area and the origin of the Yangtze. They will be divided into four groups and make a comprehensive survey of the plateau glaciers, climate change, biodiversity and ecological changes, Yao Tandong, an academician with the CAS, was quoted as saying. However positive this move may sound, it must be taken into account that the last Chinese fact gathering expedition was followed by over 30 years of steady exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources. China’s policy of fast-track development based on an urban industrial model are unalterably damaging the fragile high-altitude ecosystem, threatening to severely alter the natural hydrological regime of the plateau, and depriving Tibetans of the stewardship of their land at a time of environmental crisis.

The last expedition of similar scale in Tibet plateau (Ch: Qinghai-Tibet plateau), regarded as roof of the world, was conducted in the 1970s. “Great changes have taken place in the plateau’s resources and environment since the first scientific expedition,” said Mr. Yao, director of the CAS Institute of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research. “We need further research to find out ways to cope with these changes.”

The results of the last scientific expedition helped the Communist Party of China to better understand the geological and natural richness of the Tibetan plateau which they then systematically set out to exploit without any consideration for the stability of the fragile local ecosystem. Tibet had 25.2 million hectares of forests in 1959, but only 13.57 million hectares in 1985; a 46 percent drop. Massive deforestation, mining and intensified agricultural patterns in Tibet contribute to increased soil erosion. The Yangtze flood in the year 1998 which claimed the lives of thousands and resulted in a huge economic loss, was blamed by President Jiang Zemin on the rampant deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau. Deforestation in Tibet is also the cause of the severe flooding that have frequently plagued Bangladesh since the 1990s.

Geological surveys taken during the last expedition located significant deposits of copper, chromium, gold and iron; four minerals of greatest interest to Chinese and other foreign miners. These are being mined to different extents at various locations throughout the Tibetan Plateau. Over the past few years, the Chinese state government has shown more interest and has invested in the extraction of lithium ores, a key component in batteries that power the entire world’s portable electronic devices.

These mines are usually based close to rivers. Most workers in Tibetan mines are Chinese and the extraction takes place without regard to the local environment and areas of religious significance. In Driru Count, eastern Tibet, a largely nomadic area north of Lhasa, Tibetan protesters tried to protect a holy mountain from mining in 2013, and were mercilessly repressed. A protest against mining in Dzogang, in eastern Tibet in 2014 resulted in at least one death. In a mining protest in Yushu County of Kham region in eastern Tibet in 2013 armed police fired machine guns. With the recent announcement of more than 3000 potential mining sites and many precious mineral deposits in Tibet, it is very likely that there will be more such protests in the future if the miner’s and the local cadre attitude remain unchanged.

To meet its ambitious goal of generating over 15% of its total power output by renewable sources, China has turned to damming Tibet’s rich fresh water river-systems. “Most of Tibet’s hydropower is to be sent out for the whole country’s energy needs,” said Zhiyong Yan, the General Manager of the China Hydroelectricity Engineering Consulting Group in a 2011 interview. The second scientific expedition is supposed to gather information that show the long term ecological impact of making dams on the Tibetan plateau.

These dams change water flow, create new lakes, disturb local ecosystems and have significant effects downstream, including stopping the flow of silt which makes agricultural land fertile. As well as global climate change, industrial projects such as mining, damming and deforestation are leading to the Tibetan glacier melting at a faster rate. China is now pursuing massive inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects in Tibet which threaten to cause further damage to the plateau’s fragile Eco-system. China plans to build nearly one hundred dams across the Tibetan plateau and several water diversion projects to move water into northern and eastern China; these projects will disrupt already-over stressed water supplies of hundreds of millions of people in south and southeast Asia.

Thus, the impact of climate change and ecological depletion on the Tibetan plateau is not a regional but a global issue. Cooperation is essential – among scientists as well as governments and local people. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has stressed the importance of raising awareness about the crisis and the important role played by both Chinese scientists and Tibetan people living on the land. He has spent decades advocating environmental protection in the Tibetan plateau and has prompted the creation of such activist groups as the Tibet Environmental Watch, which reports on destructive dam-building in the country, the effects of erosion, and Chinese legal rulings about ecological preservation, among other issues.

The group pays special attention to the Dalai Lama’s proposal to make Tibet a “Zone of Peace,” where he hopes “humanity and nature can live in peace and in harmonious balance.” In a meeting with US diplomats, His Holiness expressed that it’s climate change that is of more immediate concern in Tibet and not politics. He cited “melting glaciers, deforestation, and increasingly polluted water from mining” as his main concerns.