Search tew.org

What's New





Zone of Peace

Dalai Lama




Site Map




Tibet: Environment and Development Issues

[Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, INDIA. April 26, 2000.]


Water resources
Though people lack not wealth,
They cannot afford to breathe clean air,
Rains and streams cleanse not,
But remain inert and powerless liquids

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 1993

THE MOUNTAINS of Tibet constitute the headwaters of many of Asia's major rivers. Tibet's high altitude, huge landmass and vast glaciers endows it with the greatest river system in the world. Tibet's rivers flow into the most populous regions of the world, supplying fresh water to a significant proportion of Asia's population (see Table 1).

Tibetan rivers are distinguished by their high silt loads resulting from the largely desert landscape from which they originate. In the Zachu (Mekong), Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween) and Drichu(Yangtze) watersheds, as well as the eastern reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo, deforestation is steadily increasing these high silt loads.

Net hydrological flows in Tibet total 627 cubic km per year. This comprises roughly six per cent of Asiaąs annual runoff and 34 per cent of India's total river water resources. Historically, negligible utilisation rates in Tibet meant that nearly all of this water was transferred to countries in downstream basins including India, Nepal, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Today, hydrological transfers from Tibet to other countries total 577 cubic km from a gross basin area of 1.1 million sq. km. This excludes internal and landlocked rivers. Transnational flow thus accounts for 92 per cent of net hydrological flows.

The availability of fresh water in Tibet -- 104,500 cubic metres per year -- ranks fourth in the world after Iceland, New Zealand and Canada, and is 40,000 times higher than in China. Given the low precipitation in Tibet, a higher proportion of river flows originate from glaciers which have a total area of 42,946 sq. km and groundwater sources. Perennial sources like these result in what are called stable or base flows. Because they are independent of seasonal precipitation patterns they are an important factor in sustaining hydrological regimes (DIIR 1992).

The quantity of water flowing from the plateau, and the steep gradients, mean the hydropower potential of Tibet's rivers is among the highest in the world. Over two thirds of China's hydropower potential is located in, or directly surrounding, Tibet. The hydropower potential of this area has been calculated at 1305 TWh (Cheng 1994). The Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Southeast Tibet is estimated to have the largest hydropower potential of any place on earth at 70,000MW (Verghese 1990). The gorge where this potential exists has become the focus of recent exploratory expeditions. Currently, the exploitation of hydropower resources in Tibet is mainly concentrated on the Upper Drichu (Yangtze) and its major tributaries the Yalong and Dadu Rivers in Kham. The Upper Machu (Yellow River) in Amdo is also the focus of largescale hydropower exploitation.

Tibet is endowed with more than 2,000 natural lakes. The major ones include Tso Ngonpo (Kokonor), Nam Tso, Yamdrok Tso -- the largest fresh water lake in the North Himalaya -- Mapham Tso and Panggong Tso. The largest lake in Tibet is Tso Ngonpo, which has an area of 4,460 sq. km. The combined area of Tibet's lakes is over 35,000 sq.km accounting for about 1.5 per cent of the country's total surface area (DIIR 1992). The catchment area ecology of most of the lakes is relatively unknown and utilisation of their waters has remained low until recent times. Many of these lakes have been receding slowly due to natural processes for thousands of years.

According to Chinese surveys, there are 71 species and sub-species of fish in the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' ('TAR'). This constitutes 63 per cent of the species and sub-species on the entire Tibetan Plateau. Among these are various species of: Schizothoracinae, Nemacheilinae and Sissoridae (Zhang 1997). There were no cases of Tibetan rivers being diverted, polluted or extensively fished before 1949. A small hydropower station was built in 1928 in the Togde Gully on the Kyichu with an installed capacity of 92 kw (Yan 1998). Diversions for irrigation were also minimal. In this period, Tibet's agriculture was dependent on monsoon rains and small-scale river diversions organised on a village basis. These would have had a negligible impact on the flows of Tibet's rivers. The absence of any modern industry at this time, and the low population density, meant that it was unlikely that wastes entering Tibet's rivers caused any significant pollution.

For devout Tibetan Buddhists eating fish is a sacrilege. There is a saying: "Because a fish is without a tongue, killing is unforgivable" (Duncan 1961). Fish were not an important part of the Tibetan diet. Therefore, few people engaged themselves in fishing. The fishing activity around Yamdrok Tso in southern Tibet was regulated by the central government in Lhasa as the lake is of great spiritual significance. The Kashag (Cabinet of the Tibetan Government) regulated the size of fishing net holes so that young fish and other non-edible creatures were protected (Tsering 1996). Therefore the exploitation of fish resources prior to 1949 was minimal and so where harvests were cpmsequently.


As mentioned above, rivers originating in Tibet flow into various regions in Asia. In some cases the distance traversed by these rivers through Tibet is short, while for many of them Tibetan terrain constitutes a large proportion of the rivers' total length and contributes largely to the rivers' perennial flow. Since Asia is dominated by monsoon patterns of rainfall, bringing rain for only a few months (usually three months) of the year, the perennial flow of its rivers relies upon the constant flux of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau. Tibet's high altitude causes extreme diurnal variation in temperature, so that every day, winter or summer, glaciers can partially melt and refreeze. This daily snowmelt feeds the river systems.

From Tibet's Rivers Flows Asia's Survival

For 1,600 km of its total 4,500 km length, the Mekong traverses through Tibetan territory (Lafitte 1996). Beginning in Amdo, the Mekong passes through the eastern side of Tibet near Sangang and Chamdo and flows near the Tibetan town Jol and then Balang to the Chinese town Lajing in Yunnan Province. It then continues in a south southeasterly direction through Yunnan and on into Southeast Asia. After leaving China, the Mekong flows through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Salween begins in Thangla Mt. (Ch. Tanggula) in Tibet and flows east towards the Mekong. It then travels in an almost parallel gorge just west of the Mekong in the Khawakarpo Mountains. Once in Kham, the two river valleys diverge and the Salween heads southwest into Burma, where it becomes the country's primary river.

The two great rivers of China, the Yangtze and the Yellow, originate high up on the plateau in Amdo. The Yellow River travels northeast through Amdo before entering the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain. This region of China supports 550 million people and two thirds of the country's cropland. However, the watershed only supplies one fifth of the country's water. The Yangtze watershed and the region to its south supports slightly more people (700 million), accounting for four fifths of China's total water yet only one third of the country's cropland (Brown & Halweil 1998). The imbalance of water resources to cropland between these two major watersheds of China is emerging as one of the Beijing's biggest ecological problems. As groundwater and river water is becoming exhausted in the north, Chinese engineers are contemplating massive inter-basin water transfer projects.

In the southwest of Tibet, four major rivers originate around Mt. Tesi (Kailash). One is the Yarlung Tsangpo which travels for over 2,200 km within Tibet. Its easterly course skirts north of the Himalayan divide before turning sharply south into the plains of Arunachal Pradesh, India, where it becomes known as the Brahmaputra. After flowing through the Assam Plain in India, the Yarlung Tsangpo enters Bangladesh to irrigate the fields of the country's 128 million people, before joining the Ganges and the Meghna to form the great delta of northeastern India known as the Sunderbans.

The Senge Khabab (Indus) has its source north of Tesi mountains (Kailash). It then passes west into Ladakh as the Senge Tsangpo and then to Kashmir and continues to become Pakistan's principle river. The Langchen Khabab (Sutlej) begins west of Tesi mountains, crossing the Himalayas into Himachal Pradesh in northwest India, passing through the Punjab region before joining the Indus in Pakistan. The Macha Khabab (Karnali) originates from Mt. Tesi Range (Kailash Range), crosses the Himalayas into western Nepal and then into India where it joins the River Ganges.

Fertile River Valleys

Every year the major rivers flowing out of Tibet flood when the spring sun melts the winters' snow and then again when the monsoon rains arrive -- mostly between July and September. At times these floods are severe, often wreaking havoc downstream as they did in China and Bangladesh in 1998 and 1999. Nevertheless, a regular annual flood can be a beneficial function of a healthy river. As these rivers cascade down into the foothills and plains of Asia they bring with them more than just water. The silt loads of Tibet's rivers deposit millions of tons of silt and sediment to create fertile river valleys and flood plains in the downstream regions in Asia. This is the key to maintaining the viability of downstream ecosystems. The fertile river valleys of Brahmaputra, Yellow and Mekong are cases in point.

As the floods recede they leave behind silt which replenishes the topsoil with vital trace elements such as silica and iron. This sedimentation process also maintains the deltas of major rivers. The annual flood also facilitates the breeding of freshwater fish. While the floods are at their peak, fish swim into the shallows and lay their eggs in still waters where they can develop without disturbance. As the floodwaters recede, the hatchlings find their way into the main streams. These benefits are not always appreciated by agro-scientists and developers and, perhaps not surprisingly, by those affected by the floods. Catastrophic floods appear to be becoming more regular and more severe. This is a possible consequence of the interference in hydrological systems, climate change and continuing deforestation.

It is becoming increasingly clear that rivers have more ecological functions than just the provision of water. The interaction of flood plains and rivers is one such vital function. The Tibetan Plateau ‹ with its weather patterns, hydrological system, glacial conditions, forest, and soil functions ‹ has an essential influence over Asia (with high population densities) and which also provide sustenance to some of the world's most productive agricultural zones.


Water Pollution and Scarcity

It is obvious that there would be catastrophic consequences to the billions of people downstream if Tibet's rivers were to become severely polluted. In many of the reliant regions water treatment facilities are very basic, and many people rely on the rivers for drinking water as well as for irrigation and for other daily needs. In China water pollution is already a serious problem. Up to 45,000 million tons of untreated wastewater currently enters China's rivers every year (Edmonds 1994). Approximately 700 million people -- over half of China's population -- consume drinking water contaminated with animal and human waste (Cai 1993). In many Chinese cities today, rivers are biologically dead and are little more than a toxic soup of human and industrial wastes. One half of the ground water in the cities of China is contaminated (Zhang 1994).

China's unbridled economic growth, industrialisation and urbanisation have contributed to widespread water pollution and scarcity. China has some of the extreme cases of water shortage in the world. Out of 640 major cities, more than 300 face water shortage, with 100 facing severe scarcities (NEPA 1997). Water shortages in cities cause a loss of an estimated US$ 11.2 billion in industrial output each year. The impact of water pollution on human health has been valued approximately at US$ 3.9 billion annually (The World Bank 1997). Until China deals with this problem in its industrial centres, it seems unlikely it will devote significant attention to the quality of water flows outside its borders. In Lhasa, plastic waste and oil waste from mechanical workshops can be seen dumped on the banks of rivers. During the flood season these get washed into rivers. A 'TAR' government report on the state of its environment in 1996 reported that 41.9 million tons of waste liquid were produced that year. The report also noted that the trend for rivers in the Lhasa area was towards increasing pollution (Tibet Daily 1997). Lhasa, therefore, appears to be following the path of Chinese cities.

For rivers such as the Indus, Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Sutlej, Karnali, Bhumchu (Arun), Lhodrak Sharchu (Manas), Salween and Mekong which all originate from the Tibetan plateau to flow into various regions in Asia, the threats of Chinese development on the Plateau are far-reaching. While industrial development is still relatively small-scale in the upper reaches of these watersheds, and population density also relatively low, the main sources of severe pollution can be traced to mining activities. Mining is one of the "Four Pillar" industries in the 'TAR' and it is a considerable threat to the purity of rivers in Tibet. Tailings from copper, gold, chromite and other mines on the plateau pollute rivers with sulphuric acid, cyanide and heavy metals. These are carried downstream where they infiltrate soils as well as the water supply of millions of people. Other major pollution threats can be attributed to increasing levels of untreated sewage, increasing nitrate run-off as a result of the intensification of agriculture and increasing levels of animal wastes due to the increase in meat production.

Development Disasters

Additional threats to Tibet's rivers depend upon the level to which China allows the mountains surrounding the Yarlung Tsangpo, Mekong and Salween watersheds to become deforested as well as the strategy China chooses for developing hydropower and irrigation resources on these rivers. By controlling Tibet, China controls the ecological viability of a massive section of South and Southeast Asia's river systems. To date, China has most extensively affected its own principle rivers ‹ the Yellow and the Yangtze ‹ with its current development strategies on the plateau. The Yellow River is suffering dramatically from a shortage of water in its lower reaches, partly due to the huge dams in the upper reaches in Amdo. The Yangtze has suffered from deforestation in its upper reaches which triggers to turn the annual flood into a disaster scenario. In March 1999 the Director of China's State Environment Protection Administration, Xie Zhenhua, suggested that "ecological reserves should be developed in source areas of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers" (Xinhua, 14 March 1999).

Mekong and Salween are threatened by increased deforestation in the upper reaches in Tibet as well as by hydropower development. The Yarlung Tsangpo is becoming increasingly interrupted by medium-sized dams in Tibet and may one day host the biggest dam in the world. If this scheme were implemented it would impede the downstream flow of the primary resources -- water and alluvial sediment -- that India and Bangladesh depend on. These issues demand an urgent and unprecedented degree of regional and international cooperation if Tibet's resources are to continue to benefit the billions of people who live downstream.

Since the occupation of Tibet, the Chinese government has embarked upon unsustainable development schemes in the region which have adversely impacted most of the rivers and some of the lakes in Tibet. The level of industrial and other development in the region is not geographically balanced. The northeastern province, Amdo, has far more industry than U-Tsang -- or Central Tibet -- so pollution problems are higher there and dam-building is on a much larger scale. In the southeastern province, Kham, the main issue is deforestation as well as increasing river fragmentation caused by extensive dam-building. In U-Tsang pollution and dam construction is only recently on the increase. Water utilisation is set to increase as agricultural intensification is stepped up. Decreasing levels of precipitation in U-Tsang and shrinking glaciers could multiply the impact of new water-intensive developments . Lakes, which are also experiencing accelerated shrinking due to human interferences and partly due to climatic change, are also being increasingly exploited for water, fish and power production within the last five decades. These issues will be examined on a watershed basis in order to assess the specific impact of developments on each watershed's ecological function. Currently the watersheds of concern are the Yarlung Tsangpo, Mekong, Salween, Yellow and the Yangtze river basins.


The Yarlung Tsangpo watershed drains most of the southern part of Tibet except for the area just north of Chomolungma (Mt. Everest). It originates from Western Tibet just southeast of Mapham Tso (Lake Manasarover). The Yarlung Tsangpo flows east through the most densely populated region of Tibet, irrigating most of the agricultural land in the historical Yarlung valley. Then it passes through Shigatse City and, flowing south of Lhasa, it drains the Kyichu river. East of Lhasa it flows through the once forested and now degraded Kongpo region before turning abruptly near Mt. Namchakbarwa to the south, cutting straight through the Himalayan divide to flow into India as Brahmaputra and then to Bangladesh.

The Yarlung Tsangpo and its two major tributaries, the Nyangchu and the Kyichu, have become the foci of development plans in the 'TAR'. The Three Rivers Development Project (TRDP), also known as "One River Two Streams" was first announced in May 1991. It refers to the area encompassing the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Nyangchu and the Kyichu and is bordered in the north by Nagchu and in the northeast by Chamdo. It includes 18 cities, 231 towns and 1,890 villages (Yan 1998a). It is a comprehensive infrastructural development plan concentrating principally on agricultural development but also on communications, transport and energy sectors.

In conjunction with the TRDP, a further list of "62 Aid Projects" for the 'TAR' was announced in 1994. The term "Aid" in the title of this plan refers to the funding for the project, which comes from individual cities or provinces in China as an "aid gift" to support the development of the 'TAR'. The "62 Aid Projects" and the TRDP include the largest irrigation projects to be built so far in the 'TAR'. The plans also involve a significant increase in energy generation capacity in the 'TAR', most of which is derived from hydropower.

Aiding Who?

Under the recent development plans encompassed by the TRDP and the "62 Aid Projects", increased exploitation of the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed's resources is a major feature. The main emphasis has been on increasing irrigation capacity, particularly in the Gyangtse and Shigatse areas where the Nyangchu is especially exploited. This is to increase the production of rapeseed, potatoes, vegetables, winter wheat and other crops. This is in itself a controversial policy, as these crops are primarily preferred by the Chinese population. The Shigatse and Gyangtse region has the largest available agricultural land area in the 'TAR.' Most other regions are also increasing their irrigation capacity. Until recently, Central Tibet has had sporadic electricity supplies. These were based on a few key stations around Lhasa and some 400 small hydropower plants, most of which have been badly planned and maintained, making many of them inoperable (Wang and Bai 1991). The new developments are likely to change this dramatically with a number of large hydropower stations recently being put into operation and additional ones under construction, or at the planning stage. Many existing small stations are being upgraded and improved, such as the Tongchu power station northwest of Shigatse.

Improved power generation is probably welcomed by Tibetans, rural and urban alike, and the smaller hydropower stations will be relatively environmentally friendly. However, the inclusion of a number of bigger plants, and the dual facility of some of these for intensive irrigation, may have an increasing impact on the environment. Sacrificing environmental security to provide irrigation for exotic species of food crops for the Chinese population in the region is a price many Tibetans do not wish to pay.

Reservations About Reservoirs

The creation of reservoirs behind dams often results in the flooding of prime agricultural land. The poor record of dam builders and governments in relocating populations ousted by reservoirs is well documented. Resettlement has been involuntary in Tibet and has often disenfranchised the oustees (see Manlha Water Project).

The impact of a reservoir on the hydrology of the river is well-documented. A reservoir transforms a flowing river into a semi-stagnant body of water. Although there are outflows and inflows these are nothing like the natural functions of a river, especially as water releases into the river below are governed entirely according to the needs of electricity generation. The reservoir remains a still body of water most of the time. This affects the chemical, thermal and physical characteristics of the water. Therefore, the temperature and chemical composition of the water released from the dam into the river below is often quite different to the natural flow. For example, in summer the sun can heat the surface of the reservoir while the lower depths will remain cold. Releases of water from the top of the reservoir will be too warm and likewise those from the lower depths too cold. This can have serious consequences for aquatic life. Considering the high level of solar radiation in Tibet, and the extensive hours of sunshine, surface heating of reservoirs is likely to be high in the summer. Reservoirs also encourage certain breeds of fish well adapted to lakes to thrive while many species uniquely adapted to the river environment may die out thus affecting biodiversity.

Another feature of reservoirs is that they cause river sediments and silt to settle to the bottom. This can cause problems over the longterm with the reservoir's capacity to hold water being reduced by the build-up of these sediments. A further ecological concern is that this causes the water released from the reservoir to become what is termed as "hungry". The sediment-free waters seek to recapture their sediment load, which causes the water to be more corrosive, eroding the bed and banks of the river at a far greater rate than normal. This can remove all the erodible material from the riverbed below the dam, destroying the habitat of benthic invertebrae such as insects, molluscs and crustaceans that live in the gravels on the riverbed and provide food for fish and waterfowls (McCully, 1996). The longterm effects on the morphology of the river are also far reaching. Patrick McCully (1996), commenting on this problem, notes:

In the long run, the major impact on the downstream river channel will often be to make it deeper and narrower, turning wide-braided, meandering rivers with gravel bars and beaches and multiple channels into relatively straight single channels. Reducing a braided river to a single channel will greatly diminish the diversity of plants and animals it can support.

Fragmented and Stagnant Rivers

The overarching consequence of damming rivers is the resulting fragmentation of each river as an integral ecosystem. This has a devastating effect on many of the species that migrate up and down the river with seasonal changes, as well as on the morphology and ecology of the river and its adjacent flood plains. Fragmentation isolates groups of fish species and other aquatic organisms so that breeding within a small group causes genetic problems. In cases of already endangered species this can lead to an insufficient gene pool for breeding and leads to subsequent extinction (McCully 1996).

Nearly all dams restrict seasonal flooding by storing floodwaters and this is often seen as a benefit of the dam. However, seasonal flooding performs a function which is highly beneficial to soil fertility, groundwater recharge and aquatic species regeneration. As floodwater covers the flood plain it brings with it rich nutrients which are left on the soil when the floodwaters recede. This is one of the reasons why flood plain lands are often prime fertile agricultural lands.

Fish populations have declined severely in many dammed rivers due to fragmentation of their habitat. Sediment build-up in river estuaries is also greatly reduced causing similar problems of soil viability and fish species decline. This has had a severe impact on the breeding grounds of 80 per cent of the world's fish catch. Mitigation efforts, which involve attempting to release waters in a manner that mimics the natural flow of the river, are rarely successful (McCully 1996).

Given the highly erodible and fragile soils of the Yarlung Tsangpo valley and its tributaries, this is of major concern in light of the increasing hydro-development in the area. Silt build-up in reservoirs in the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed is also likely to be reducing the overall life of the hydropower stations. Additionally, freezing for long periods in the winter will reduce the benefits of these developments.

There are over 400 hydropower stations in the 'TAR' (Tibet Daily, 27 June 1997). Many of these are concentrated in the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed. These are generally small run-of-the-river schemes generating less than 500kw, which individually have little environmental impact on the river as long as they are operated properly. Wang and Bai reported in 1991 that of 816 small hydro stations set up in U-Tsang, 23.3 per cent were scrapped and 15.7 per cent were malfunctioning. Given that recent Chinese news sources quote figures of just over 400 stations since then, many more have been scrapped. Since 1991, larger-scale projects have been emphasised, including at least five projects over 10,000kw (see Table 2). The measure of environmental impact of these plants is generally linked to the size of the dam and reservoir and the proportion of the natural flow of the river that is interrupted.

Yet other important factors are the amount of water used for irrigation, and the degree of intensive irrigation. The number of medium-to-large-scale power plants and reservoirs created for irrigation in the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed suggest the beginning of a breakdown of the river's ecological integrity. This could manifest itself in a number of ways. The course and condition of the river beds may change, becoming less supportive to aquatic wildlife to affect the biodiversity of fish and aquatic organisms in the river. Sediment transportation may be reduced, affecting downstream agriculture. Water transfers downstream from irrigated areas may contain higher levels of salts and nitrate contamination from chemical fertilisers. Over time, the river may become like the majority of rivers in the developed world today, less of a natural and wild feature supporting biodiversity and flood plain vitality, and more of a stagnant water body simply carrying water from one utilisation point to another.

This is additionally worrying given the changing climatic pattern in the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed. In Western Tibet, near the source of the river, decreasing precipitation has caused the county seat in Dongpa (Ch. Zhongba) County to be relocated. According to Yang Yong ‹ a geologist working in the area ‹ there is the possibility of the Yarlung Tsangpo becoming a seasonal river in its upper reaches. He attributes this to global warming causing glacier reduction and falling rates of precipitation in what is already the most arid part of the region (Xinhua, 17 September 1998). If the sources of the Yarlung Tsangpo dry up, and the trend of falling precipitation rates in south-central Tibet continue, the impact of major diversions on the river will be greatly increased.

Saline Soil From Irrigation

Large-scale irrigation projects are known to be notoriously wasteful and inefficient in their water use. China's record of efficiency in this respect is far from adequate. According to Dong (1990), inefficiency in agricultural irrigation in China results in the use of an estimated 66 per cent more water to produce the same amount of wheat as in an average developed country. China's irrigation projects, have a long-standing reputation for wasting water and causing erosion and salinisation ‹ especially in arid and semi-arid regions. About one-sixth of China's irrigated cropland suffers from salinisation. By 1990, 50.4 per cent of the cropland of the North China Plain had reached this degraded condition (Edmonds 1994). In 1991, salt-affected areas in Northwest China were estimated at three million hectares (Umali 1993).

Salinisation is the accumulation of highly soluble sodium, magnesium and potassium salts in the soil. This process is greatly accelerated by the excessive and inefficient use of irrigation waters. All waters contain some dissolved salts and irrigation facilities such as reservoirs and extensive canals expose water to unnaturally high levels of evaporation. When water evaporates the dissolved salts are left behind. Reservoir and canal waters carry slightly higher levels of dissolved salts as a result. Water used for irrigation is returned to the atmosphere through transpiration from plants and evaporation from the soil surface. The amount of salt taken up by plants is negligible and this leads to accumulation of salts in soils (Umali 1993).

In arid and semi-arid areas of Tibet this problem is likely to be compounded by the already naturally high levels of salts in the soil. Additionally, the more arid a region is the more irrigation water is likely to be applied and correspondingly less rainfall is available to leach away some of the accumulated salts. Some farmers are aware of salt accumulation in their soils and attempt to wash these out from the root zone by applying extra water between crops. This tends to elevate the water table, which may already be rising due to irrigation. When the water table reaches within two metres from the surface, groundwater is drawn up to the surface by capillary action. This saline groundwater sits on the soil surface, evaporating under the sun and leaving behind a deadly crust of salts. Once soil has reached this condition it is extremely difficult to rehabilitate (Umali 1993).

Saline soil affects the ability of crops to utilise water and make biochemical adjustments necessary to their survival. Therefore it can greatly reduce yields and in extreme cases renders land uncultivable. On the Sarda-Sahayak canal irrigation project, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, it was found that farms with salt-affected land were yielding 41-56 per cent less than non-degraded land in the area. Consequently net incomes were reduced by 82-97 per cent. At the Menemem irrigation and drainage project in Izmir, Turkey, average incomes on salt-affected paddy lands were reduced to 35 per cent of the average earned from unaffected lands (Umali 1993).

The disposal of saline water into rivers can have adverse downstream impacts. This will compound problems for downstream irrigation, municipal and industrial users and can also affect wildlife (Umali 1993).

As the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed is arid to semi-arid, with unreliable precipitation and high ambient salt levels in the soil, irrigation-induced salinity is a serious threat to the sustainability of the new agricultural programme being implemented by China. Further, if salinity does occur on a large scale, as it already has in many parts of China, the Yarlung Tsangpo will be exporting salinated water to the densely populated downstream environments.


Just off the road to Lhasa via Yamdrok Tso, 20 km east of Gyangtse, is a huge construction site. This project, the largest of the "62 Aid Projects", involving an investment of 1 billion yuan (US$125 million), will irrigate 16,000 hectares of land and will have an installed capacity of 20MW (Xinhua, 6 October 1998). According to eyewitnesses, in 1997 a huge town had sprung up around the site to house Chinese workers. This had also spurred a wave of urban growth on the eastern side of Gyangtse town, a region which used to be known for retaining its Tibetan character (ICT 24 July 1997).

The dam for Manlha Water Control Works is the largest currently under construction and the largest ever built in Central Tibet. Built on the Nyangchu, a major tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, it has already displaced the inhabitants of six villages including its namesake, Manlha (Tenzin 1998). There may be further displacement to make way for the reservoir when it is filled. The dam wall is reported to be complete and stands at 75.3 metres tall and 287 metres wide. The reservoir will hold an estimated 157 million cubic metres of water. Construction of the power station and water tunnels should be finished in 2000 (Xinhua, 6 October 1998). A Manlha villager Gedhun Tenzin now in exile recalls:

After some time, the Chinese told six villages north of the site ... that they had three years to evacuate the place ... During that time the Chinese issued a form for people to complete. The Tibetans had no idea what the form stated (as it was in Chinese) and they were just told to sign it ... the form said that the public had been asked to move from this site and that they had signed in agreement. The land they were given to relocate to is totally flat and has no water supplyŠpeople downstream are worried the dam will not be operated properly and they will get flooded by excessive releases of water... local people don't see any benefit from such projects (Tenzin 1998).

A recurring complaint voiced by exiled Tibetans is that small hydropower projects around the area are not benefiting local people. Farmers complain of having their land suddenly inundated by large and unexpected releases of water. Concerning the number of small projects in Lhundrub county, north of Lhasa, one interviewee said:

There are many small dams around there, but they are useless for the common people; they don't provide any benefit. All the benefit is taken by the government offices. There is a shortage of water in Tibet because they have changed the courses of many rivers, a lot of farmers are not getting water.

This was the disturbing theme of many interviews, especially with people from Amdo where dams are generally larger in scale:

My family were farmers in the area and when they released the water our fields were washed away. We only got a little electricity from the dam. Some people have been washed away when they release water because they do not give any warning and people working by the river get washed away. Many children have died because of these accidents.

Since the late 1970s, extensive waterworks have been built on the Nyangchu. Prior to the Manlha water project, 55 irrigation ditches totalling 399 km, eight small, and medium-sized reservoirs, 39 ponds and two medium scale pumped storage power plants were built up to 1992 (Xiao 1992). All of this development is on a 90 km river in an area with only 400 mm average annual rainfall. With the implementation of Manlha it appears that the Nyangchu will be utilised to its maximum potential. Its course has been changed and most of the river is diverted into a series of canals. The benefits from this are highly dubious. More land is being irrigated and a more diverse range of crops are being cultivated. However, the sustainability of these practises and the benefits for local Tibetans are questionable.

Plans for The Great Bend of Yarlung Tsangpo

At Mt. Namchakbarwa (7,756 metres) near the Tibetan village of Jodong in Southern Tibet, the Yarlung Tsangpo enters a canyon that has been recently recognised as the longest and deepest canyon in the world (Ciu Bian in Beijing Review, 30 March - 5 April 1998). The Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge is eight times as steep and three times as large as the Colorado in the Grand Canyon (McRae 1999). The river descends over 3,000 metres in approximately 200 km (Alford 1992) and this constitutes one of the greatest hydropower potentials anywhere in the world. Where the river emerges from the canyon it enters India's northeastern state, Arunachal Pradesh.

At a July 1986 conference in Alaska, in which projects under the Global Infrastructure Fund (GIF) were discussed, the "Himalayan Hydropower Project" was short-listed. This envisaged a series of 11 dams around the "Brahmaputra loop" and included a tunnel through the mountains bringing water to a powerhouse projected as having a capacity of 48,000 Megawatt. The overall capacity of the "loop" was speculated to be 70,000 Megawatt (Verghese 1990). It is unclear what has happened to this ambitious plan; the GIF certainly no longer publicises it. However, Chinese engineers may be pursuing the idea of a single mega power station with an installed capacity of around 40,000 Megawatt. By comparison the largest power station in operation today is Itaipú in Brazil, with a total installed capacity of 12,600 Megawatt. Three Gorges Dam, currently under construction on the Yangtze River, will have a capacity of 18,200 Megawatt. It would become the world's biggest dam.

An increasing amount of publicity about the dam proposal, and about the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge in general, indicates that the plan may not be entirely shelved. In September 1997, AFP in Beijing reported that "Three experts propose construction of giant dam in Tibet". In this short report quoting an article in a Chinese newspaper, the Guangming Daily, it was stated: "After a long experience of exploration on the site, we believe that the project could begin to be included in the agenda of the concerned department." Electricity produced was claimed to be available for export to Bangladesh, Burma and India, (a feature of the GIF plans) and "the diverted water could irrigate the northwestern deserts of the country". Since then the project has been mentioned in news briefs in the China Daily Business Weekly (21 September 1997) and the International Water Power & Dam Construction Monthly (November 1997).

This project has also been associated with plans to divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo to the northwestern deserts of China using so-called "Peaceful Nuclear Explosions" (PNEs) to drive an underground tunnel through the mountains (Horgan 1996). China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996, which disallows PNEs. Further, there are serious doubts as to whether this is even possible.

On January 7, 1998 ZDF television reported on its programme "Die Welt" that indeed a large dam twice as big as Three Gorges was proposed on the Yarlung Tsangpo and interviewed the Chief Planner, Professor Chen Chuanyu. Chen described the plan to drive a 15 km (9.3 miles) long tunnel through the Himalayas to divert the water before the bend and direct it to the end of the bend. This would shorten the distance of the roughly 3,000 metres altitude drop from 200 km to just 15 km. The hydropower potential was given as 40,000 Megawatt. He further describes using the power to pump water to Northwest China over 800 km (497 miles) away.

No more details have been forthcoming since the ZDF television piece. However, throughout 1998 the Chinese launched expeditions, rafting trips and other exploratory forays into the gorge. They have been discussing the expansion of tourism in the area and an American kayaker, Doug Gordon died in October 1998 in an expedition down previously unexplored parts of the gorge (McRae 1999). These trends would suggest an opening up of the area, which could lead to the development of the big Yarlung Tsangpo dam becoming more feasible.

The Yarlung Tsangpo, before it emerges from the great canyon onto the Indian plain, constitutes 33 per cent of the total flow of the Brahmaputra, based on mean annual flow (Alford 1992). It may constitute a larger proportion of stable flow from glacial sources. The implications of a huge storage dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo for India and Bangladesh would be far reaching. These countries would be at the mercy of China for adequate releases of water during the dry season, and for protection from flooding during the rainy season. A massive diversion of this water to China's northwest would be even more devastating. Nutrient-rich sediments that enrich the soils of India and Bangladesh would be held back in the reservoir. The river's delta will become deprived of silts; thousands of fish species which rely on the delta for breeding and raising young will be affected, as well as the maintenance of the delta itself.

The reservoir for such a huge dam could stretch hundreds of kilometres up the Yarlung Tsangpo well into the Kongpo region. This would inundate vast areas of virgin forest within the canyon and beyond. And as much of the flora and fauna within the canyon is undocumented, rare species of flora and fauna which have yet to be scientifically studied could be lost. It is said to be home for more than 60 per cent of the biological resources on the Tibetan Plateau (China Daily 1998b).

Although the population in the canyon is small, the people that do live there would suffer great hardship in being forced from their ancestral lands. Tibetans in Tibet would not benefit from the power produced as it is targeted for export to earn foreign currency. The water diversion scheme is likely to be a highly inefficient and wasteful exercise with billions of cubic meters of water being lost to evaporation in the 800 km-long canals. If these plans are implemented, it would mean the grave loss of a world heritage. The Yarlung Tsangpo canyon is a unique and magnificent natural phenomenon with diverse plant and animal life which should be considered as an UNESCO World Heritage Site or similar preserved site of international significance.

Water Pollution

According to the 1996 'TAR' environment report published in the Tibet Daily in June 1997, the trend in the Kyichu (Lhasa River) basin is towards increased pollution. The report stated that a total of 41.9 million tons of waste liquid was discharged in 1996, 25.4 million tons was from industrial sources. Pollutants included cyanide, arsenic, sulphides and nitrates. The Toelung River, a small tributary of the Kyichu was reported to be lightly polluted with arsenic and fluorine. Despite this, water quality was said to be generally good (Tibet Daily, 27 June 1997). Increasing pollution from industrial, domestic and agricultural sources are a major concern considering the predicted increases in industrial and agricultural activities in future years. With increasing use of chemical fertilisers throughout the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed, prospects for the maintenance of the river hitherto clean waters are not good. This should be of major concern to all downstream users.

Flood Deaths

At a time when nearly half the deaths from nature are caused by floods, the summer of 1998 saw severe flooding in the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed, all over Tibet. At least 53 people were killed in heavy flooding across 40 counties of the 'TAR'. Water levels were apparently at a record high level in the Yarlung Tsangpo and Kyichu Rivers. It was reported that at least 400 yaks and sheep were killed and that 80,000 people were affected by the flooding. Tourists returning from Tibet at the time said roads between Lhasa, Gyangtse and Shigatse were impassable. Boulders and rocks were strewn around the valley floors where flash floods had washed them down from mountainsides (TIN September 1998). The causes of the extreme flooding are difficult to assess, and were probably the result of a mixture of factors.


Yamdrok Tso (Yamdrok Lake) is situated 100 km south-west of Lhasa at an elevation of 4,441 metres. It has a catchment area of 6,100 sq. km and a surface area of 678 sq. km. The lake is almost a closed system with only a small tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River flowing out from it. Inflow is from precipitation and snow melt from surrounding mountains.

The lake, a resting place for many migrating birds crossing the Tibetan Plateau and then the Himalayas, is also a habitat for many native species including the endangered black-necked crane. In addition it is one of Tibet's four most sacred lakes and the famous Samding monastery is situated on its shores. The Tibetans regard it as a "life power lake" and the resting place of the spirit of the Tibetan nation. A legend holds that if Yamdrok Tso should dry up then the whole population of Tibet will meet their death (Free Tibet Campaign, 1996).

A 90 Megawatt pumped-storage hydropower plant has been constructed; it began trial operations in 1997 and was officially reported to be fully operational in September 1998 (Xinhua , 19 September 1998).

Tibet's extraordinary topography has enabled the designers to use Yamdrok Tso as a reservoir to generate hydroelectricity without having to build a dam. Instead, six km-long tunnels have been bored through the sides of the lake to a powerhouse situated next to the Yarlung Tsangpo River 850 metres below. Elsewhere in the world the theory behind pumped-storage is primarily that the reservoir can be replenished by pumping water back. This is usually done by building two reservoirs; one from which water is drained to create electricity and another to catch that water, store it and pump it back up to the initial reservoir. The economics of this are usually based on the extreme differences in demand and price of electricity between peak and off-peak hours. Therefore, the station is generating electricity during peak hours and consuming power for pumping water back during off-peak hours when there is a surplus of cheap power.

On the face of it, Yamdrok Tso would appear to be a reasonably low-impact station for producing power and making more efficient use of the grid. However, there are two main design inefficiencies to be explored ‹ in addition to the social and cultural concerns of Tibetans over the use of a sacred lake in this fashion.

First, there is no reservoir to catch the water pumped out of Yamdrok Tso. The water from the lake drains into the Yarlung Tsangpo River and when water is pumped back, it is Yarlung Tsangpo water that is used. The lake's water, which is oligotrophic (high in minerals and low in nitrates), is very different to that of the river's and the mixing of the two could have adverse ecological impacts. The pH in the lake is 9.11 while in the river it is 8.13, indicating that the river is slightly more acid than the lake. The total mineralisation in the lake is 1941 mg per litre as compared to only 174 mg per litre in the river. The nitrate concentration in the Yarlung Tsangpo in 1983-84 was found to be 0.65 mg per litre, which may have increased since and may increase further given the rising population upstream and increasing intensification of agriculture. In the lake, the nitrate concentration is only 0.16mg per litre. The replenishing of Yamdrok Tso water with Yarlung Tsangpo water could increase acidity and nitrate levels.

The lake, which has been a closed system for centuries, will begin to change in its basic properties. The aquatic organisms in the lake have adapted to the unique conditions over millennia. In a very short time that ecosystem, which has never been properly studied, will alter radically (Stockman and Seibert 1997).

A second contention with this project is that the installed capacity of the plant (90 Megawatt) is the largest on the grid. This is very unusual in the light of pumped-storage requiring base load stations to provide off-peak power for return pumping. The installed capacity of the Lhasa grid is increasing with new stations coming on line in the near future.

Nevertheless, on 19 September, 1998 Xinhua news agency reported that the addition of Yamdrok Tso "trebled the capacity of the Lhasa grid". This implies that the rest of the Lhasa grid has only 45 Megawatt installed capacity. The addition of stations forecast to go on line in the near future, such as Manlha and others, would still not raise the rest of the grid's capacity to the equivalent of Yamdrok Tso. The energy needed to pump water back up to Yamdrok Tso is equivalent or greater than that which it produces, so the station cannot produce any net gain of power unless it does not pump back equivalent quantities of water used (Stockman and Seibert 1997). This indicates one of two things. Either the authorities do not plan to return water to the lake for a long time, if at all, or the power capacity of Yamdrok Tso is far above the current demand. If the latter is the case, they may utilise less of the plant's potential power and therefore require less electricity to pump back water but still not gain any net production of power.

The utility of such a large and expensive plant is thus called into question. If it is to be used as a pumped-storage plant, it appears to provide no gain for the Lhasa grid, which the plant is supposed to service. But if not the lake will be drained to provide a net gain of power. This will cause a water level drop of between six centimetres to 60 centimetres annually, depending on the rate of utilisation (Stockman and Seibert 1997). This too would have a devastating effect on the lake, reducing the area and quality of shallows around the edges which are necessary for the nesting of waterfowl. Shrinking the lake area could also increase salinity, which may affect wildlife adversely.

The Yamdrok Tso station appears to have been built with either an expectation of a huge increase in power demand and capacity installation in the Lhasa area, or with no intention of using it as a pumped-storage facility but instead as a base load station. Either way, it seems to be a huge and inappropriate investment in Lhasa's potential industrial development and a no-win situation for ecological maintenance of the lake. Large quantities of earth have been moved, a sacred feature of the Tibetan landscape has been defiled and the economics of the project do not appear to make any sense.

Protest against the plant at Yamdrok Tso has been strident from both within, and outside, Tibet. The late Panchen Lama protested strongly and construction was stopped for a while in the mid-eighties. Shortly after his death in 1989 work was resumed. After much lobbying from The International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet and the Free Tibet Campaign and others, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution at its World Conservation Congress in 1996 which called upon China to "strengthen their effort of co-operation with the international commu-nity in exchange of information, including that related to the local environment at Yamdrok TsoŠ consider establishing a nature reserve at Yamdrok Tso Š[and] Šcalls upon the IUCN commissions to work with China in identifying areas of collaboration on maintaining the eco-logical health of Yamdrok Tso" (IUCN 1996). So far little progress has been made between the IUCN and the Chinese government. Meanwhile, the waters of Yamdrok Tso are draining into the Yarlung Tsangpo River.


The Chinese have described Yamdrok Tso as the "Fish Barn of Tibet". In 1960 the reported catch was 255,000 kg. In 1994 it was 1.04 million kg. A fish-powder factory was set up in Ngari in 1993 with an annual output of 70 tons (Zhang 1997). Restrictions have also been placed on catches in the Lhasa River, in which fish over 250 grams can apparently no longer be caught due to previous over-fishing. Carp has been introduced from China and is generally bred in ponds in Lhasa (Zhang 1997). Concerns have been expressed by Tibetans, and more recently by China, about the sustainability of the catch and practises such as the use of explosives and electric fishing have recently been banned.


The Mekong has its sources in Amdo in a remote part of the Thangla Mountains. The Salween has its sources around the town of Nagchu in the northern part of the 'TAR'. The Salween travels east until it nears the eastern town of Chamdo where it starts to head south towards Khawakarpo Mountains to flow into the Tibetan town of Tseka, running nearly parallel with the Mekong. The two rivers continue this south, southeast direction into Yunnan Province and then separate their courses, the Gyalmo Ngulchu running into Burma to become the Salween and the Zachu later joined by Ngomchu entering Laos to become the Mekong.

The Mekong is currently the focus of a massive international development plan involving China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Despite the fact that 1,000 km of the river's 4,500 km total length runs through Central Tibet and Amdo, only the downstream Yunnan Province is represented at these negotiations. This ignores the role of the Tibetan Plateau in the hydrology of the river and enables China to have the Mekong River Commission overlook the developments it carries out on its upper reaches. In his paper on the Upper Mekong Gabriel Lafitte argues that the Mekong River Commission should pay heed to the Tibetan people's preference for conservation of the upper-reaches of the Mekong i.e. to convert the Tibetan Plateau as a Zone of Peace as expressed in His Holiness The Dalai Lama's Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet in 1987 (see Appendix 4).

A 34 metres high dam at Chalong in Nagchu Prefecture is the largest dam on the Salween in Tibet according to our information. The Chamdo-Jinhe Power Station on the Mekong was originally completed in the 1970s. The dam was recently upgraded as part of the "62 Aid Projects" with new equipment to increase efficiency and new power lines running to the Yulong Copper Mine. The next stage in the development of the Chamdo-Jinhe Power Station is to install a 60,000 kW generation set.

There is no available information on the size of this dam but the future installed capacity of 60,000 kW suggests it is large. In the Chinese propaganda magazine China's Tibet Vol.7 No.2, Li Mingsen reports that, "efforts are being made to construct more power plants for the formation of a power grid centred around the Mekong in the 21st century". There are no details of these plans as yet, but it is known from proposed mining activity in the area that the focus of this development will be mining, which has its own adverse impact for the Mekong.

Toxic Metals In Rivers

Mining poses a significant pollution threat to water bodies but the severity depends upon the degree of care taken to mitigate such impacts. The main problem is the threat posed by the careless disposal of tailings which contain heavy metals, ores and leaching agents. Waste materials from mining are often piled up outside the mine and can contain pyrite and sulphide minerals which, when exposed to the atmosphere and water, may produce sulphuric acid. Sulphuric acid in the tailings can leach out other heavy metals left behind in the process. These can pass into the water table or become washed into water bodies during storms.

In addition to sulphuric acid, these solutions may contain heavy metals such as silver, cadmium, cobalt, copper, mercury, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, lead, zinc, arsenic, antimony, and selenium. Some of these are highly toxic to humans and wildlife alike. Improper storage of mine tailings and ineffective containment of contaminated waters can lead to these pollutants entering water bodies and decimating life in rivers for hundreds of miles. Dilution depends on the quantity and quality of water supply and concentration of the pollutants (US EPA 1994).

China's record for implementing pollution control at mines, especially in Tibet, is lax and has led to severe pollution of water bodies. At the International Symposium on the 'Qinghai Tibet Plateau' [Tibetan Plateau] in Xining, 24 July 1998, two Chinese scientists from the Commission for Integrated Survey of Natural Resources reported of mining operations in Amdo:

There are few measures taken to prevent pollution, with the result that wastes pour into the rivers, endangering livestock, contaminating lakes downstream. Existing laws regulating mineral resource extraction are not implemented, so there is no planned exploitation leading to extensive rather than intensive mining. This kind of extraction is focused on the quick extraction of the most readily accessed and highly concentrated portion of the deposit, often rendering the rest uneconomic, even despoiled (Song and Yao 1998).

This is often the typical procedure at mines in Tibet, and it constitutes a serious waste of resources and an equally serious risk to the health of people and wildlife, both locally and downstream.

Clear-Cutting In Eastern Tibet

Forest erosion on the Tibetan Plateau has a history of at least 5,000 years (Winkler 1999). A thousand years ago, juniper forests existed in the Lhasa valley but they have largely disappeared due to natural and human factors (Miehe 1998). This would suggest that there would have been a steady increase in the silt load of Tibet's rivers, particularly the Yarlung Tsangpo, over this period. It is unclear how quickly the landscape may have changed during that period. However, the barren state of the upper reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo is a contributing factor to the river's extraordinarily high silt load.

The Chamdo area of Kham province, which includes significant portions of the Mekong and Salween watersheds, was once home to extensive cold-temperate forests, largely of juniper, pines and spruce. It is relevant to state that in the Chamdo area logging practises have been unsustainable and this may pose a threat to the hydrology of these vital Asian rivers.

Clear-cutting has been the norm in these areas and associated soil erosion correspondingly high. Countries downstream planning hydro-development on the Mekong or Salween should be aware of the threat of increasing siltation. Yellow River Watershed

The headwaters of the great Yellow River ‹ known as Machu to the Tibetans and Huanghe to the Chinese ‹ lies entirely within the Amdo region of Tibet. From Amdo the river flows into the arid North China Plain. Heavy utilisation is creating an emerging water shortage in North China and developments along the Yellow River may be to blame.

The Yellow River has run dry each year with the dry period becoming progressively longer; in 1996 it was dry for 133 days and in 1997, a year exacerbated by drought, it failed to reach the sea for 226 days and its 1998 annual dry period was 137 days (SEPA 1999; Brown 1998). The amount of water flowing down the Yellow River in Amdo at present is 23 per cent less than that in the 1970s, which is one of the main factors causing drying up of the river in its lower reaches (China Daily 1999a). For long stretches it did not even reach Shandong Province, the area growing one-fifth of China's corn and one-seventh of its wheat, depends on the Yellow River for half of its irrigation water (Brown 1998).

Unconstrained development in Amdo on the upper reaches of the Yellow River is exacerbating the situation in China as well as causing widespread environmental degradation in Amdo. The deteriorating environment and lack of rain are reported by Xinhua to have caused more than 1,000 lakes to dry up in a region of Amdo around the Yellow River's source (Xinhua, 7 April 1999). Amdo has experienced intensive industrialisation and population transfer since the Chinese invasion. A former pastoral heartland of Tibet, it has been transformed into a landscape of factories, dams, big cities, large mechanised farms, laogais (forced labour camps), mining operations and oil wells. Towns have sprung up in places where only nomads once camped, and the new population is predominantly Chinese.

While many areas retain the designation of "Tibet Autonomous County" the reality is that the burgeoning Chinese population dominate most counties and Tibetans have little or no say in "the development plans".

The focus of industrial development in Amdo (Ch.Qinghai) is on mineral extraction and processing. Amdo boasts China's biggest potash fertiliser plant, the biggest asbestos production base, and the second biggest lead and zinc mine.

The impact of this industrial development came to light in 1996 when authorities announced the desperate state of the Huangshi River valley, a tributary of the Yellow River. The area contains 60 per cent of Amdo's population, industrial and agricultural output on only 2.2 per cent of the province's total landmass. The report stated that:

hundreds of thousands of litres of polluted water have been poured into the river each day, untreated. Dozens of ferrosilicon, iron, steel, aluminium and silicon carbide plants are releasing thick smoke every day. Experts say 76 per cent of the 16,000 sq. km valley suffers soil erosion and water loss. An estimated 19 million tons of soil is washed into the river... (FBIS 27 March 1996).

This is an example of how industrial development in Tibet has been carried out in an uncontrolled and careless fashion resulting in severe environmental degradation. The rivers are choked with eroded soil and industrial pollutants. They are also being destroyed by massive dams and diversions.

In order to power the industrial drive in Amdo, an extensive network of major hydroelectric power stations has been built, some of which are amongst the largest in China. Vast areas of pastoral and agricultural land have been inundated by reservoirs. Nomads have been disenfranchised by the fragmentation of their rangelands. The main focus of this development in the coming years will be the "Upper Yellow River Cascade". This consists of 15 major dams which are projected to generate 13,462MW. Five of these were supposedly completed in 1992 and two more were under construction (Cheng 1994). It would appear that the two major dams discussed below are part of this scheme, as well as many of those under construction or planned (see table 3).

The two biggest projects operating on the Upper Machu (Yellow River) in Amdo ‹ and some of the abuses reported by Tibetans that have resulted from the construction and operation of these plants - are discussed here. The environmental impact of these dams is far-reaching. In general, these huge projects are turning the Machu into a series of semi-stagnant water bodies. The release of water into the river is largely dependent on the demand for electricity generation and follows no natural pattern. The river's ecosystem is breaking down, causing a sharp drop in biodiversity. Conflicting needs along the basin ‹ between electricity generation, irrigation and water supply for industrial and domestic use in cities ‹ are pushing the Yellow River to crisis point.

Tsanga Gag

Tsanga Gag or Tsanga Dam (Ch. Longyangxia) is located to the south of the Tso Ngonpo in Tsolho (Ch. Hainan) County between Chabcha (Ch. Gonghe) and Trika (Ch. Guide) on the Machu (Yellow River) and was completed in the late 1980s and stands a staggering 178 metres high. This makes it the largest dam in Tibet and the second biggest in China after Ertan in Sichuan, which will remain the biggest until the Three Gorges project is complete. Tsanga Gag reservoir can store the entire flow of the Machu for three whole months (Tsering 1998). This creates a reservoir covering a surface area of 393 sq. km (Wang 1984).

The powerhouse has an installed capacity of 1280 Megawatt producing 5.8 billion kWh annually. It took 30,000 Chinese workers to construct the dam which cost 1.769 billion yuan (US$221.12 million). Around 10,000 people who were displaced from prime agricultural land to make way for the reservoir were allocated land in formerly pastoral areas which they had to convert to farmland. They were supported by the government for two years after which they had to achieve self sufficiency (Tsering 1998). On top of this the dam brought over 100,000 Chinese workers to Amdo, many of whom stayed there, thereby increasing pressure on the dwindling natural resources (ICT 1992).

Tibetans have seen little benefit from this project as much of the power goes to military bases and cities dominated by Chinese inhabitants and state-owned industries.

The provision of power spawns development that has, in turn, consumed ever-increasing quantities of Tibetan land and resources, caused pollution and excluded Tibetans from the economy. The Longyang Gorge where the dam is located is 1,688 km from the source of the Yellow River. It is the first in a series of 15 dams to be located downstream of Longyang, between Longyang and Qingtong. Upstream from Longyang, which is all Tibetan territory, there are future plans for a chain of 12 more power stations between the source and Longyang. These are expected to be installed with a total of 6,330 Megawatt capacity (Bian 1987).

Ngogyai Gag

Ngogyai Gag or Ngogyai dam (Ch. Lijiaxia) went into full operation early in 1998 (International Water Power & Dam Construction, March 1998). The 165 metres high and 420 metres long dam wall holds back 1.65 billion cubic metres of water and is the third of the 15 plants planned as a cascade between Longyang and Qingtong. It is situated 109 km downstream from Tsanga Gag on the borders of Chentsa Tibetan Autonomous County and Hualong Hui Autonomous County in Amdo.

The reservoir inundated at least 430 hectares of land and involved the relocation of at least 4,012 people. To give an idea of the level of earthworks and construction at such large dams, Ngogyai Gag construction involved 4.5 million cubic metres of rock and earth excavation; 3.25 million cubic metres of concrete placement; 4.8 million cubic metres of earthworks; 144,000 metres of consolidation grouting; 47,000 metres of drilling for curtain grouting; and 10,000 tons of metal works (Huang 1996). More than 20,000 Chinese workers worked at the dam site and many settled permanently afterwards (Tsering 1998). Tsanga Gag and Ngogyai Gag are the largest dams currently operating in Amdo. According to Xinhua in 1992 there were 156 medium and small hydropower stations operating in Amdo with a combined annual output of 236 million kWh.

The damming of the Machu River and its tributaries in Amdo has uprooted tens of thousands of people from their homes and is expected to move thousands more. The loss of agricultural and pastoral land has uprooted Tibetan communities from their traditional economic base. The environmental impacts associated with the economic development accompanying these projects are far reaching. Mining and associated processing industries are the main benefactors of power from these dams as Amdo Province has become a major centre of the metallurgic industries. A lack of regulations has led to severe water and atmospheric pollution in the province while power has facilitated the expansion of major cities, consuming more and more land in a region that used to be occupied by nomads and their temporary camps.

In interviews with recently-exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala in July 1998, refugees from Amdo told of how water was released from dams in the region without warning, posing great dangers to people living downstream. People working in fields by the rivers are drowned in flash floods and houses and farm buildings are often washed away. Many claimed they have never received any compensation for these losses. One man spoke of how his family had to give up farming and become road labourers as their land was so often washed away by these sudden releases from dams that it became unusable.

The utilisation of the Machu River and its tributaries in Amdo appears to be taking place at a rate that implies maximum exploitation. There seems to be no consideration of sustainable development, no consideration of the wishes and aspirations of local people, and no consideration of the long-term survival of the river's ecosystem. Tibetans in Amdo express concern for the future viability of such development and equal consternation over the safety of people living around these projects who suffer frequent inundation from rising reservoirs and flash floods associated with dam releases.

The Upper Yangtze Watershed

The source of the Drichu (Yangtze River) lies deep within Amdo in the Thangla Mountains (Ch. Tanggula) and it runs through Tibet for more than 2,000 km of its 6,380 km length. It is the longest river in Tibet and the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and Nile (DIIR 1995). The catchment area of the Yangtze and the regions to its south contain 82 per cent of China's total volume of water flow, but only 36 per cent of its cultivated land (Chen and Edmonds 1989). While the river and its main tributaries, the Yalong Chu and Daduchu, rise from Amdo, the Yalong and Dadu lie east of the main channel and enter Kham (western Sichuan) before joining the Yangtze in the Chengdu Plain. In Sichuan and beyond the Yangtze is extensively dammed, as are some of its main tributaries such as the Dadu and Yalong. China's biggest dam in operation, the massive World Bank-funded Ertan Dam (240 metres) is located on the Yalongchu just before it meets the Yangtze.

The construction of the projects themselves incurs a large toll on the local environment, involving massive earthworks and road building. Further, it attracts migrant labourers, who become established in new towns with new transport links, and facilitate industrial development and settlement upstream. In Kham, where forests and wildlife are coming under increasing pressure, dam-building is the next step on the path to increasing environmental destruction. The establishment of a power source in one place attracts new settlements and new industries (such as resource-intensive paper and pulp mills), and upstream areas become the focus of further development.

Among the schemes to build many major dams on the Upper Yangtze and its tributaries there is also a plan to divert water from the upper reaches to supplement the ever-decreasing flows in the Yellow River. This plan envisages taking water from the main stream and the Yalong River from a point on the Tibetan Plateau (Zhang 1989).

Forest Loss and Water Loss

While the development of a network of hydropower projects in the Upper Drichu watershed is supposed to include flood protection facilities, this has been severely frustrated by massive deforestation which increases the impact of flooding greatly. In the summer of 1998, the Yangtze reached record flood levels, yet actual flows were not at a historical high. This was analysed as a sure sign that deforestation activities upstream were causing floods to be more severe, despite lower actual water quantities (see Forestry chapter).

Forested hillsides along the banks of major rivers provide various ecological functions which affect the river. Firstly, forests act as a kind of sponge, absorbing water and releasing it back into the atmosphere through the process of transpiration. Therefore, where there is no forest water will travel on or through the soil without being taken up by the roots of trees. This increases the overland flow of water into the river. Another function is soil protection. An area with no forest will lose a lot of soil during a storm from the kinetic action of the rain falling on the soil, which is then washed into the river. This soil will eventually settle to the riverbed, especially downstream in the flood plain where the river may become wider and slower.

If soil and silt content increases, the riverbed in these low-lying areas will rise as more and more soil settles to the bottom. This may have been the main reason less water caused greater flooding in the Yangtze in 1998. The riverbed is slowly being raised by decades of increasing soil loss into the river. Thus there is actually less room in the main river channel to absorb large flows. Zhuang Guotai, a member of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, told a Chinese newspaper that for every 70,000 hectares of forest lost, a natural reservoir that can store one million cubic metres of water is also lost (US Embassy in Beijing, August 1998). This gives a vivid insight into the potential flood protection provided by leaving forests intact.

Much of the deforestation in the Yangtze watershed has taken place in Tibetan areas, with little benefit to the local people as most of the wood is trucked out. Only recently are the Chinese authorities beginning to realise the true value of the Tibetan Plateau and its environs in relation to the ecological protection of much of China.

Flood Deaths

The worst Yangtze flood in China of August 1998 resulted in an economic loss of US$37.5 billion and the death of 3,656 people (DIIR 1999a). At a rally on 28 September 1998, held in Beijing by the Communist Party to declare "victory" over the disastrous summer floods, President Jiang Zemin admitted -- in a significant ideological departure -- that Communist governments had too often tried to impose their will on nature. It was important now, he said, "to understand the law of nature, correctly manage it and learn how to follow it to facilitate our economic development and other social undertakings" (Lawrence 1998).

The International Red Cross on 4 August 1999 said that more than 400 people have been killed and 66 million affected by disastrous summer flooding along the Yangtze river in August 1999 and an international appeal for emergency aid was launched (Inside China Today 1999b).

Amdo's Shrinking Lake

Tso Ngonpo (Blue Lake) as it is known to the Tibetans, more familiarly known by its Mongol name, Lake Kokonor, is the largest lake in Tibet. It has a size of 4,460 sq. km and is situated at an elevation of 3,197 metres above sea level (Chang 1987). It has in recent decades been intensively fished, mined for salts and the heavy utilisation of the rivers flowing into it may be causing a decline in the water level. In May 1998, World Journal reported that the level of the lake had dropped three metres. It is anticipated that within 30 years the sandy region of the lake will increase from 450 sq. km to 700 sq. km. This is expected to have a major impact on birds nesting in the area and on other wildlife (World Journal 14 May 1998).


Conservation of watersheds

Much of the development in Tibet described above reveals a pattern focusing mainly on natural resource extraction. Mining and deforestation are the most obvious examples of this; the utilisation of rivers for hydropower and irrigation is another facet of the same focus. The Upper Yellow River is primarily utilised for the generation of large quantities of power that either facilitates natural resource extraction in Amdo or is transmitted out to burgeoning Chinese cities. Major dams on the Upper Yangtze and its tributaries either transmit power east into China or provide power for logging, mining and other associated industries. On the banks of the Upper Mekong and Salween, power is generated for mining and for meat processing. In the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed, dams are mainly used for irrigation, although power is also generated in areas where mining activity or urbanisation is prominent.

Increasing utilisation of the Yarlung Tsangpo watershed poses many dangers for the sustainability of a fragile ecosystem. The Three Rivers Project, with its programme of agricultural intensification, threatens the Yarlung Tsangpo with pollution from fertilisers and fragmentation from multiple dams and diversions. The associated effects on the soils in the valley will also affect the river in the long run because as soil erosion and salinisation increases so does the salt and silt content of the river.

The primary solution for improving the sustainability of water resource utilisation in Tibet ‹ as well as preserving a unique and important watershed ecosystem ‹ is to bring about a fundamental change in the paradigm in which these resources are viewed. The current emphasis in Tibet is on resource extraction. This reduces the value of resources for their long-term ecological function ‹ a function that is similar to many upper riparian environments which provide stable downstream flows of freshwater and sediment.

This does not exclude development in the Tibetan Plateau per se. However, it does exclude development that is primarily focused on over exploitation through resource extraction and commercialisation of agricultural and pastoral production. More importantly, it also excludes development that is primarily planned by a central government operating thousand of kilometres away in Beijing.

Water Conservation

Given the acute shortage of water resources in many industrial regions of China, water conservation, especially upstream on the Tibetan Plateau is vital for the livelihood of millions of people downstream. Zhu Dengquan, Vice-minister of Water Resources of China said, "At current rates, a preliminary tackling of the country's soil and water conservation problem could take as much as 60 to 70 years" (China Daily 1999b).

In Tibet irrigation schemes should be planned in consultation and cooperation with local populations and should be scaled down to less ambitious production targets. Local seed varieties that are better adapted to the local environment with less demand for water and artificial fertilisers should be prioritised. Traditional water harvesting techniques should be studied and developed in cooperation with local users. These traditional techniques are often ignored by planners who prefer a top-down centralised know-all approach.

Traditional small-scale techniques of irrigation are bound to be more efficient as the systems are based on the participation of users in all aspects of planning. Conversely, the centralised approach relies on the knowledge of a few "expert" technicians alienating farmers from the process.

These techniques involve smaller-scale dams and diversions that do not interfere with the river's natural course and functions. Preference should be given to methods of rainwater catchment and storage and techniques aimed at minimising water consumption such as drip irrigation should be studied. Crops that are well adapted to local conditions should be planted. In Nepal, for example, indigenous irrigation still accounts for three-quarters of irrigated land. (McCully 1996). India has a long tradition of highly-efficient water management which is currently being rediscovered and promoted, due to the failure of many modern centralised techniques. Some of these good and effective practises could be studied and adapted for use in Tibet.

Renewable Energy

Tibet possesses great potential for the generation of power by micro-hydro (up to 100 kW per unit), solar and wind power. As discussed above, the maintenance of small hydro plants in Tibet has been lax and a high proportion have fallen into disrepair. These small power plants can provide villages with a reliable source of electricity with minimal impact on the environment so they should be encouraged rather than left to fall into disrepair.

Where micro-hydro is not feasible, solar and wind generation should be considered. A mixture of these techniques should be the focus, rather than relying on any single method, and needs should be calculated on a local scale so that an appropriate solution for each location can be found. The provision of solar powered equipment such as solar ovens and water heaters should be increased so that there is less need for burning wood or manure, which can be put to better use as fertiliser.

Due to its high altitude the Tibetan Plateau has one of the highest solar radiation values in the world at 140-190 Kilocalorie per sq. centimetres per year (Zhao 1992). In the Yarlung Tsangpo valley 70-80 per cent of precipitation occurs at night giving the area an extraordinarily high quantity of sunlight. Lhasa averages 3,400 hours of sunshine annually (Zhao 1992). This potential should be fully utilised before resorting to extensive damming of rivers to provide power.

Preventing Pollution

The threat of pollution is one problem that can be easily assessed and resolved, given the will and co-operation of the Chinese government. Control of tailings and wastes from mines could mitigate many of the impacts on watersheds; sewage treatment and control of wastes can also be improved. However, so far mining in Tibet has been carelessly regulated resulting in unnecessary waste production and inefficient use of resources (Lafitte 1998). Other influences on the hydrological regime of Tibet may be far more difficult to address as they require China to adjust short-term and long-term patterns of economic development.

The Chinese government should enforce existing laws and regulations to ensure the safe and efficient operation of mines. As an area that contains the headwaters of so many of Asia's major rivers, Tibet is the last place on earth where pollution regulations can be relaxed or ignored. Preferably there should be no large scale mining at all in an area in which the highest value should be placed on the ecological function of the upper riparian environment. Surveys should be carried out immediately to discover how much pollution has occurred and to prevent further occurrence.

About 70 per cent of China's wastewater is dumped into rivers with the Yangtze river receiving 41 per cent of the country's sewage. The figure is expected to rise in the future. Fifteen out of China's 27 major rivers are considered to be seriously polluted (Zhu,1990). China planned to increase its spending on controlling pollution from the current 0.8 percent of its GNP to more than one percent at the turn of the century or approximately US $ 17.5 billion (The World Resources Institute 1998).

In urban areas, sewage treatment should be developed immediately and industrial pollutants must not be dumped in rivers. Public education campaigns should focus on informing people how to avoid polluting rivers with household wastes and non-biodegradable garbage such as plastics.

Sustainable Development

Tibet, with its huge variety of natural resources and its unique high altitude situation, demands careful location-specific planning to utilise its resources sustainably. Over exploitation in a fragile mountain environment can lead to long-term ecological consequences.

The assumption that Tibet can be an endless resource for China's economic development should be abandoned. With the use of appropriate technologies, Tibet's resources can be developed in a way that draws upon traditional knowledge of the land and its potential.

International agencies, as well as countries situated downstream from Tibet, should consider targeting any aid to Tibet that encourages in sustainable development and public participation. Continued unsustainable resource-stripping -- and its associated deleterious effects on waterways -- is of grave concern to the billions of people dependent upon these valuable water resources for their livelihood and for the gift of life itself.


[Source: Used with permission from Environment and Development Desk. Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India.]

Back to Environment and Development Issues List


Home | What's New | Reports | Wildlife | Geography | Development | Zone of Peace | Dalai Lama | Publications | Announcements | Links | Site Map

Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)