China’s actions threaten the fragile Himalayan ecosystems, India must speak up before it’s too late
From its rush to mine gold in a border area captured from India to its frenzied dam-building on rivers flowing to other countries, China has gone into overdrive to appropriate natural resources in Tibet, rich in both water and minerals. The Chinese name for Tibet since the ethnic-Manchu Qing Dynasty — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Land” — explains why China’s major water and mining projects are now concentrated on that plateau. Having depleted its own natural resources through an improvident style of economic growth, China is avariciously draining resources from the Tibetan Plateau.
Tibet is a treasure-trove of minerals, including precious metals and rare earths. It is the world’s top lithium producer and has China’s biggest reserves of 10 different metals.
Commercially available satellite pictures show China is engaged in major mining activity right along the militarised frontier with Arunachal Pradesh in an area that fell into Chinese control on August 25-26, 1959, after People’s Liberation Army troops overran the Assam Rifles outpost at Longju in Lhunze. Located along the McMahon Line, the outpost was part of India’s Subansiri Frontier Division. The attack, in which two Indian soldiers were killed, prompted an exchange of letters between Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Today, China’s Lhunze “gold rush” is part of its wider efforts in the Himalayas to extract precious metals, rare earths and other resources. For example, after geological surveys identified rich copper deposits, copper mines have come up in the region where the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn to enter India. Copper mine tailings are beginning to pollute local waters in this sacred region, which personifies Tibet’s protecting deity, Goddess Dorjee Pagmo (Vajravarahi in Sanskrit), and is known to Tibetans as Pemako (“Hidden Lotus Land”).
In its drive to corner resources, China is unmindful of the environmental desecration of sacred landscapes or the transboundary impacts of its opaquely pursued projects. The cross-border effects of its environment-polluting activities in Tibet were exemplified last autumn when the Siang — the Brahmaputra’s main artery — suddenly turned blackish grey as it entered India.
By building giant dams in cascades near its borders, China has reengineered transboundary flows of international rivers originating on the Tibetan Plateau, such as the Mekong. But now it is also seeking to reengineer the weather in Tibet so as to induce greater rain in the plateau’s arid regions. Most rain in Tibet is concentrated in its water-rich southern and southeastern belts along the international frontiers; the rest of the plateau is dry. According to a Hong Kong newspaper, China’s geoengineering experiments in Tibet are an extension of its military program to “trigger natural disasters such as floods, droughts and tornadoes to weaken” an enemy in the event of a war.
Such geoengineering opens a new interventionist frontier with unpredictable, trans-Himalayan implications. Given the climate system’s global interconnections, experiments in Tibet to bring more rain could help suck in moisture from other regions. That would potentially affect monsoons in India and elsewhere in Asia.
Tibet, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, is unique: It has the rarest medicinal plants, the highest-living primates on Earth, and scores of bird, mammal, amphibian, reptile, fish and plant species not found anywhere else. Through the centuries, the nature-friendly Tibetan way of life helped preserve the plateau’s pristine environment.
But, under Chinese rule, Tibet’s demographic transformation, coupled with reckless exploitation of its mineral and water resources, has brought the fragile Himalayan ecosystems under increasing threat. Scientific studies, including by Chinese scholars, point to high rates of loss of genetic variability and extinction of species. Tibet is called the “Third Pole” because it has the largest perennial ice mass on the planet after the Arctic and Antarctica. But today, human-made environmental changes have resulted in Tibet warming at almost three times the global average. This holds major long-term implications for the triple role Tibet plays as Asia’s main freshwater repository, largest water supplier and principal rainmaker.
International pressure needs to be mounted on Beijing to refrain from activities that are contributing, as one study points out, to a sharp “decline of Tibet’s natural resources” and “environmental impairment”. Asia’s ecological interests cannot be safeguarded unless China is forced to change course, including by respecting international environmental standards.
No country is more affected by China’s assault on the Himalayan ecosystems than India. Yet India’s silence is conspicuous. India, perennially mired in petty domestic politics, must speak up on China’s environmental onslaught before it is too late.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist
The views expressed are personal