Tue, Aug 28, 2018 - Page 9 News List

A global environmental threat made in China

From large-scale dam-building to unbridled resource exploitation, human activity is causing serious damage to Himalayan ecosystems

By Brahma Chellaney

Illustration: Yusha

Asia’s future is inextricably tied to the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range and the source of the water-stressed continent’s major river systems. Yet reckless national projects are straining the region’s fragile ecosystems, resulting in a mounting security threat that extends beyond Asia.

With elevations rising dramatically from less than 500m to more than 8,000m, the Himalayas are home to ecosystems ranging from high-altitude alluvial grasslands and subtropical broadleaf forests to conifer forests and alpine meadows. Stretching from Myanmar to the Hindu-Kush watershed of Central Asia, the Himalayas play a central role in driving Asia’s hydrological cycle and weather and climate patterns, including triggering the annual summer monsoons.

Its 18,000 high-altitude glaciers store massive amounts of freshwater and serve in winter as the world’s second-largest heat sink after Antarctica, thus helping to moderate the global climate. However, in summer, the Himalayas turn into a heat source that draws the monsoonal currents from the oceans into the Asian hinterland.

The Himalayas are now subject to accelerated glacial thaw, climatic instability and biodiversity loss. Five rivers originating on the Great Himalayan Massif — the Yangtze, the Indus, the Mekong, the Salween and the Ganges — rank among the world’s 10 most endangered rivers.

From large-scale dam construction to the unbridled exploitation of natural resources, human activity is clearly to blame for these potentially devastating changes to the Himalayan ecosystems. While all the countries in the region are culpable to some extent, none is doing as much harm as China.

Unconstrained by the kinds of grassroots activism seen in, for example, democratic India, China has used massive, but often opaque, construction projects to bend nature to its will and trumpet its rise as a great power. This includes a globally unmatched inter-river and inter-basin water-transfer infrastructure with the capacity to move more than 10 billion cubic meters through 16,000km of canals.

China’s re-engineering of natural river flows through damming — one-fifth of the country’s rivers have less water flowing through them each year than is diverted to reservoirs — has degraded riparian ecosystems and caused 350 large lakes to disappear.

With these water-diverting projects increasingly focused on international, rather than internal, rivers — in particular those in the Tibetan Plateau, which covers nearly three-quarters of the Himalayan glacier area — the environmental threat extends far beyond China’s borders.

Dams are just the beginning. The Tibetan Plateau is also the subject of Chinese geoengineering experiments, which aim to induce rain in its arid north and northwest. Rain in Tibet is concentrated in its Himalayan region and such activities threaten to suck moisture from the region, potentially affecting Asia’s monsoons. Ominously, such experiments are an extension of the Chinese military’s weather-modification program.

As if to substantiate the Chinese name for Tibet — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Land” — China is draining mineral resources from this ecologically fragile but resource-rich plateau, without regard for the consequences.

Copper mine tailings are polluting waters in a Himalayan region sacred to Tibetans, which they call Pemako (“Hidden Lotus Land”), where the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans), curves around the Himalayas before entering India.

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