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  Geotimes - August 2007 - Geologic Column

The “Roof of the World” is Leaking
Fred Schwab

Thanks to an adventuresome son teaching English for two years in south-central China, my wife and I spent a week in April in “Shangri-La,” which translates to the “Land of Snows,” or more commonly “modern” Tibet. Present-day Tibet consists of roughly half of the original country, carved out of historic Tibet between 1950 and 1970 by China. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and de facto head of the country, and tens of thousands of his subjects were driven into exile during the gradual Chinese annexation of Tibet. The remainder, the Tibet Autonomous Region, is firmly controlled by the Chinese government and they do with it as they see fit.

We traveled for a week in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, accompanied by a Tibetan driver and a Tibetan guide fluent in English. We spent much time in and within 100 kilometers of Tibet’s largest city, Lhasa (population approaching 500,000), but also took an eye-opening two-day excursion into the backcountry. A lot stands out: Tibet is big (13 percent of China’s area, twice the size of France, a little larger than Texas and California combined); barren (only 2.79 million Tibetans with perhaps another 1 million Chinese); arid (mean annual precipitation is 45 centimeters); and topographically high (mean elevation 4,000 meters with one-third less oxygen). I spent lots of time searching for air! Finally, Tibet’s history, culture and way of life are interwoven with Buddhism, which stresses peaceful acceptance of life’s difficulties.

Following our visit, we returned to “Interior” China and spoke to classes at our son’s university about our Tibet experiences and the changes taking place. I emphasized environmental issues, especially after seeing the shocked reaction of Chinese students to my wife’s Tibetan photos. The crisp, clear, windswept, pollution-free blue skies of Tibet bowled them over. Blue, smog-free skies are the rule thanks to elevation and the scarcity of coal-fired plants sited directly on the Tibetan Plateau. Smoggy skies are omnipresent elsewhere in China because almost 80 percent of the electrical power is derived from burning coal. Tibet is unusually rich in renewable energy, especially hydroelectric power, possessing a third of China’s total, with a much larger potential capacity. Tibet could be self-sufficient in electrical power generation. Plenty of geothermal energy sites (more than 600) have been identified. The Yangpachen Geothermal Plant provides much of Lhasa’s power. And only the Sahara Desert receives more hours of sun and stronger sunlight than Tibet. Improvised solar panels are set up everywhere. Some are focused on solitary teapots hanging in front of thousand-year-old Buddhist Temples. The Chinese search for living space and their eagerness to continue economic growth even faster than their population growth herald even bigger changes for Tibet. The 1.3 billion Chinese next door are unfortunately the proverbial 1,000-pound gorilla sitting when and wherever he wishes.

Tibet’s future is shaped by the fundamental conflict between the worldview of Tibetan Buddhism and China’s drive to modernize. Robed Buddhist monks can be spotted text-messaging one another, and the latest pirated DVDs are sold everywhere, but Tibet nevertheless remains immersed in Buddhism. They believe that the natural world and human beings are interconnected. Sustainable living in harmony with the environment is treasured. Life is about suffering because desires for both corporal satisfaction and personal fulfillment are unfulfilled. Only by overcoming such desires is happiness found. Conversely, the Chinese believe Tibet is part of their entitlement. Its natural resources, particularly large reserves of chromite, copper and gold, exist to be exploited. They believe that tourism income will wean the Tibetans from government subsidies and that industrial development is promoted by improved infrastructure, such as the new rail line from China (see Geotimes, February 2007) and increasing urbanization.

If China’s recent history of environmental stewardship is any guide, the future of Tibet is as hazy as Beijing’s sky. China’s push to develop Tibet may irreparably damage it. For example, the government’s move to increase the number of tourists to 10 million annually by 2020 (compared with 1.2 million in 2004) ignores the likely stress on resources and waste management. Similarly, a governmental campaign that cleared forested regions for resettlement in portions of Tibet now incorporated into Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, required no restocking, leading to increased flooding and erosion. China’s desire to wean Tibet from the coal-fired electrical grid by further developing Tibet’s hydroelectric potential may temporarily decrease the emission of coal dust and greenhouse gases, but could also drain the turquoise blue natural reservoirs that Buddhists regard as holy. Finally, China considers the Tibetan Plateau as the most likely site in which to deploy nuclear weapons and store nuclear power plant waste. I have to wonder how a country can argue that environmental degradation is a critical issue, yet maintain a Federal Environmental Protection Agency staffed by only 300 workers (compared with 6,000 in the United States).

Tibet’s strategic position exacerbates these problems. Roughly 87 percent of Asia’s population derives its water from rivers flowing off the Tibetan Plateau, which is also considered the barometer of world climate conditions. Tibet’s more than 45,000 glaciers are rapidly melting. Half may disappear by the next century. Ice cover has shrunk almost 10 percent in the past four decades and the plateau temperature has risen more than a degree.

The “Roof of the World” is leaking. Who will patch it?

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:

"Rolling Across the Roof of the World," Geotimes, February 2007

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