The Big Melt On The “Roof Of The World”: Tibetan Plateau
The snowy peaks of the Himalaya—seen from 27,000 feet on Mount Everest’s northern face—are part of a vital freshwater cache that courses down to a vast populace. But warming temperatures and fast-melting ice could cause disaster downstream.
Glaciers in the high heart of Asia feed its greatest rivers, lifelines for two billion people. Now the ice and snow are diminishing.
The gods must be furious.
It’s the only explanation that makes sense to Jia Son, a Tibetan farmer surveying the catastrophe unfolding above his village in China’s mountainous Yunnan Province. “We’ve upset the natural order,” the devout, 52-year-old Buddhist says. “And now the gods are punishing us.”
On a warm summer afternoon, Jia Son has hiked a mile and a half up the gorge that Mingyong Glacier has carved into sacred Mount Kawagebo, looming 22,113 feet high in the clouds above. There’s no sign of ice, just a river roiling with silt-laden melt. For more than a century, ever since its tongue lapped at the edge of Mingyong village, the glacier has retreated like a dying serpent recoiling into its lair. Its pace has accelerated over the past decade, to more than a football field every year—a distinctly unglacial rate for an ancient ice mass.
“This all used to be ice ten years ago,” Jia Son says, as he scrambles across the scree and brush. He points out a yak trail etched into the slope some 200 feet above the valley bottom. “The glacier sometimes used to cover that trail, so we had to lead our animals over the ice to get to the upper meadows.”
Around a bend in the river, the glacier’s snout finally comes into view: It’s a deathly shade of black, permeated with pulverized rock and dirt. The water from this ice, once so pure it served in rituals as a symbol of Buddha himself, is now too loaded with sediment for the villagers to drink. For nearly a mile the glacier’s once smooth surface is ragged and cratered like the skin of a leper. There are glimpses of blue-green ice within the fissures, but the cracks themselves signal trouble. “The beast is sick and wasting away,” Jia Son says. “If our sacred glacier cannot survive, how can we?”
It is a question that echoes around the globe, but nowhere more urgently than across the vast swath of Asia that draws its water from the “roof of the world.” This geologic colossus—the highest and largest plateau on the planet, ringed by its tallest mountains—covers an area greater than western Europe, at an average altitude of more than two miles. With nearly 37,000 glaciers on the Chinese side alone, the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding arc of mountains contain the largest volume of ice outside the polar regions. This ice gives birth to Asia’s largest and most legendary rivers, from the Yangtze and the Yellow to the Mekong and the Ganges—rivers that over the course of history have nurtured civilizations, inspired religions, and sustained ecosystems. Today they are lifelines for some of Asia’s most densely settled areas, from the arid plains of Pakistan to the thirsty metropolises of northern China 3,000 miles away. All told, some two billion people in more than a dozen countries—nearly a third of the world’s population—depend on rivers fed by the snow and ice of the plateau region.
But a crisis is brewing on the roof of the world, and it rests on a curious paradox: For all its seeming might and immutability, this geologic expanse is more vulnerable to climate change than almost anywhere else on Earth. The Tibetan Plateau as a whole is heating up twice as fast as the global average of 1.3°F over the past century—and in some places even faster. These warming rates, unprecedented for at least two millennia, are merciless on the glaciers, whose rare confluence of high altitudes and low latitudes make them especially sensitive to shifts in climate.
For thousands of years the glaciers have formed what Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, calls “Asia’s freshwater bank account”—an immense storehouse whose buildup of new ice and snow (deposits) has historically offset its annual runoff (withdrawals). Glacial melt plays its most vital role before and after the rainy season, when it supplies a greater portion of the flow in every river from the Yangtze (which irrigates more than half of China’s rice) to the Ganges and the Indus (key to the agricultural heartlands of India and Pakistan).
But over the past half century, the balance has been lost, perhaps irrevocably. Of the 680 glaciers Chinese scientists monitor closely on the Tibetan Plateau, 95 percent are shedding more ice than they’re adding, with the heaviest losses on its southern and eastern edges. “These glaciers are not simply retreating,” Thompson says. “They’re losing mass from the surface down.” The ice cover in this portion of the plateau has shrunk more than 6 percent since the 1970s—and the damage is still greater in Tajikistan and northern India, with 35 percent and 20 percent declines respectively over the past five decades.
The rate of melting is not uniform, and a number of glaciers in the Karakoram Range on the western edge of the plateau are actually advancing. This anomaly may result from increases in snowfall in the higher latitude—and therefore colder—Karakorams, where snow and ice are less vulnerable to small temperature increases. The gaps in scientific knowledge are still great, and in the Tibetan Plateau they are deepened by the region’s remoteness and political sensitivity—as well as by the inherent complexities of climate science.
Though scientists argue about the rate and cause of glacial retreat, most don’t deny that it’s happening. And they believe the worst may be yet to come. The more dark areas that are exposed by melting, the more sunlight is absorbed than reflected, causing temperatures to rise faster. (Some climatologists believe this warming feedback loop could intensify the Asian monsoon, triggering more violent storms and flooding in places such as Bangladesh and Myanmar.) If current trends hold, Chinese scientists believe that 40 percent of the plateau’s glaciers could disappear by 2050. “Full-scale glacier shrinkage is inevitable,” says Yao Tandong, a glaciologist at China’s Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. “And it will lead to ecological catastrophe.”
The potential impacts extend far beyond the glaciers. On the Tibetan Plateau, especially its dry northern flank, people are already affected by a warmer climate. The grasslands and wetlands are deteriorating, and the permafrost that feeds them with spring and summer melt is retreating to higher elevations. Thousands of lakes have dried up. Desert now covers about one-sixth of the plateau, and in places sand dunes lap across the highlands like waves in a yellow sea. The herders who once thrived here are running out of options.
Along the plateau’s southern edge, by contrast, many communities are coping with too much water. In alpine villages like Mingyong, the glacial melt has swelled rivers, with welcome side effects: expanded croplands and longer growing seasons. But such benefits often hide deeper costs. In Mingyong, surging meltwater has carried away topsoil; elsewhere, excess runoff has been blamed for more frequent flooding and landslides. In the mountains from Pakistan to Bhutan, thousands of glacial lakes have formed, many potentially unstable. Among the more dangerous is Imja Tsho, at 16,400 feet on the trail to Nepal’s Island Peak. Fifty years ago the lake didn’t exist; today, swollen by melt, it is a mile long and 300 feet deep. If it ever burst through its loose wall of moraine, it would drown the Sherpa villages in the valley below.
This situation—too much water, too little water—captures, in miniature, the trajectory of the overall crisis. Even if melting glaciers provide an abundance of water in the short run, they portend a frightening endgame: the eventual depletion of Asia’s greatest rivers. Nobody can predict exactly when the glacier retreat will translate into a sharp drop in runoff. Whether it happens in 10, 30, or 50 years depends on local conditions, but the collateral damage across the region could be devastating. Along with acute water and electricity shortages, experts predict a plunge in food production, widespread migration in the face of ecological changes, even conflicts between Asian powers.
The nomads’ tent is a pinprick of white against a canvas of green and brown. There is no other sign of human existence on the 14,000-foot-high prairie that seems to extend to the end of the world. As a vehicle rattles toward the tent, two young men emerge, their long black hair horizontal in the wind. Ba O and his brother Tsering are part of an unbroken line of Tibetan nomads who for at least a thousand years have led their herds to summer grazing grounds near the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.
**Tourists snap memories against a dirty tongue of melting ice. Mingyong Glacier in Yunnan Province, said to be one of China’s fastest-shrinking glaciers, has receded a third of a mile over the past decade as temperatures have warmed. The glacier is blackened with debris, and the Mingyong’s meltwater is no longer drinkable.**
The Vanishing Mingyong Glacier located on Yunnan/Tibet/Myanma border
Worries About Water as Chinese Glacier Retreats
Inside the tent, Ba O’s wife tosses patties of dried yak dung onto the fire while her four-year-old son plays with a spool of sheep’s wool. The family matriarch, Lu Ji, churns yak milk into cheese, rocking back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm. Behind her are two weathered Tibetan chests topped with a small Buddhist shrine: a red prayer wheel, a couple of smudged Tibetan texts, and several yak butter candles whose flames are never allowed to go out. “This is the way we’ve always done things,” Ba O says. “And we don’t want that to change.”
But it may be too late. The grasslands are dying out, as decades of warming temperatures—exacerbated by overgrazing—turn prairie into desert. Watering holes are drying up, and now, instead of traveling a short distance to find summer grazing for their herds, Ba O and his family must trek more than 30 miles across the high plateau. Even there the grass is meager. “It used to grow so high you could lose a sheep in it,” Ba O says. “Now it doesn’t reach above their hooves.” The family’s herd has dwindled from 500 animals to 120. The next step seems inevitable: selling their remaining livestock and moving into a government resettlement camp.
Across Asia the response to climate-induced threats has mostly been slow and piecemeal, as if governments would prefer to leave it up to the industrialized countries that pumped the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the first place. There are exceptions. In Ladakh, a bone-dry region in northern India and Pakistan that relies entirely on melting ice and snow, a retired civil engineer named Chewang Norphel has built “artificial glaciers”—simple stone embankments that trap and freeze glacial melt in the fall for use in the early spring growing season. Nepal is developing a remote monitoring system to gauge when glacial lakes are in danger of bursting, as well as the technology to drain them. Even in places facing destructive monsoonal flooding, such as Bangladesh, “floating schools” in the delta enable kids to continue their education—on boats.
But nothing compares to the campaign in China, which has less water than Canada but 40 times more people. In the vast desert in the Xinjiang region, just north of the Tibetan Plateau, China aims to build 59 reservoirs to capture and save glacial runoff. Across Tibet, artillery batteries have been installed to launch rain-inducing silver iodide into the clouds. In Qinghai the government is blocking off degraded grasslands in hopes they can be nurtured back to health. In areas where grasslands have already turned to scrub desert, bales of wire fencing are rolled out over the last remnants of plant life to prevent them from blowing away.
Along the road near the town of Madoi are two rows of newly built houses. This is a resettlement village for Tibetan nomads, part of a massive and controversial program to relieve pressure on the grasslands near the sources of China’s three major rivers—the Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong—where nearly half of Qinghai Province’s 530,000 nomads have traditionally lived. Tens of thousands of nomads here have had to give up their way of life, and many more—including, perhaps, Ba O—may follow.
The subsidized housing is solid, and residents receive a small annual stipend. Even so, Jixi Lamu, a 33-year-old woman in a traditional embroidered dress, says her family is stuck in limbo, dependent on government handouts. “We’ve spent the $400 we had left from selling off our animals,” she says. “There was no future with our herds, but there’s no future here either.” Her husband is away looking for menial work. Inside the one-room house, her mother sits on the bed, fingering her prayer beads. A Buddhist shrine stands on the other side of the room, but the candles have burned out.
It is not yet noon in Delhi, just 180 miles south of the Himalayan glaciers. But in the narrow corridors of Nehru Camp, a slum in this city of 16 million, the blast furnace of the north Indian summer has already sent temperatures soaring past 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Chaya, the 25-year-old wife of a fortune-teller, has spent seven hours joining the mad scramble for water that, even today, defines life in this heaving metropolis—and offers a taste of what the depletion of Tibet’s water and ice portends.
Chaya’s day began long before sunrise, when she and her five children fanned out in the darkness, armed with plastic jugs of every size. After daybreak, the rumor of a tap with running water sent her stumbling in a panic through the slum’s narrow corridors. Now, with her containers still empty and the sun blazing overhead, she has returned home for a moment’s rest. Asked if she’s eaten anything today, she laughs: “We haven’t even had any tea yet.”
Suddenly cries erupt—a water truck has been spotted. Chaya leaps up and joins the human torrent in the street. A dozen boys swarm onto a blue tanker, jamming hoses in and siphoning the water out. Below, shouting women jostle for position with their containers. In six minutes the tanker is empty. Chaya arrived too late and must move on to chase the next rumor of water.
Delhi’s water demand already exceeds supply by more than 300 million gallons a day, a shortfall worsened by inequitable distribution and a leaky infrastructure that loses an estimated 40 percent of the water. More than two-thirds of the city’s water is pulled from the Yamuna and the Ganges, rivers fed by Himalayan ice. If that ice disappears, the future will almost certainly be worse. “We are facing an unsustainable situation,” says Diwan Singh, a Delhi environmental activist. “Soon—not in thirty years but in five to ten—there will be an exodus because of the lack of water.”
The tension already seethes. In the clogged alleyway around one of Nehru Camp’s last functioning taps, which run for one hour a day, a man punches a woman who cut in line, leaving a purple welt on her face. “We wake up every morning fighting over water,” says Kamal Bhate, a local astrologer watching the melee. This one dissolves into shouting and finger-pointing, but the brawls can be deadly. In a nearby slum a teenage boy was recently beaten to death for cutting in line.
As the rivers dwindle, the conflicts could spread. India, China, and Pakistan all face pressure to boost food production to keep up with their huge and growing populations. But climate change and diminishing water supplies could reduce cereal yields in South Asia by 5 percent within three decades. “We’re going to see rising tensions over shared water resources, including political disputes between farmers, between farmers and cities, and between human and ecological demands for water,” says Peter Gleick, a water expert and president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. “And I believe more of these tensions will lead to violence.”
The real challenge will be to prevent water conflicts from spilling across borders. There is already a growing sense of alarm in Central Asia over the prospect that poor but glacier-heavy nations (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) may one day restrict the flow of water to their parched but oil-rich neighbors (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan). In the future, peace between Pakistan and India may hinge as much on water as on nuclear weapons, for the two countries must share the glacier-dependent Indus.
The biggest question mark hangs over China, which controls the sources of the region’s major rivers. Its damming of the Mekong has sparked anger downstream in Indochina. If Beijing follows through on tentative plans to divert the Brahmaputra, it could provoke its rival, India, in the very region where the two countries fought a war in 1962.
For the people in Nehru Camp, geopolitical concerns are lost in the frenzied pursuit of water. In the afternoon, a tap outside the slum is suddenly turned on, and Chaya, smiling triumphantly, hauls back a full, ten-gallon jug on top of her head. The water is dirty and bitter, and there are no means to boil it. But now, at last, she can give her children their first meal of the day: a piece of bread and a few spoonfuls of lentil stew. “They should be studying, but we keep shooing them away to find water,” Chaya says. “We have no choice, because who knows if we’ll find enough water tomorrow.”
Fatalism may be a natural response to forces that seem beyond our control. But Jia Son, the Tibetan farmer watching Mingyong Glacier shrink, believes that every action counts—good or bad, large or small. Pausing on the mountain trail, he makes a guilty confession. The melting ice, he says, may be his fault.
When Jia Son first noticed the rising temperatures—an unfamiliar trickle of sweat down his back about a decade ago—he figured it was a gift from the gods. Winter soon lost some of its brutal sting. The glacier began releasing its water earlier in the summer, and for the first time in memory villagers had the luxury of two harvests a year.
Then came the Chinese tourists, a flood of city dwellers willing to pay locals to take them up to see the glacier. The Han tourists don’t always respect Buddhist traditions; in their gleeful hollers to provoke an icefall, they seem unaware of the calamity that has befallen the glacier. Still, they have turned a poor village into one of the region’s wealthiest. “Life is much easier now,” says Jia Son, whose simple farmhouse, like all in the village, has a television and government-subsidized satellite dish. “But maybe our greed has made Kawagebo angry.”
He is referring to the temperamental deity above his village. One of the holiest mountains in Tibetan Buddhism, Kawagebo has never been conquered, and locals believe its summit—and its glacier—should remain untouched. When a Sino-Japanese expedition tried to scale the peak in 1991, an avalanche near the top of the glacier killed all 17 climbers. Jia Son remains convinced the deaths were not an accident but an act of divine retribution. Could Mingyong’s retreat be another sign of Kawagebo’s displeasure?
Jia Son is taking no chances. Every year he embarks on a 15-day pilgrimage around Kawagebo to show his deepening Buddhist devotion. He no longer hunts animals or cuts down trees. As part of a government program, he has also given up a parcel of land to be reforested. His family still participates in the village’s tourism cooperative, but Jia Son makes a point of telling visitors about the glacier’s spiritual significance. “Nothing will get better,” he says, “until we get rid of our materialistic thinking.”
It’s a simple pledge, perhaps, one that hardly seems enough to save the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau—and stave off the water crisis that seems sure to follow. But here, in the shadow of one of the world’s fastest retreating glaciers, this lone farmer has begun, in his own small way, to restore the balance.
Glaciers In China And Tibet Fading Fast
Glaciers in China, as well as India and Nepal, are receding at an average rate of 10–15 metres per year. Yuzhu Peak, Kunlun Mountains, China.
ScienceDaily (Feb. 22, 2009) — Glaciers that serve as water sources to one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on earth are melting at an alarming rate, according to a recent report.
A three-year study, to be used by the China Geological Survey Institute, shows that glaciers in the Yangtze source area, central to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in south-western China, have receded 196 square kilometres over the past 40 years.
Glaciers at the headwaters of the Yangtze, China’s longest river, now cover 1,051 square kilometres compared to 1,247 square kilometres in 1971, a loss of nearly a billion cubic metres of water, while the tongue of the Yuzhu glacier, the highest in the Kunlun Mountains fell by 1,500 metres over the same period.
Melting glacier water will replenish rivers in the short term, but as the resource diminishes drought will dominate the river reaches in the long term. Several major rivers including the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus begin their journeys to the sea from the Tibetan Plateau Steppe, one of the largest land-based wilderness areas left in the world.
“Once destroyed it will be extremely difficult to restore the high-altitude ecosystems,” said Dr Li Lin, head of Conservation Strategies for WWF-China. “If industrialized and developing countries do not focus their efforts on cutting emissions, some of this land will be lost forever and local populations will be displaced.”
Glacier retreat has become a major environmental issue in Tibet, particularly in the Chang Tang region of northern Tibet. The glacier melting poses severe threats to local nomads’ livelihoods and the local economy.
The most common impact is that lakes are increasing due to glacier melting and some of the best pastures are submerged. Meanwhile small glaciers are disappearing due to the speed of glacier melting and drinking water has become a major issue.
“This problem should convince governments to adopt a ‘mountain-to-sea’ approach to manage their rivers, the so-called integrated river basin management, and to ratify the UN Water Convention as the only international agreement by which to manage transboundary rivers,” said Li Lifeng, Director of Freshwater, WWF International.
“It should also convince countries to make more effort to protect and sustainably use their high altitude wetlands in the river source areas that WWF has been working on.”
Melting Glaciers On The Tibetan Plateau
ScienceDaily (July 22, 2007) – “If I compare this land to what it used to be in the 1960s, it is difficult for me to recognize it,” recalls Qi Mei Duo Jie, a 71-year-old nomadic herder from Yanshiping in China’s central-western Qinghai Province. “Glaciers are melting, temperatures are rising and rainy seasons have become unpredictable.”
Yanshiping is the last town on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway before entering Tibet. At an altitude of 4700 metres, its landscape in summer is marked by shaggy yaks grazing in the green alpine pastures and the transparent blue waters of Buqu River — a tributary of the Yangtze. Winters are white and freezing, with temperatures reaching as low as -20°C.
It is no surprise that people welcome a warmer, more comfortable climate in this remote region. But there is another side to the changing climate story.
Pressure on the plateau
Nomadic groups of Tibetans have been moving around this area for time immemorial, following the natural rhythm of the seasons and availability of grassland to raise their livestock.
Qi Mei Duo Jie’s family has been raising yaks for at least three generations.
“This year has been very dry, and with less grassland it will take longer to properly feed and raise livestock,” he says. “This will mean a lower income for us.”
To compound the situation, warmer climate conditions are attracting more cattle and sheep farmers to this harsh but beautiful high-altitude area, putting additional pressure on the already fragile alpine landscape. This pressure is also starting to squeeze out local wildlife, such as Tibetan antelopes, that depend on the grasslands too. There have even been reports of brown bears wandering close to villages in search of food.
And if bears roaming around town aren’t enough to lose sleep over, the remote rural region is experiencing pollution from greenhouse gases that have been emitted from big cities as far away as Beijing and Shanghai.
These are some of the consequences of climate change on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
Monitoring the river
“It is only by reducing greenhouse gases across the country, as well as worldwide, that vulnerable ecosystems can be preserved and continue to function as a source of livelihood for people living here and downstream,” stresses Dr Li Lin, Head of Conservation Strategies at WWF China. “With global warming hitting hard, our efforts must be extended to find ways for this region to adapt to climate change.”
WWF, the global conservation organization, is embarking on a series of studies on how high-altitude wetlands in the Yangtze source area — including the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and parts of the Kunlun Mountains — can cope with changing climate conditions. Results of the studies will help WWF and its Chinese partners come up with practical solutions to protect vulnerable ecosystems from the adverse affects of climate change.
At the village of Tuotuohe — also along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and one of the first places to cross the Yangtze by bridge — a hydro-geological station monitors the river’s water levels. This year, despite an increase in precipitation, water depth has slightly decreased. One spring that used to supply drinking water has already dried up.
“The water level decrease is a direct result of rising temperatures,” explains Professor Li Shijie from Nanjing’s Institute of Geography and Limnology.
“With warmer weather, evaporation is happening at a rate faster than the melting of the glaciers that supplies water to the river. Overall, this means a less supply of water for local inhabitants.”
Some 150 kilometres to the east, in the permafrost area of Fenguoshan, average precipitation has been increasing only in certain months of the year, while the general trend points toward drier periods.
The evidence is found in the permafrost itself, the overlying ground surface layer which freezes in the winter and thaws in the summer.
“In the last 20 years, larger portions of frozen ground have melted during summer,” says Professor Li. “With less water and more sand on the ground, desertification is just one step away.”
“Warming temperatures will certainly continue, but weather events such as rain, snow and wind are becoming less predictable,” Professor Li adds.
Experts today agree on one trend: Glaciers, rivers, wetlands and lakes — all elements of the fragile high-altitude ecosystem — are being altered at a speed never seen before.
Professor Li has personally witnessed the retreat of Yuzhu glacier, the highest peak in the Eastern Kunlun Mountains.
“I was in Xidatan, near Yuzhu Peak, for the first time in the 1980s, and when I went back, ten years later, the tongue of the glacier had retreated by 50 metres,” he says. “Nowadays it is about 100m higher than it used to be.”
According to scientists, projected climate change over the next century will further increase the rate at which glaciers melt. In particular, glaciers in China, as well as Nepal and India, are receding at an average rate of 10-15 metres per year.
“Once destroyed, it will be extremely difficult to restore the high-altitude ecosystems,” adds WWF’s Dr Li Lin.
“If industrialized and developing countries will not focus their efforts on cutting emissions, some of this land will be lost forever and local populations will be displaced. What we need is commitment to continue and increase the efforts of reducing warming pollution so that the next generations will inherit a healthier environment.”
In early June, China released its first Climate Change National Action Plan. The plan is the first formal acknowledgement of China’s goal to reduce CO2 emissions through a cut of energy consumption by 20 per cent per unit of GDP by 2010.
For WWF, this clarification of the country’s basic stand on the issue is expected to play a positive role and stimulate an international agreement on greenhouse gases emission cuts in the future.
Information on the Tibetan Plateau Steepe
The Tibetan Plateau Steppe — one of the largest land-based wilderness areas left in the world — has the most pristine mountain grassland in Eurasia. Known as the “Roof of the World,” this ecoregion has an average elevation of 4500 metres (15,000 feet). From here, several major rivers (including the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus) begin their long journeys to the sea. Due to its size and its position near the tropics, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on Earth.
Information on the Yangtze River
The Yangtze River rises in the mountains of Qinghai Province on the Tibetan plateau and flows 6,300km to the East China Sea, opening at Shanghai. The Yangtze river basin accounts for 40% of China’s freshwater resources, more than 70% of the country’s rice production, 50% of its grain production, more than 70% of fishery production, and 40% of the China’s GDP.
Tibetan glaciers fast turning into deserts
By Christina Larson
Glaciers in Tibetan-Qinghai plateau that feed the great rivers of Asia are vanishing at a rapid pace under the effect of global warming and may completely disappear by 2100. Journalist Christina Larson talks to local populace and experts to gauge the gravity of the problem.
For Tenzin Dorje, the road home keeps getting longer. Each year the Tibetan shepherd must walk farther to find streams where his sheep can drink.
“I am an old man,” he says, clutching the neck of his cane. Sometimes he trudges six hours a day, twice his old route. He has contemplated learning to ride a motorbike like his grandson, but fears it might be too discomfiting for an 80-year-old man.
The problem is that streams in the province of western China where he lives are drying up, receding into the mountains.
As recent years have brought higher temperatures and altered how snowmelt trickles down from glaciers on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau, water is becoming scarce.
Tenzin lives in a small village nestled amid dramatic mountains peaks. Strings of Tibetan prayer flags flap against a still-brilliant blue sky. Yet this apparent purity and timelessness masks another reality: He is living on the frontier of climate change.
Tenzin’s village is on the slopes of the rugged Qilian mountains in western Gansu province. Glaciers on the mountains are the primary source of water for humans, farms, and industry in his village of Baijiaowan and for others north and south of the range.
The streams distinguish the landscape, including a string of oasis towns along the Old Silk Road, from the abutting Gobi Desert. Today, the desert is expanding.
“The climate is changing,” says Zhang Mingquan, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Lanzhou University, in the provincial capital. “Snow is the source of the stream water, and now the stream water is less than before.”
Recent years have seen higher temperatures and less precipitation. As a result, mountaintop ice is receding.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that the glacial area on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau, the world’s largest ice sheets outside the poles, is shrinking about 7% each year.
It might seem that melting glaciers would bring more water in the short term. But that isn’t necessarily the case, says Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute in Washington.
“Glaciers and snow on mountains serve as a storage mechanism for water, holding it for later,” he says. “The area of the glaciers is an indication for how well that system is working.” Think of glaciers as a bowl, and snowfall as rice – a shrinking bowl holds less rice. Receding glaciers capture less annual snowfall.
“Without the glaciers, snow and rainfall tend to seep into the soil – usually mountain soil is quite porous – and then it later evaporates,” says Dr. MacCracken.
In nearby Minqing county, instead of walking farther for water, farmers dig deeper. Fifty years ago, wells tapped groundwater at 50 feet. Now they must drill 100 feet or more. With less snowmelt, groundwater is not fully replenished.
Glaciers stretching across the towering Tibetan-Qinghai plateau sustain all the great rivers of Asia – the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China; the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra in India; the Mekong and Salween in Southeast Asia.
“With climate change, all these rivers will have greatly reduced flows,” says Carter Brandon, director of the World Bank’s China environment programme in Beijing. “There will also be much more seasonal variation – when flow is more dependent on rainfall, as opposed to the steady inflow of snowmelt from glaciers.”
The glacier system delivers water to more than 300 million people in China – and 1 billion across South Asia.
The region is among the globe’s most rapidly warming. Average annual temperatures on the “rooftop of the world” have climbed 2 degrees F. in two decades.
Chinese scientists expect the total area of the glaciers to halve every 10 years. By 2100, they predict, the glaciers may have largely vanished.
Those hit first and hardest by climate change, like Tenzin Dorje, tend to live in poor communities on the margins, on mountaintops or by the sea. Typically they have contributed little to global carbon emissions.
There is now a new push to address their concerns. In 2007, the Rockefeller Foundation established a five-year, $70 million “climate-change resilience initiative” to assist developing countries. In December 2007, during climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, United Nations negotiators drafted a framework for a new “adaptation fund” to aid poor countries and communities.
The critical issue of what practical measures can be taken remains. A team of scientists in Switzerland has begun to research the possibility of shielding glaciers from rising summer temperatures with blankets of insulating foam. But such investigations are only preliminary.
Other research on addressing global water shortages includes promising (if costly) ways to desalinize seawater and recycle wastewater. But such approaches will work better in coastal areas and cities, not landlocked villages like this.
Research into solutions is attracting more attention from scientists and policymakers today. “Now we’re beginning to focus more seriously on these issues,” says MacCracken, the climate scientist.
“I used to think adaptation subtracted from our efforts on prevention,” former vice president Al Gore recently told The Economist magazine. “But I’ve changed my mind. Poor countries are vulnerable and need our help.”
But who will foot the bill? According to the UN, by 2015 approximately $86 billion annually will be needed for adaptation efforts.
The small home of Zahxi Rangou is perched on a mountainside overlooking a snowy valley and a white pagoda temple. He is one of 15 lamas residing on the grounds of the Tibetan Midi Temple, tucked in the Qilian mountains in Gansu province. The young monk has two rooms: One is warmed by a stove for visitors. One is cold and full of books and a computer.
Here he spends his days in prayer and study. He has Internet access, and is well-read on climate science.
“The glacier is depleting,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s melting in the summer. And the weather is getting drier.” His knowledge is power, but there are limits on how he can use that power.
Tibetans, an ethnic minority in China, are closely watched by the government. It is difficult for leaders of his community to organise around environmental or other issues in China.
He says he doesn’t use e-mail, because it can so easily be monitored. Many Internet news sites are blocked.
At nearby Zhuanlong Temple, no one answers a knock at the door. The lama there has left on a special mission this winter: He will spend two weeks praying at the source of each stream for its bountiful return.
The article had first appeared in Christian Science Monitor.
Christina Larson is a journalist focusing on international environmental issues. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Christian Science Monitor, China Environment Series, and The Washington Monthly, where she is a contributing editor.
Source : People and Planet
Drought plagues southwest China
Huang-He or the Yellow River map
Topographical map of China
Gobi desert in China’s northwestern region is swallowing farmland southward. Minqin county area is in the circle.
Satellite view of the Yellow river’s middle basin with Minqin County area circled. To the east of it is the Tengger desert and to the north-west is the Badain Juran desert. The Yellow river flows at the south of it. The large lake to the south of the mountains is Lake Qinghai (formerly known as Lake Kokonor)
In north-west China, desert sands are swallowing up farmland and towns. Mingqin is a shrinking oasis area that government advisers privately describe as an “ecological disaster area”, and yet eco-refugees have been resettled here because their home environments became no longer fit for habitation. Villagers must battle the encroaching desert that is destroying their homes and their crops
Boats rest on the bottom of a dried reservoir in Minqin County. The area is suffering from the most serious drought as most parts of China have seen continuous rainfalls recently. The oasis will shrink and eventually disappear if the drought continues
An abandoned house facing the approaching desert in Minqin. All 364 villagers moved out of the village after the desert expanded into nearby farm fields. The 87,000 hectares of forest planted in the past 10 years, an effort to curb the desert expansion, withered and died in vast stretches due to a reduction of the groundwater level and water supply difficulties in Minqin. Only a little more than 20,000 hectares survived
A Chinese farmer walks amid a heavy sand storm in Minqin County, north-west of China’s Gansu province. A cold front is forecast to hit China in the next three days, bringing a chill to the north and strong rains to the south, according to the China Meteorological Administration (CMA)
Plumes of dust sweep across the Tengger desert in north-central China. Hemmed by the Qilian mountains in the south and the Yellow river in the east, the desert forms the southern border of Inner Mongolia. Though not visible, the Great Wall of China runs through this image between the Tengger and the mountains in the south. The large lake to the south of the mountains is Lake Qinghai (Lake Kokonor, Amdo province of the old Tibet)
Water shortages in Minqin Oasis in Gansu Province, northern China
Isolated from the Minqin Oasis, a tree dies in the Tengger desert
Villagers plant sacsaoul trees in Minqin County, north-west China’s Gansu province
Villagers water sacsaoul trees in Minqin County, north-west China’s Gansu Province. The county fenced about 8,667 hectares of sand land and artificially afforested other 4,500 hectares in 2008. The county planned to artificially reafforest some 5,400 hectares of sand land this year
Farmers plant crops on the edge of the desert
Huang Cuikun at the bottom of a dried-up river that once ran past his old home
New homes built by the government for the eco-refugees
A sand dune in the Tengger desert, a short walk from Huang’s home
Map of the drought-affected regions:
Gansu = Cam tuc
Shaanxi = Thiem Tay
Shanxi = Son Tay
Hebei = Ha Bac
Henan = Ha Nam
Shandong = Son Dong
Anhui = An Huy
Beijing = Bac Kinh
China faces worst drought in 50 years; wheat crops suffer
China has declared a drought emergency and plans to provide nearly $13 billion in relief money, primarily to aid suffering wheat-growing regions outside Beijing in northern China.
More than 4 million people face water shortages in the worst drought in 50 years.
China has begun diverting water from major rivers and used artificial rainmaking to try to stem the effects of the drought, which poses a threat to rural farmers and their crops.
“Mark’s China Blog” writes that China is drying up:
The other day, a few of my friends and I were trying to remember the last time it rained in Xi’an. We couldn’t. We figured it had to have been in November or October. […]Just from living in Xi’an though, I can tell you that it hasn’t been raining at all.
Living in a large city, this isn’t that big of a deal. It is surely a bigger deal for farmers living out in the countryside who depend upon falling rain for survival.
This drying of China is nothing new. Northern and Northwest China are currently being crushed by a massive wave of desertification. The Gobi and Taklamakan deserts in China’s Northwest frontier are spreading to other parts of the country very quickly.
North China’s desertification, droughts, and, general, drying out is a very serious problem. Combining these phenomena with the melting glaciers in the Himalayas and their falling water tables and it’s hard to see where China is going to get its water in the future.
Although local government tried very hard to fight against the drought, if the weather continues like this, it will affect the summer harvest. With the financial crisis, we can imagine how hard the life of rural peasants will become. In the past years, the weather has been good, and the peasants can be self-sufficient in food supply. Extra labors can earn cash income to improve life. Now that the rain stops, their lives will be much harder. I am the son of a farmer, and I have two years farmer experience. I know how hard a farmer life is. Among all the occupation, farmer is the hardest.
Blogger “Bezdomny” argues that Beijing’s wasteful water use comes at the expense of rural areas:
When I lived in Taiyuan, I had mains water supply only three times a day. The rest of the time my water came from a tank on the roof — but not for the washing machine, that was mains-only, which meant I had to be really organised about doing laundry. And my in laws in a village in Beijing’s Yanqing county get their water from a tap in the courtyard. And their mains supply is frequently cut off — especially, but by no means exclusively, over winter nights. Therefore (and because Yanqing is Beijing’s coldest county) they store water in a large vat in the kitchen. Isn’t it about time city Beijingers were made to understand the Damoclean sword that is the severe scarcity of water this city faces? Especially in a time of severe drought?
[…]Let me just state yet again that one of my biggest worries about Beijing’s future is water. And I think far too little emphasis is placed on rural China (especially in expat circles). And therefore this drought really worries me.
Blogger “Ying Jia” writes about China’s water usage in relation to its growth:
The wasteful ways of the nation also bear an enormous responsibility. China’s agricultural sector uses 66 percent of China’s total water consumption, mostly for irrigation purposes, but about half of the water is wasted due to leaky pipes. The World Resources Institute found that Chinese industries generally use 10-20 percent more water than their counterparts in developed countries to spur growth. This inefficiency has long term dire consequences for severe water shortages. As the quality of life has improved since China’s reform and opening, rapid urbanization has led to larger consumption of water, where city dwellers take lengthy showers, use washing machines and dishwashers and purchase homes with lawns that need to be watered. This is the very cost of China’s economic boom.
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China: Drought may force power station to halt operation
TIAN’E, Guangxi – The worsening drought in southwest China could force the Longtan hydropower station, the country’s second largest in operation, to halt power generation in another month, a company official said Tuesday.
The water level in the upper reservoir had been falling by 20 cm per day, said Chen Deqing, deputy chief of the hydropower station.
Chen said should the water level keep falling at the current speed, the power station would have to halt generation in about a month.
The plant generated 30 percent less electricity in 2009 than in normal years and 59 percent less in the first quarter of 2010 than in the same period last year.
Last year, it generated 13 billion kWh of electricity, which was mainly supplied to Guangxi and neighboring Guangdong province.
The worst drought in a century has affected 61.3 million people and 5 million hectares of crops in Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Guangxi, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said last week.
Desertification is greatest threat to planet, expert warns
“The top 20cm of soil is all that stands between us and extinction,” he told the Guardian.