Melting ice fields pose serious threat to water supply in Asia


There are fears that in 25 years, 80 per cent of local glaciers will vanish as warming bites, writes  CLIFFORD COONANin Tibet

LOCAL PEOPLE selling trinkets and prayer flags at the Karola Pass in Tibet are looking nervously at the glacier behind, which has melted halfway up the mountain because of global warming. The ice fields at the roof of the world are shrinking.

“It keeps getting smaller,” said one man, dressed in traditional Tibetan garb, anxiously eyeing the spectacular natural phenomenon that is his livelihood.

Meanwhile, in the Tibetan provincial capital, Lhasa, the Lalu wetland reserve, known as the “lung of Lhasa”, is also shrinking because of global warming and pressure from developers. It generates oxygen for a city starved of air because of its height.

Lalu is the largest and highest natural wetland in the world, covering 12.2sq kms (4.7sq miles), and the Chinese Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has introduced a 15.5 billion yuan (€1.82 billion) plan to help protect it from destruction.

“Tibet is on the Qinghai plateau and the ecological environment is very vulnerable,” said Gyanpel, director general of the Tibetan Environmental Protection Department.

The temperature in Tibet has risen by up to one-third of a degree every 10 years between 1961 and 2008, which is well ahead of the rest of the world, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the Karola glacier. Ice on the Qinghai plateau is retreating at the rate of seven per cent every year. There are fears that in 25 years, 80 per cent of the glacial area in Tibet and surrounding areas could be gone.

It’s bad news for the local herdsmen who rely on the water from the glaciers for themselves and their yaks and goats, but it’s also bad news for water supplies in the rest of China, India and southeast Asia.

The mighty Yangtze and Yellow rivers, as well as the Mekong and the Ganges, are in danger of running out of water, threatening the livelihood of millions in India, China, Pakistan and other parts of Asia.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau covers 2.5 million sq kilometres – around a quarter of China’s land area – at an average altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level.

Himalayan glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet highland store more ice than anywhere on Earth except for the polar regions and Alaska. But because of global warming, all across the plateau, glacial and snow run-off is evaporating, leaving dwindling rivers dangerously clogged with silt. Northern India relies on glacial run-off for much of its fresh water.

Chinese scientists believe the Rongbuk glaciers have retreated by up to 230 metres in the past three decades. These glaciers account for 47 per cent of the total glacier coverage in China.

It’s not all grim. Gyanpel said efforts to rescue the Lalu wetland had been successful.

“The wetland plays a crucial role in producing oxygen and purifying the air. We call it the city’s lung, and have given it the nickname ‘the air purifier’. Lalu is part of Lhasa and we’ve done a lot to preserve it, both at provincial and national level,” said Gyanpel.

This includes an investment of 150 million yuan to preserve the wetland, and the Tibetan Environmental Protection Department has restored some parts of the area, and implemented measures to stop landslides. The Lalu wetland has shrunk by some 70 per cent, but the EPA was able to restore 90 per cent of the area lost.

There are 43 species of wild animal living on the reserve, including the black-necked crane and the vulture, as well as 30 aquatic and 101 insect species.

“It’s by no means easy to protect such a large area. The price of land is very high in Lhasa. That we don’t develop the area shows how much we value the environment in Lhasa,” he said.

“In Lhasa we have very high restrictions on polluting enterprises. For example, we moved a big cement factory outside the city. Beside these Lalu wetlands, there are 20 such areas in counties around Lhasa. The central government has set aside 15.5 billion yuan to develop a national environmental security barrier for Tibet,” Gyanpel added.

The aim is to minimise the impact of industrial development and to avoid polluting industries.

“Tibet is rich is minerals and natural resources. There will be appropriate extraction of natural resources without impacting on the environment.

“All projects must follow the principle of protecting the environment first. If there is serious damage to the environment during the extraction, we will stop it, even if it’s gold or other precious metals,” he said.