The white paper is being seen as an acceptance of the environmental challenges that China faces in Tibet.


While development versus environment conservation has been a burning debate across the world, China’s development projects in Tibet, too, have been faulted for causing harm to nature. However, last week’s white paper published by China on Tibet’s ecological progress is being seen as an acceptance of the imposing environmental challenges that China faces in Tibet. “The Communist Party of China and the Chinese government have taken ecological conservation as a top priority, and regard protection of the plateau as a vital task for China’s survival and development,” said the white paper published by the State Council Information Office, titled “Ecological Progress on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.” This plateau is a key eco-safety barrier in China and South Asia. Located in southwest China, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, about 2.6 million square km in area, covers the entire Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province, in addition to parts of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Xinjiang.

Dhanasree Jairam, co-cordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, said, “In general, we have seen a downward graph of the health of our mountains, rivers and other natural resources, including in the Himalayan region. But the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, to the north of the Himalayan range, lies mostly in China’s territory; hence, China comes under harsher scrutiny since it is responsible for the health of the plateau, which feeds major rivers of South and Southeast Asia.”

The Indus, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Yangtze, Yellow, Salween, Brahmaputra, Karnali and Sutlej rise in Tibet. Tributaries of these rivers are estimated to support 47% of the world’s population. The rivers flow into several countries: China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Floods in Pakistan, China and Bangladesh have been attributed to the damming of rivers on the plateau.

Jayadeva Ranade, president, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, said, “China understands that the cost of mining, nuclear and various other projects in the plateau have affected its own people as well. This white paper is of strategic importance as, on the world stage, China has tried to pose as progressive in terms of environment policies. Recognising the need of initiatives to protect Tibet’s delicate ecological balance is part of that.”

Nonetheless, the white paper has been severely criticised by exiled Tibetan environmentalists. Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen, a research fellow at Tibetan Policy, Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, said, “This is not the first white paper issued by China on Tibet, but so far is the most detailed one addressing Tibet’s ecology. This proves that China knows that its projects have come at a great environmental cost. This cost cannot be neglected.” Among the major arguments made by environmentalists looking at Tibet is that China’s mega dams in the plateau have not only affected the soil, but that strategic use of these dams will have far reaching consequences in case of war. According to Tibetan environmentalists, China has failed to attribute responsibility for recent natural disasters in Tibet to the development projects in the region. Gyaltsen added, “There is no involvement of the Tibetan people. Most of the senior positions in government offices in Tibet are occupied by ethnic Chinese. There are hardly any Tibetans in key roles. Corruption is another big issue. The aid to preserve environment exists on paper decorated with big numbers. Tibetans do not have any say in the policy that affects them directly.” Hailed as the “roof of the world,” the “third pole” and the “water tower of Asia,” the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is a natural habitat for rare animals and a gene pool of plateau life.