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An official on the roof of the world

Global warming worsens the environmental changes that threaten the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau. Li Taige asked a local government official how he plans to cope with unprecedented challenges.

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How does a Tibetan government official view the challenges of climate change? Last September I found out when I toured Tibet with several colleagues.

Three hundred kilometres from Lhasa, on the northern Tibetan plateau, lies the prefecture of Nagqu. It was our first port of call, since the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development in Agriculture runs a climate research project here.

Lin Erda, the project head and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Population, Resources and Environment Committee, put us in touch with Gyaltsen Wangdrak, deputy chief of Nagqu prefecture. Lin had met Wangdrak at a grasslands protection conference in 2003, and had been impressed by his report on environmental issues facing the northern Tibetan plateau.

The northern Tibetan plateau is 4,500 metres above sea level on average. The Yangtze River, the Nu River and the Lancang River all rise here, and the area accounts for almost one-tenth of China’s grasslands. However, the grasslands have suffered major degradation in recent years.

Lin decided to work with Wangdrak and use satellite data to monitor the extent of the damage to the Nagqu grasslands. This data allowed them to draw up ecological functional zones for the area. They divided it into protection zones, areas in need of improvement, zones needing control and development zones. It was the first such proposal in Tibet, but could it actually be implemented? According to Wangdrak, the proposal was distributed to every local government official in his prefecture and it has become the “theoretical basis of planning for land use, environmental protection and construction.”

But the cooperation between Nagqu and CAAS did not always run smoothly: the researchers initially ran tests of the grassland’s livestock carrying capacity under different climate and ecological conditions. Wangdrak explained that this would allow predictions of carrying capacity to be provided to herders “just like weather forecasts”. But after the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the prefecture decided to use that land to build a large distribution center. “For me it was like a television reporter losing his camera,” he says.

The tests were relocated to Amdo county, which is 5,000 metres above sea level and not far from the Tanggula Pass. Here they became part of a national science and technology project on adaptation to climate change in the northern Tibetan “ecological buffer zone.”

As we headed north along the Qinghai-Tibet highway to Anduo, we saw bare patches of soil on both sides of the road. Wangdrak explained these were evidence of the grasslands’ deterioration. Herding is an important part of Nagqu’s economy, but climate change, over-grazing and pests have caused severe damage. The satellite data showed that half of the grasslands were degraded in 2004, totalling 320 million mu (213,300 square kilometres). Over 60 million mu (40,000 square kilometres) were classed as severely degraded or very severely degraded.

Wangdrak and his colleagues want to make sure things do not get worse. As we drove through the patchy grasslands, he told us about an experiment to take water from the head of the Nu River to use in sprinklers. These and other demonstration measures, principally planting, fertilisation and pest extermination, are designed to gradually restore grassland fertility. He hopes these demonstrations will form part of a proposal for dealing with climate change that can be implemented by herders on the plateau.

“Global warming is a major influence on environmental change in the grasslands,” Wangdrak says. All we can do is figure out how to adapt. As far as knowledge about the grasslands and the herding industry goes, I can only do what I can and start from basic research.”

Flooding around lakes had become a problem in recent years, said Wangdrak. The village of Mechu had been repeatedly flooded since 2004, with 200 households forced to leave homes that their families had occupied for generations. He clearly remembers the scene, waters rushing over low-lying grasslands and rising around their feet. Homes and livestock pens were almost completely inundated. “Nothing like that had been seen before. Not in historical records dating back to the Ming Dynasty, nor in local histories.

Many scientists blame the rising waters on melting glaciers, a thaw that has been accelerated by global warming. The increasing level of the lakes means that 10,000 people in Nagqu, a prefecture that is home to less than 420,000 people, have already been displaced or are waiting to be relocated.

Wangdrak leaves us with a question. Western scientists can detect pollutants that originate in Asia, he says. Does this mean that Chinese scientists will ever be able to pinpoint the greenhouse gases that western countries have emitted – and demonstrate their influence on his local ecology?

For this local Tibetan official, climate change is a major part of his day-to-day work.

Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a master’s degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997 and was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-04.

 

Homepage photo by livepine

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

政府官员

看到有这样关注气候变化并且热心做实事的政府官员我感到很欣慰。很多官僚只关心能增添政绩的漂亮工程,而忽视国家真正需要的长远利益。而且大多数地方还没有像藏北高原这样深切感受到气候变化对生产生活造成的巨大影响,所以人们也就不重视吧。真希望能多一些江村旺扎这样的官员,多一些政府做的实事啊。

Government Official

I’m very glad to see this official who is paying attention to climate changes and practically working for that. Lots of officials care only about the projects which can bring brilliant political achievements, but ignore those long-term benefits that our country really needs. And in most of the places people can’t feel exactly the big impact of climate changes on our productions and livings as people from the northern Tibetan plateau. Maybe that’s why people are not really paying attention to this. I sincerely hope there will be more officials like Wandrak as well as more practical actions from government.

(This Comment was translated by Fangfang CHEN)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

政府的应对?

“第三极”青藏高原对全球气候的重要性我们都知道,现在它的恶化这么迅速而且严重,实在是令人忧虑。这是个大问题啊,我觉得中央政府应该重视,采取措施调查、研究并控制青藏高原的改变,不然后果不堪设想啊。

Any response from the government?

We are all aware of the significance of the Tibetan plateau to the global climate as "the third pole". It has brought many concerns that it is being so quickly and badly damaged. I think the central government should pay more attention to the problem, investigate, analyse and finally keep the changes of the Tibetan plateau under control. Otherwise, the consequences will be unthinkable.(Translated by Shen Zheng)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

青藏高原,能否保住?

同意2号评论,现在青藏高原生态环境的迅速恶化真是惊心动魄。作为一个环境问题门外汉,我很关心一个问题,那就是我们到底能不能找到有效的方法阻止青藏高原的恶化?如果不能,那是否意味着我们有朝一日要面临着全国性甚至全球性的气候巨变?

Will the Tibetan plateau make it?

I agree with Comment No.2 in the fact that the rapid worsening of the environment on the Tibetan plateau is indeed horrifying. As a rookie in environment issues, I am very concerned with the issue of whether we can find an effective way to stop this worsening. If we can't, does that mean that one day we will face a climate change that is nationwide or even worldwide?
(Translated by Shen Zheng)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

一些想法

提出以下几点问题与大家讨论:
1.单单用卫星遥感监测草地得出退化的结论有待进一步商榷,因为文章中未提与原来的何基数(baseline)作比较而得出此结论。因此,我觉得草地退化是近几十年发生的还是很早以前就有类似情况,只有当地的牧民清楚。卫星遥感数据应结合当地牧民的经历和看法。
2.在未清楚藏北的草地是否是平衡系统还是非平衡系统的情况下,测算出载畜量要非常小心,因为在非平衡系统下,载畜量随每年的降水气温的气候因素发生变化,而不是一个固定的数据。
3.文章中所提“通过从怒江源头取水、采用喷灌方式补充水分,以及结合补播、施肥、灭鼠”改善草地现状的可行性应进一步论证,因为其推广价值不明朗,原因是补充水分(灌溉)和施肥的办法在缺水区投资会很大,而且会影响周边地区的地下水位,并干扰自然的牧草生长机制,从长远角度讲,有可能导致在生态上的适得其反的结果。

some thoughts about this article

I would like discuss with anyone in the following aspects: firstly, the conclusion that grasslands has degraded needs to be confirmed further if only using satellite remote sensing monitoring to measure because in this article author didn’t make any comparison between the new measurement and baseline. Therefore I think whether degradation of grasslands is recently happened or happened a long time ago, the question only can be answered by local herdsmen. Actually satellite remote sensing monitoring should be combined with herdsmen’s experiences and their opinions. Secondly, it should be very cautious when we measure the carrying capacity of grasslands before we have a clear knowledge about whether grasslands in northern Tibet is an equilibrium system or not. Thirdly, in the article he suggested that “pipe water from the head-waters of Nujiang and adopt sprinkling irrigation, combined with sowing again, fertilizing and eradicating rats” so as to improve the status quo of grasslands. Its feasibility should be investigated further and the value to popularize is still an uncertainty. Because investment of irrigation and fertilization will be huge in dry zone and will affect groundwater level in neighboring areas and interrupt the natural growth mechanism of pastures as well. In the long run, it is likely to result in unintended negative consequences in ecology.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

同意评论4

完全同意评论4的观点。在环保事业中不但要有热情,还得有谦虚谨慎的科学态度,尊重当地经验,结合科学分析,小心求证。好心办坏事虽然动机不错,但造成的危害不见得小。

I agree with Comment #4

I couldn’t agree with Comment #4 more. We should do environmental protection work not only with passion but also with modest and prudent attitude, by doing scientific analysis and careful verification in accordance with local experience. Good intentions could bring bad results. Although people who do it are acting from good motives, the damage they cause could be very serious(Translated by Xiaoyu Guan).

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

一些感想

因此,我觉得倘若藏北的草地状况在退化,其改善办法不能采取脚痛医脚的办法,因为气候变化导致的草地退化在当地所能做的事微乎其微(只有通过宣传让温室气体排放大国减少排放量)。在当地能做的事是大力改善和提高当地牧民的基础教育和职业教育,让更多的牧民走出草原从事其他行业(比如当地的服务业,汽车摩托车维修、餐饮),这样既缓解由于人口增长给草场带来的压力,同时,让藏北的传统牧区文化得以继续继承下去,因为在这种发展模式下,牧民当中有些从事牧业,而同时另一些家庭成员从事非牧产业。所以,目前大量的用于改善草原生态环境的资金(比如推牧还草工程)用在基础和职业教育上,从长远角度讲,其经济、社会、文化、生态方面的效果肯定比采取脚痛医脚的单单改善生态的办法取得事半功倍的效果。

Some ideas

Therefore, I believe we should not take stop-gap measures to handle the possible degradation of grasslands in northern Tibet, for we can do little in local areas to cure the grassland degradation caused by climate change (the only choice is to get the countries of huge greenhouse gas emissions to cut emissions through publicity). What we could do there is to improve the fundamental education and vocational education of local herdsmen in order to help them get jobs in other trades, such as local services including automobile repair and catering. This would not only relieve the stress to the grasslands brought by population growth, but also help pass on the traditional nomadic culture in northern Tibet to generations, because some of the herdsmen are doing animal husbandry while others doing other work. As a result, spending the funds that are now used to improve the eco-environment of the grasslands on fundamental and vocational education would be a better choice than stop-gap measures in terms of economic effects, social effects, cultural effects and ecological effects in the long run.

(Translated by Xiaoyu Guan)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

草地退化

我同意4号评论。实际上,草地退化有很多的种类――有些并不是真正的退化。而怎么应对退化也存在着不同的科学意见。有种有意思的新看法是,放牧其实有利于提高草场的自我恢复功能,所以退牧政策也许是个错误。牧民的那些传统一直维护着牧区的生态平衡;只是现在他们发现篱笆和其他东西限制了他们的传统。确定的是,我们应该相信那些有着可靠经验的牧民,而不是那些过去制定了错误的“最好政策“的官员。

由CHEN FANGFANG翻译

degradation

I agree with comment 4. In fact the degradation of the grasslands varies greatly -- in some places it is not degraded. And there is some scientific debate about what is the best response to degradation. There is some interesting new work that suggests that grazing helps the grasslands to be more resilient so taking yak herds off the grasslands might be the wrong policy. Herders have kept the ecological balance for generations by using traditional methods. Now they find this difficult because of fencing and other restrictions. Surely it is best to trust the people with a proven track record of conservation, rather than officials who have been wrong in the past about the best policies.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

辉映

如是:应对全球气候变化——公民应该怎么办?
必须把建设资源节约型、环境友好型社会放在工业化、现代化发展战略的突出位置,落实到每个单位、每个家庭。五是要大力提高全社会参与的意识和能力,营造全民应对气候变化的良好环境。…深入开展节能减排全民行动,坚决打好节能减排攻坚战。2008年06月29日《人民日报》。提高公众对气候变化问题的科学认识,动员全社会参与应对气候变化,推动《国家方案》的实施。
2006年11月联合国粮农组织的一份报告指出:畜牧业造成了18%的温室气体排放,已经超过了交通运输业,包括汽车、飞机、火车和船只等。此外,畜牧业消耗了世界1/3的谷物和90%的大豆,占用了70%的农业用地,世界上80%的森林砍伐与畜牧业有关,导致酸雨的氨排放的64%来源于畜牧业。
这意味着一个肉食者消耗了巨大的环境代价,请关注。

Light and reflection

About this: Dealing with global climate change – what should people do? One must develop an energy saving, environmentally friendly model of society, and give it a prime position in the strategic development of industrialisation and modernisation, realising it in each unit and every family. To greatly raise society’s consciousness and ability to participate, building a good environment in which the whole population can deal with climate change .…thoroughly carry out the reduction of energy usage and emission by the whole population, resolutely fighting for energy reduction and emission (People’s Daily newspaper dated 29 June 2008). By raising the public’s scientific knowledge in questions of climate change, mobilising the whole society to deal with climate change, it becomes a moving force for the implementation of the ‘National Programme’. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Committee report in November 2006, the livestock farming industry accounted for 18% of greenhouse gas emission, and has already exceeded that from the transportation industry, including cars, aeroplanes, trains and ships etc. Furthermore, the livestock farming industry consumed one third of the world’s cereal and 90% of soya. It occupied 70% of farming land use. 80% of the world’s forest felling is connected with livestock farming. 64% of emitted ammonia which leads to acid rain came from the livestock farming industry. This suggests that a carnivorous person consumes what is equivalent to a large share of the environment – please take heed.
Translated by Somui Cheung