文章 Articles

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.

Article image

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

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



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



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



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



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



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



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





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



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