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Why Tibet matters now (1)

Few places are as globally important as the Tibetan Plateau, writes Daniel J Miller. Understanding this means looking at the region from a holistic, ecological standpoint.

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From a global environmental perspective, few places in the world are as important as Tibet. Rising concerns about global warming, climate change, receding glaciers, desertification, food insecurity and loss of biodiversity all point to the significance of Tibet. Tackling these important issues requires greatly increased scientific research in Tibetan areas and improved understanding of current land use practices, especially of agriculture, forestry and livestock grazing. Critical examination of existing environmental conservation and economic development policies and new thinking on how we view the Tibetan landscape are required.   

In this article, I use the term "Tibetan Plateau" to refer to a unique geographical area of Asia; a landscape not marked by lines drawn on a map, but defined by topography. It is a region with particular geological, ecological and socio-cultural characteristics. Tackling global environmental challenges in the twenty-first century demands that we view the Tibetan Plateau holistically to understand its unique ecology, its natural resources and illustrious cultural heritage. 

Encompassing an area of about 2.5 million square kilometres, or about one-third the area of the continental United States, the Tibetan Plateau is the largest and highest region on Earth. With an average elevation of 4,500 metres above sea level, the Tibetan Plateau stretches for almost 3,000 kilometres from west to east and 1,500 kilometres from south to north. The Plateau is ringed by high mountains – the Himalayas to the south, the Karakorum in the west and the Kunlun across the north. The Tibetan Plateau goes beyond political frontiers and encompasses much of the higher elevation Himalayan regions in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan as well as all of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Qinghai, western Sichuan, northern Yunnan, western Gansu and southern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. 

I have a plastic, raised-relief map of China in which the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining mountain ranges stand out clearly. It depicts the vast area encompassed by the plateau and the abrupt uplift of the Himalaya rising from the plains of northern India. Looking at this map you can see how the Tibetan Plateau dominates the geography of Asia. 

Photographs taken by astronauts at heights of 200 to 400 kilometres above the earth also provide an out-of-the-ordinary observation of the Tibetan Plateau. Unhindered by the clutter of political boundaries, the land is defined by watersheds, by mountain ranges and large lakes; the natural demarcations of an environment.

These views from space provide a perspective that helps one to think globally and to see the landscape in its entirety. Environmental conservation strategies for the Tibetan Plateau need to encompass a broad scale and implement programs at the level at which natural systems operate. This landscape level of attention ensures persistence of populations and ecological processes and has to work across political boundaries. Man-made lines on a map do not stop a river from flowing downhill nor do they prevent black-necked cranes from migrating or Tibetan argali and Tibetan wild ass from crossing international borders in search of forage. Birds and animals travel across the earth and we need to adopt a similar style in how we perceive landscapes.

The American poet Gary Snyder wrote, “Now, with insights from the ecological sciences, we know that we must think on a scale of a whole watershed, a natural system. A habitat. To save the life of a single parrot or monkey is truly admirable. But unless the forest is saved, they will all die.” Saving the Tibetan Plateau requires an approach that recognises watersheds to define plans of action for conservation and development. It also requires acceptance of the complex nature of the Tibetan landscape, not only in the physical forces that shape it, but also in the interaction of socio-economic and institutional forces that impact the nomads and farmers who use the natural resources.

The Tibetan Plateau plays an important role in global climate change. With its extensive alpine grasslands that store carbon in their plants and soil, the Plateau is a significant carbon pool. The carbon stored in the grassland ecosystem is important to regional and global carbon cycles; it has the potential to modify global carbon cycles and influence climate. What takes place in the Tibetan grasslands therefore should be of increasing importance to a world more and more concerned about climate change.

With thousands of glaciers scattered across the Plateau and the Himalayas, the region has the most snow and ice outside of the polar regions. The glacier-fed rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau make up the largest river run-off from any single location in the world. With global warming, the total area of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau is expected to shrink by 80% by the year 2030. The loss of these glaciers will dramatically affect major rivers that provide water for more than one-third of the world’s population. The effect of glaciers receding will be felt well beyond the borders of the Tibetan Plateau, with profound impacts over a wide area in Asia and great risks of increased poverty, reduced trade and economic turmoil. This presents major political, environmental and socio-economic challenges in the years ahead.

The Tibetan Plateau forms the headwaters environment where the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Sutlej and Indus rivers originate. In addition, rivers from the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau flow into the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor, providing precious water for the oasis towns along the old Silk Road. The management of these river source environments has global implications, as the water from their watersheds will be of increasing importance in the future. The water they provide is critical to the survival of millions of people downstream. The recent floods in the Indian states of Bihar and Assam draw attention to the critical role of the Tibetan environment in regulating water flow to downstream areas. How many people realise that the Kosi River, which recently flooded and displaced millions of people in the northern Indian state of Bihar, actually has its origins on the north side of Mount Everest?  Or that almost 60% of the total length of the 2,906 kilometre-long Brahmaputra River that floods India and Bangladesh every year is located in Tibet? Simply for the water that it provides, the Tibetan Plateau demands greater attention.


NEXT: Protecting biodiversity on the Tibetan Plateau

Daniel J Miller is a rangeland ecologist and agricultural development specialist with over 15 years professional experience in agricultural development, natural resource management and biodiversity conservation in Asia. He has worked in Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan and has traveled widely throughout South and South-east Asia. He speaks Nepalese, Tibetan and some Chinese.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of the US Agency for International Development or the US Government.

Homepage photo by Daniel J Miller

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Attention needs extraordinary wisdom

It is true that the Tibetan Plateau is becoming more and more important under the background of climate change. Since it is a global problem, we need to look upon this region in a comprehensive perspective. Participants need extraordinary wisdom to pay attention to the Tibetan Plateau problem within the current political border.
(Translated by Xiaoyu Guan)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


translated by diaoshuhuan

this is a good place for scientific research

Tibetan Plateau is a holy land, but in China we seem to be not very concerned about the place, only about political affairs, such as the Tibetan autonomous problem. People rarely pay attention to other aspects of the region, such as the significance of environmental science. Where have all our specialists and experts - why hasn't there been any relevant research for such a long time? If its because we don't care, then we should let other people carry it out, because Tibet doesn't just belong to China, but to the whole world. If other countries really want to do pure scientific work in the region, then I think we should enter into more communication and collaboration with them. (Edited by Poppy Toland)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


对于这句话 本人不能苟同。

marchy (edited by Poppy Toland)


“but in China we seem to be not very concerned about the place, only about political affairs, such as the Tibetan autonomous problem.” I don't agree with this. In spite of the harsh conditions in Tibet, there are many researchers who work there all the time. Also, there are also many scholars from the mainland who are carrying out research on the environment, ecology and economy of Tibet. One should not issue an opinion without proper investigation, and one should never speak in absolute terms. marchy
(translated by xiulu)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Black charcoal aerosol emission reduction can ease climate change and glacial melting

In the latest thesis published by Ramanathan and Carmichael, they pointed out that the effect that that black charcoal aerosol has on snow is similar to the affect brought about by carbon dioxide. Their model showed that since the 1950s, of each 1°C rise in temperature, 0.6°C was caused by black carbon aerosol. This trend towards warming has intensified the ice melting in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. IPCC have predicted that the surface area of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau had reduced from 500,000 to 100,000 square kilometres since 1995. Scientists from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITP) said that, based on the current trend, 2/3 of the ice in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau will disappear before 2050. Scientists suggest that the priority is to cut down black carbon aerosol emissions. Because black carbon aerosol only exists in the air for a few weeks, reducing black carbon aerosol emissions can ease climate change within a short time. Reducing black carbon aerosol emission will slow down our arrival at the “tipping point” of climate change, whilst lending time to decision-makers to solve the problem of carbon dioxide emission. Solving the black carbon aerosol emissions problem needs coordinated climate policy and regional air pollution policy, especially with regards to SO2 and other aerosol policies.
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我爱西藏。很多人告诉我那是一个很美的地方。我试着在goolge earth上找到它: http://googleearthpage.blogspot.com/ best wishes to all

(by Fangfang CHEN)

I love Tibet

I love Tibet. I have been told that it is a wonderful place!

I manage to find it at the Google Earth http://googleearthpage.blogspot.com/

best wishes to all

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




In the past few years, more and more people have gone to Tibet to see the blue skies and the snowy mountains. I’m not sure, will this put pressure on Tibet’s environment? (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



tibetan mastiff

Now is the time that we all have to look ahead for better future, fresh air,
clean water, best environment for generations to survive in this beautiful place called earth.
But who cares to look deeper into the problems that we face in this very time.
World is consumed by manipulation, greed, politics, economic malpractise and each day we reduce our mother earth into exhaution. World leaders cared for lot of things and tangled up in bad shape for each state greed or self satisfaction because we don`t realise much of how bad it is going to get if we don`t care more for the earth`s health.....so listen to what tibetan are saying about their land and environment, beside politics..tibet stands way different from chinese culture not historically but geographically...and tibetan always tell us about the environment which they knew very well...because we came watching in our lives.