Tibet: climate struggle frontline

Climate change is likely to blame for a massive avalanche in Tibet that killed nine people in July, according to an analysis of the distaster published Dec. 9 in the Journal of Glaciology. More than 70 million tons of ice broke off from the glacier capping the Aru Mountains of western Tibet's Rutog county on July 17, covering 9.6 square kilometers (3.7 square miles) of the valley floor in just four or five minutes and killing nine nomadic yak herders. The study was undertaken by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a US team including Lonnie Thompson of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, who has done simialr work in the Andes. The team found that melted water at the glacier's base must have lubricated the ice, speeding its path down the mountainside. "Given the rate at which the event occurred and the area covered, I think it could only happen in the presence of meltwater," said Thompson, adding that other nearby glaciers may now also be vulnerable. "Unfortunately, as of today, we have no ability to predict such disasters."

The Tibetan plateau houses critical hydrological resources for much of the Asian continent—the Earth's largest volume of fresh water outside the poles. It is the source major rivers including the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus, supplying roughly two billion people with potable water. Destabilization of its hydrology holds grave implications. (ZME Science, Tibet Post, Dec. 13; CBC, Dec. 12; OSU, Dec. 9)

Indigenous resistance remains ongoing to China's extractive agenda on the plateau, and attendant ecological decline. Last month, 20 Tibetans were arrested at a protest against construction of a dam on the Langcan (Mekong) River in Dechen (Chinese: Deqin) county, Yunnan province. The project was approved in 2008 and work began last year. In October, the Chinese government issued relocation orders for Yanmen (Ch: Huafengping) and Yangdro (Yunling) villages, requiring all residents to resettle to make way for the dam's floodplain. Rsdients were offered money as compensation for loss of their homes, but feared the amount was not enough to cover the costs of relocation. A formal petition to local officials on the matter apparently went unanswered, and in mid-November villagers began blocking construction equipment—sparking clashes with security forces. (Free Tibet, Dec. 2)

The wave of self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule also continues across the Tibetan plateau and diaspora. The latest took place Dec. 10, when a man has self-immolated in Maqu county, Gansu. Horrific video footage posted online showed the man, aged in his thirties and named as Tashi Rabten, walking down a road with his entire body engulfed in flames as an onlooker recited prayers. In the following days, his wife and daughters were reportedly arrested and beaten by police. (RFA, Dec. 13; AFP, Dec. 10)

China is investing heavy in infrastructure development in the Tibetan region, to facilitate delivering the plateau's resources to foreign markets. Beijing has just inaugurated a new cargo service linking Tibet to Nepal, as dozens of trucks carrying goods worth $2.8 million left the Tibetan border port of Gyirong en route to Kathmandu this week. The integrated rail and highway link also extends to China's industrial hub of Guangdong province, and is conceived as part of the Silk Road initiative.  (PTI, Dec. 10)

See our last post on the politics of glaciers in the Himalayas,