Chinese rescue workers are struggling to reach survivors of the devastating earthquake in a remote area of Qinghai province that has left at least 589 dead and thousands injured. The government has dispatched more than 3,000 paramilitary police and disaster response workers to the province’s Yushu county on the Tibetan plateau, where 85% of the buildings were said to have collapse.
Until recently most of Yushu’s 87,000 population were nomadic Tibetan herders but many have been moved to urban centers under a resettlement policy. The change in lifestyle and tensions over land use are thought to have contributed to the 2008 unrest in Tibetan communities on the plateau.
Tibetan exile groups are expressing concerns about the shoddy construction of buildings that many nomads now live in. Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said: “The buildings along the main road are concrete blocks which have probably toppled like dominos, in the surrounding back streets there are more traditional wooden Tibetan homes which we hope have been able to withstand the earthquake.”
He did offer some guarded optimism about the Chinese response to the disaster: “Military presence in Tibetan towns, even in remote areas like Yushu has been increasing since the Spring protests in 2008. Their presence has been intimidating and has allowed the state to respond quickly to quash protests. We are encouraged that in response to the tragedy the military have been mobilised to assist in search and rescue.”
As in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, a grave concern is the stability of a cracked dam, which has prompted many residents to flee into the mountains. Yushu is home to the headwaters of three of Asia’s greatest rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow (Huang Ho), all of which are used for hydropower generation. “A dam has cracked,” Xinhua News Agency said, and “workers are trying to prevent the outflow of water.” The size of the dam and extent of damage remain unclear. (The Guardian, April 15; Free Tibet press release, April 14)
Nomads as political pawns in Ladakh?
The disaster comes as India‘s right-wing BJP has made accusations that the Chinese state is using Tibetan nomads to encroach upon disputed territory in India’s Ladakh region. The accusations come in a report from a BJP delegation sent to assess apparent Chinese incursions in the Ladakh region, charging a “Chinese design of grabbing the land by inches.”
Said party spokesperson Rajeev Pratap Rudy: “The most shocking and frightful site was when we met those nomads and Ladakhi people. They are craving for every inch of land which has been encroached since 1962… They are fighting a war through nomads and grazers.” (PTI, April 4)