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 simiiar 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,

  1. Young Tibetan self-immolates in Gansu

    A 16-year-old student in a Tibetan region of Gansu staged a self-immolation protest on May 2 against Chinese rule, Radio Free Asia's Tibetan service reports. A source inside Tibet said Chagdor Kyab from Bora Township, in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Amdo, set himself on fire near Bora monastery, a branch of Labrang Tashikyil monastery. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Chagdor Kyab, a student from a farming family, shouted “Tibet wants freedom” and "Let His Holiness the Dalai Lama come back to Tibet” while he burned. His body was quickly taken away by authorities, and it is uncertain whether or not he survived. Following the self-immolation, local authorities imposed tight restrictions in the area which made it difficult to obtain further information.

    Since 2009 four Tibetans from Bora have self-immolated, and the May 2 action brought to 149 the number of self-immolations by Tibetans living in China since the wave of fiery protests began in 2009. Of these, 125 are known to have died. (RFA, May 7)

  2. Bleak outlook for Asian glaciers

    Asia's mountain glaciers will lose at least a third of their mass through global warming by century's end, with dire consequences for millions of people who rely on them for fresh water, according to researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

    This is a best-case scenario, based on the assumption that the world manages to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, the team wrote in the journal Nature.

    "To meet the 1.5 C target will be a task of unprecedented difficulty," the researchers said, "and even then, 36 percent (give or take seven percent) of the ice mass in the high mountains of Asia is projected to be lost" by 2100. (Space Daily, Sept. 15; AFP, Sept. 13)

  3. Young Tibetan self-immolates in Sichuan

    A young Tibetan reportedly set himself ablaze and died in Sichuan's Ngaba county on Nov. 4 in a protest challenging Chinese rule in Tibetan areas. Dopo, 23, shouted slogans calling for the long life of the Dalai Lama before he died, two monks living in India told RFA's Tibetan Service, citing contacts in the region. Dopo's protest brings to 154 the number of self-immolations by Tibetans living in China since the wave of fiery protests began in 2009.

  4. Young Tibetan self-immolates in Sichuan

    A young Tibetan man set himself on fire in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) county, Sichuan, on Dec. 8, sources in the region said on Dec. 8. The self-immolator was identified as DrukKho, from Soruma in Ngaba county, and was thought to be in his 20s. It is the 42nd confirmed self-immolation in Ngaba so far, and the third in the county in 2018. (RFA)

  5. More young Tibetans self-immolate in Sichuan

    Two young Tibetans, both aged 16, set themselves ablaze in Ngaba county, Sichuan. One perished, while the other reportedly survived and is hospitalized. (RFA)