News / Asia

    Researchers: Tibetan Glacial Melt Threatens Billions

    FILE - Herders graze their yak in the grasslands of the high Tibetan Plateau in the county of Naqu, Tibet, China, July 6, 2006.
    FILE - Herders graze their yak in the grasslands of the high Tibetan Plateau in the county of Naqu, Tibet, China, July 6, 2006.

    With temperatures rising four times faster than anywhere else in Asia, the Tibetan Plateau might soon lose most of its glacier and permafrost, affecting water supplies throughout Asia, Chinese scientists say.

    Long known as the “roof of the world,” the Tibetan Plateau is about the size of Western Europe and supplies water to nearly 2 billion people in Asia as the source of several major rivers, including the Yangze, Mekong, Salween (Gyalmo Ngulchu), Indus, Brahmaputra and Yellow rivers.

    But because of the impact of climate change, the glaciers are retreating rapidly, grasslands are shrinking as desertification expands, regional precipitation has become irregular, water levels are dropping in major rivers and the permafrost is thawing.

    The melting of Tibetan glaciers, the largest mass of frozen fresh water outside the polar regions, is linked to many environmental consequences both locally and globally, including heat waves in Europe, according to some studies.

    Glacial retreat

    Chinese officials estimate Tibet holds 14.5 percent of the world’s total glacier mass. While there are a few different theories on what is causing the glaciers to melt, researchers agree the pace is staggering.

    FILE - Tibetan Plateau in background of Himalayan range, viewed from flyover in Nepal.
    FILE - Tibetan Plateau in background of Himalayan range, viewed from flyover in Nepal.

    China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported in April that an average of 247 square kilometers of glacier is disappearing annually, and that some 7,600 square kilometers of glacier, or about 18 percent of the total, has disappeared since the 1950s.

    Zhang Mingxing, a Chinese official who heads the Tibet Mountaineering Administration, said the glacier at the Everest base camp, 5,200 meters above sea level, has already disappeared. “There is nothing but stones [left],” he was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

    Prior Chinese research of substances within Tibetan glaciers indicated carbon from forest fires, crop burning and domestic cooking stoves from India have caused the melting. While these could be contributing factors, scientists say the global rise in temperatures is indisputably the primary cause.

    Tibetans say there has been a drastic change of temperature since 1980s. One U.S.-based Tibetan who recently returned to Lhasa expressed shock at seeing the climatological impact on people’s clothing style. “When I lived in Lhasa, it was very rare that people could walk outside in T-shirts,” said the man, who asked that his name be withheld. “Now people are walking in shorts!”

    National Geographic reported in 2010 that one glacier was retreating by about 300 meters a year, the length of a U.S. football field.

    As early as 2009, China’s leading scientist on glaciers, Qin Dahe, said glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau were melting faster than in any other part of the world. In the short term, he warned, the melt would trigger more flooding and mudslides; in the long term: "water supplies in the region will be in peril.”

    Some researchers have predicted that most of the Himalayan glaciers will be gone in 20 years.

    Water needs

    Those shrinking glaciers feed some of the largest rivers that run through China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

    “Water is the most important resource that this region has, the common region of Tibet part of China, India, Bhutan and all of that,” said R. Rangachari, honorary scholar at India’s Center for Policy Research and former secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources of India.

    “Water is the key to removing poverty, generation of power, agriculture, et cetera,” he told VOA’s Tibetan service.

    A former researcher of Tibetan Plateau climate change for the Chinese Academy of Science, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said diminished glacial runoff had already reduced water levels on the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. “The headwaters for any major rivers come from [the] Tibetan Plateau and there is [a] lesser water supply to those head rivers,” he said.

    China’s Ministry of Water Resources announced in 2013 that as many as 28,000 smaller rivers in China had abruptly disappeared by 2011. While Beijing did not cite specific causes, the anonymous researcher said warming on the Tibetan Plateau was at least partly to blame.

    “Another important reason is the meltdown of the permafrost soil," which leads to subterranean water drainage, he said. “Like when you have [a] thick sponge.”

    The latest research conducted by the Chinese Academy of Science predicted that more than 80 percent of Tibetan Plateau permafrost could be gone by the year 2100, and that almost 40 percent of it would be gone within the “near future.”

    Increased risk of conflict

    The apparent changes in the Tibetan Plateau have raised concern about the potential for water-security conflicts in the region, particularly between China and India.

    To mitigate the environmental impact, China has stepped up construction of dams along rivers cascading from the Tibetan Plateau, despite complaints from downstream nations that need the water.

    In fact, the Salween remains the only Tibetan river that has not yet been interrupted by major dams; Tibet's Yarlung Tsangpo River, which feeds India's Brahmaputra River, recently saw construction of a single dam.

    FILE - View of the Salween River seen from a small Thai-Karen village Tha Tafang on the Thai side of the river Nov. 17, 2014.
    FILE - View of the Salween River seen from a small Thai-Karen village Tha Tafang on the Thai side of the river Nov. 17, 2014.

    According to Rangachari, India takes the water issues seriously.

    “Nobody wants to hand over their right to do something — [especially] what the other is doing,” he said. “Political boundaries might be created by man, but geography is created by God.”

    Tibetans are calling for greater international intervention and attention to the plateau, describing water as the next oil, a nonrenewable resource people could fight over.

    “Tibet is very important because many experts say that wars were fought over land before, but nowadays, wars are fought over energy and soon there will be wars fought over water,” said Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan Administration in Exile.

    The Tibetan government in exile has launched a campaign calling for greater ecological care for the "roof of the world" at COP21, the November 30-December 11 climate summit in Paris.

    In September, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, also called for the international community to pay greater attention to environmental changes that are taking place in his homeland.

    “This is a concern for over a billion human lives,” the Dalai Lama said in a video statement.

    This report was produced in collaboration with VOA Tibetan service.

    You May Like

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    November 29, 2015 10:58 AM
    China and India who will be among those who will suffer badly as a result are also among the main producers of greenhouse gases. Their assertion that they should be permitted to continue to burn coal for 75% of India's electrical power needs and 80% of China's to grow their economies seems absurd on the face of it. That strategy not only will be unacceptable to America, it will defeat any efforts others make and they will only be hurting themselves in the process. Can people in either of these governments put 2 and 2 together and get 4? I doubt it.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora