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

    US Lawmakers Vow to Continue Immigrant Program for Afghan Interpreters

    Congressional inaction threatens funding for effort which began in 2008 and has allowed more than 20,000 Afghan interpreters and their family members to immigrate to US

    Leaderless, Rudderless, Britain Drifts

    Experts predicted chaos would follow, if Britain decided to vote for Brexit, and chaos has

    US to Train Cambodian Government on Combating Cybercrime

    Concerns raised over drafting of law, as critics fear cybercrime regulations could be used to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent

    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.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora