Environmentalist Tempa highlights environmental problems in Tibet, their causes and impacts

Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, Director of Environment and Development Desk. Photo: Tempa

Health and Wellbeing
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

Dharamshala, India — An exclusive conversation with Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, Executive Head of the Tibet Policy Institute's Environment and Development Desk, Central Tibetan Administration. He discusses the most pressing environmental challenges confronting Tibet as well as climatic conditions, their causes and consequences with The Tibet Post International (TPI).

TPI: Sir, your research focused on Tibet's socio-environmental conditions is extensive. You have covered issues on climate change, patterns and effects of mining, garbage littering as well as cases and causes of natural disasters. What are the greatest ongoing environmental issues in the Tibetan region?

Interviewee: There are many serious issues, but one that is truly urgent is natural disasters. Since 2015, the Tibetan plateau has begun to experience new climatic conditions, largely caused by increased rainfall and higher snow and ice temperatures, while excessive construction activity, mass influxes, rapid urbanization, and other policies have exacerbated existing conditions. Because of this, in recent years we have seen floods, landslides, forest fires, and mudslides, especially in the last four or five years.

TPI: What is the Tibetan community's approach or what programs are being planned or implemented to curtail the environmental issues in the region?

Interviewee: Since Tibet is under Chinese occupation, we don't have the luxury or the right to do what we really, really want to do. We are very environmentally friendly and live a very sustainable life, and the culture of the lifestyle itself is very environmentally friendly. We have been protecting the Tibetan plateau for the last 2ooo years or more and despite the fact that it is very fragile, very cold, and very high, we have been able to live there and build a strong empire.

But since the Chinese occupation, things have started to change. The belief that we intercept our own nature, the importance of the environment we live in, and a sustainable way of life are all being disturbed because of the new policies being implemented by the Chinese government. The Chinese government is imposing a new form or way of life. Because of this, we have seen increased resource exploitation, damming, deforestation, and also increased construction and tourism. This creates a lot of difficulties in how we challenge it.

As I said before, we don't have the luxury and the political power to challenge such issues that concern us. But many Tibetans in Tibet, especially monasteries, and certain organizations, are still very smart and very creative in some ways to approach challenging new environmental issues. For example, a number of monasteries in Tibet have begun to form environmental groups. Their main job is to collect trash that is littered by Chinese tourists, construction activities, local Tibetan pilgrims, or people just out for a picnic. This is one form of an environmental organization. There is another form of environmental organization that started planting trees. There are also local communities that have bravely opposed mining, but they are put in jail and severely punished by the Chinese government. So, despite the very delicate situation, we dealt with the issue in a different way, but it was very difficult.

TPI: Tibet is one of the most environmentally strategic and geographically sensitive areas on the globe. Being located at the heart of the Asian continent, Tibet's climatic conditions tend to affect other neighboring lands as well. What are some of these environmental issues that directly affect Tibet but have an indirect effect on the neighboring regions?

Interviewee: His Holiness the Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that the environment and climate change are non-political issues; they transcend national boundaries and affect each and every one of us. Therefore, His Holiness the Dalai Lama urges people to come together to challenge climate issues and work together to protect the environment.

I have been the head of the Environment and Development Branch since 2014. We have been working in different international conferences of the United Nations on the environment. We have initiated different forms of environment-related activities. We have written our articles and published reports. Now why we do this is because protecting the Tibetan plateau is important for Tibetans of course, but also for most South and Southeast Asian countries.

We want to protect the Tibetan plateau so that the 1.5 billion people living in Asia who depend directly on Tibet can have a continuous and stable flow of rivers from the Tibetan plateau, also for the Tibetan people who enjoy the beautiful climatic conditions, beautiful land and beautiful way of life on the plateau for the last thousands of years can continue to have our land for generations to come. The Tibetan plateau also influences the climatic conditions of India.

There are scientific papers linking the Indian monsoon to what is happening on the Tibetan plateau. The more the glaciers melt, or the warmer the temperature on the plateau, the more unpredictable the Indian monsoon becomes. Also, there are other papers that link it to increased tides in Europe to the loss of glaciers on the Tibetan plateau. The impact of the Tibetan plateau is confusing, so there is a need to make people aware of it on the global stage. We are very happy thanks to the environmental work done by our environmental office and other environmental groups in exile, Chinese scientists, international scientists, or different organizations. In recent years, awareness of the Tibetan environment is gaining respect and recognition. We have to get more recognition, but awareness is definitely increasing.

TPI: According to an article on CTA's official website, deforestation, soil erosion, flooding, extinction of wildlife, uncontrolled mining and nuclear waste dumping are some major environmental challenges faced by the Tibetan region. And, the Chinese authorities have played a role in worsening almost every environmental issue. Could you tell us more about the actions taken by Chinese authorities that are having a detrimental effect on Tibet's environment?

Interviewee: As you know, China's environmental situation is one of the worst in the world. Because of this, Chinese President Xi Jinping is focusing on the revival of China's environment. Why? Because they are in such bad condition that unless they do something about it, China's attempt to be recognized as a so-called superpower will not get the recognition. China has the worst air quality and the worst water quality in the world. There is no other way but to revive the environmental condition in China.

Now, the reason why China is in the worst environmental condition is because of how they have treated the environment for many years in the past. So, similarly, Tibet has also suffered greatly because of China's terrible environmental policies and lack of pro-environmental policies over the past many years.

First, China encouraged the dumping of nuclear waste in the early years. We don’t have any information on that at the moment whether it is happening now. My view is that it is not happening at the moment because of the strong protests from the Tibetan government and Tibetan-supported groups around the globe.

Secondly, China has large mining investments around the world and they have started mining in Africa, Latin America, and Australia. In Africa and Latin America, the Chinese form of mining is the worst. And the governments there are corrupt, so they allow Chinese companies to do whatever they want, and that's why they have polluted; they destroy the environment in those areas.

Similarly, Chinese mining companies that mine in these areas have overly damaged their environment. For example, there has been river pollution and degradation. There was a time when the Chinese government encouraged deforestation in southern and southeastern Tibet because we have extensive forest cover in these areas of Tibet that have been undisturbed for the last thousand years.

At different times in the last 60 or 70 years, the Chinese government started different types of environmental destruction due to bad policies that encouraged mining, deforestation, dam building, wildlife hunting, and in recent years, mass migration. But then, environmental discussions occurred at different times due to two floods in China. The 1998 floods forced the Chinese government to reduce deforestation in the Tibetan region, not because they had strong environmental concerns about Tibet, but because of repeated floods in China.

TPI: Tibetans live in harmony with nature, guided by their Buddhist belief in the interdependence of both living and non-living elements of the earth. However, with the invasion of Tibet, the materialistic Chinese Communist ideology trampled upon this nature-friendly attitude of the Tibetan people. For instance, China’s “development” and “modernization” plans are indiscriminately destroying the forests. What do you think is the best way to overcome this war of ideologies because for Tibet the natural resources are sacred but for the Chinese, they are just a materialistic resource for furthering their economic propaganda?

Interviewee: As His Holiness has always said, the environment is a non-political issue. We, at the Environment desk of the Tibet Policy institute, issued a Ten-Point Call to Action in 2015. We revised it in 2018 to make it a Five-Point Call to Action. Number one is the global community; international governments should recognize the global and ecological importance of the Tibetan plateau and put it at the center of any discussion about global climate change because the impacts are serious.

Number two is that the Chinese government and the Tibetan people should and can work together on environmental projects. That's what we think. We have a strong feeling that this is one area where we can absolutely work together. For Tibetans, environmental protection is built within a cultural way of life, as it has been for many years in the past. The Chinese government has made some massive, intense, huge mistakes in the last few decades. Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to make some corrections, trying to bring better environmental policies over the last few years, trying to make environmental protection an important issue for the Chinese government. So there is some connection. However, the implementation in Tibet has not been done very well, has not been done sincerely, and has not been done transparently. The Chinese president is willing to do something, but it's not being done very well on the ground. And the Tibetan people have been prepared to protect the environment. That's where we can work together. For that, the Chinese government and the Tibetan people need to have equal, respectful discussions and cooperation. The Chinese government should lead it because we are under Chinese occupation. If the Chinese government starts to respect and consult the Tibetan people in Tibet, then there is something that can be done. We as environmental researchers, who have been working on the environment for the past many years, can also contribute. If there is a way to do that, we would be more than happy to do so.

Number three is the people of South Asian countries who depend on the rivers of Tibet, the most populous region in Asia, such as Pakistan, India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Nepal. All of these countries depend on the rivers of Tibet, and they must protect these rivers to maintain their own socio-economic, environmental, and political stability. To do this, they must come together and form riparian cooperation to protect the environment, communicate with the Chinese government, engage in an equal dialogue with the Chinese government, respect Tibet's environment, and consult with us so that there can be a way forward.

TPI: The Yarlung Tsangpo is not only the world's highest river but also proves to be geopolitically important for Tibet. A few months ago, we found out about China's plans to build a big dam on it. According to you, how is the dam going to affect Tibet's sacred river politically and geographically?

Interviewee: For Tibetans, the Yarlung Tsangpo River is one of our many rivers, and we have hundreds of rivers, dozens of big rivers. So for us, this river is not as important as people see it. But strategically, the Yarlung Tsangpo is very important for Asia, especially for India and Bangladesh. In the past few years, the Chinese government has made massive investments in infrastructure development in this region. They have started building airports, railway lines, expanding highways, and have also built large dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo River. This will have serious implications for India, as the people of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam are totally dependent on the Yarlung Tsangpo, especially during the dry season, and their socio-economic way of life is greatly influenced by this river.

If anything were to happen to this river, there could be serious problems for us Indians. The dam that China is building on the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet is a cascading dam. The super dam that China was recently allowed to build in Tibet is not far from the Indian border. If they were to build a huge dam near the Indian border and something happened to the dam due to an earthquake or some destruction by the Chinese government, the people of Assam or Arunachal Pradesh in India could face unimaginable flooding.

Second, the Chinese government can use these dams as a strategic bargaining chip against India. They can stop the flow of the river for a few days, or they can stop it completely. This will cause problems in many areas. And they could suddenly release water, which would lead to flooding in India.

The third point is important, and I have mentioned this in articles I have published online. I've already said that the Chinese government's huge investment in the southern Tibetan region is led by strategic thinking. See, this is one of the most fertile regions in the whole of Tibet; it has one of the best highland climatic conditions in the world, the largest vegetation cover, and a sparse Tibetan population. It is a Tibetan region with a long history and religion, but we have a very small population there. This makes it an ideal basis for the mass migration of the Chinese people. My concern is the increased construction of dams, rail lines, highways, airports, and resource extraction bringing hundreds of Chinese migrant workers who are gradually starting to settle in these areas. In the next ten or twenty years, these areas could become Chinese-dominated areas. This would be a disaster for Tibetans because it would lead to the marginalization of Tibetans in Tibetan areas, destroy the Tibetan culture and way of life, and then, of course, destroy the Tibetan ecology. A Chinese population crossing the border would be a disaster for India, both militarily and strategically.

TPI: Considering the severity of Tibet's environmental issues, is there a lack of understanding or awareness among the people who are directly involved or concerned?

Interviewee: The biggest problem is political issues. The Chinese government deliberately treats any movement about the environment or language as a political issue. Then they label any environmental group as separatists and people are put in jail. This makes it very difficult for Tibetans in Tibet to form any strong environmental groups to address environmental issues. As I said before, they are always nervous. The so-called TAR government has issued a so-called 22-point circular, which states that environmental groups are illegal in Tibet.

President Xi Jinping has said that environmental protection is important and he has always said that the environment in Tibet is very important, but on the other hand, the Chinese government has issued circulars labeling environmental groups as illegal. When anything becomes illegal, under the discretion of the Chinese government, people can be jailed for doing such activities. Another problem is the lack of clarity about climate change or the increasing number of natural disasters.

The Chinese government in the region does not have a clear understanding of the prevailing environmental problems. We Tibetans also do not have a comprehensive understanding of climate change. Landslides, floods, and forest fires are happening all over Tibet. As far as I know, this is a general trend that is happening throughout Tibet, and it will happen in the coming year as well. So we are definitely going to have a new form of climate conditions that we need to adapt to. We need to make a huge shift. For that, we need awareness projects that are not done by the Chinese government. We tried to send information back to Tibet in different ways. However, due to the restrictions of information, this information cannot reach all Tibetans. So, this is one area where we have difficulties.

TPI: If you were to pass on an inspiring message to the Tibetan community's young generation, what would it be?

Interviewee: The younger generation of Tibetans should know our history, should know our land, and should know how we treat our land. We have a belief in the sacredness of nature. And this faith should continue. If we can do that, wherever we Tibetans go, we will certainly contribute to their communities in terms of environmental protection. That is something we should be proud of and continue to follow.

Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha is the Executive Head of the Environment & Development Desk, which is part of the Tibet Policy Institute, Central Tibetan Administration. He has been recently promoted and appointed Deputy Director of the Tibetan Policy Institute. His research focuses on all environmental issues related to Tibet. Special attention is given to the socio-environmental impacts of climate change on Tibet. Most recently, he has focused on natural disasters and the garbage crisis in Tibet.