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The Tibetan blues

Sunday, 25 January 2015 | CLAUDE ARPI | in Agenda

Meltdown in Tibet

Author : Michael Buckley

 

Publisher : PanMacmillan,Rs595

This well-documented work delves deep into issues which are bound to get hotter with time, writes CLAUDE ARPI

André Malraux, the famous French Philosopher and General de Gaulle’s Culture Minister once said, ‘The 21st century will be spiritual or will not be’. Without denying the role that spirituality can play in the present planetary crisis, it is obvious that if the world leaders do not rapidly take some drastic actions to solve the planet’s environmental issues, annihilation will befall upon humanity by the end of the current century.

Michael Buckley’s, Meltdown in Tibet, delves deep into these burning issues. His well-documented work deals with topics which are bound to be hotter as the years pass by. Buckley says that he isn’t a scholar who analyses problems from air conditioned rooms, he sees himself more as an adventurer. The Canadian environmentalist has extensively travelled on the Asian roads, more particularly in the Himalayas and the Roof of the World where he witnessed the changes brought about by the wild development of modern China. He is an Asia-trotter, having spent most of his time in our continent, particularly in Tibet. His book, Heartlands: Travels in the Tibetan World had earned him the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award.

He is also a keen rafter and points his finger towards the Tibetan plateau: “Glance at a physical map of the Tibetan Plateau and you will see why the rivers of Tibet are so important to southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The Tibetan plateau is the source of the major rivers of this vast region, stretching all the way from the coast of China in the east to Pakistan in the west. Ninety per cent of the run-off from Tibetan rivers flows downstream into China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, India, Nepal etc. At the tail-end of those same rivers lie the world’s largest deltas...close to two billion people rely on Tibet’s waters-for drinking, for agriculture, for fishing, for industry.”

The first lines of Meltdown in Tibet accurately highlight our century’s vital issues: the fate of more than half of humanity depends on the waters from Tibet. Speaking about the water situation in China, Xinhua recently admitted a ‘domino effect on water supply’. The Chinese news agency was commenting on the first comprehensive study of China’s glaciers which proves that on an average, 244 sq km of glaciers disappear every year. The Chinese glaciologists “had warned of ‘chain effects’ that could have an impact on water supplies in the country’s western regions” …and one should add, on India.

The figures come from the survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which found, “China had 48,571 glaciers in its western provinces, including the Tibetan regions of Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces.” This is indeed not encouraging news, but despite the impending shortage of water in the long-term, China continues to dam rivers originating from the Third Pole; Buckley explains this terminology: “Outside of the Arctic and Antarctic, the Tibetan Plateau has the largest store of ice on earth, leading to its designation as the ‘Third Pole’. …In terms of human impact, however, meltdown of Tibetan Plateau glaciers will have far greater repercussions.” Even the Chinese scientists agree that there is far less scientific data available on the Third Pole than on the Arctic and Antarctic .

An interesting feature of Buckley’s book is that the author links different issues which are not correlated at first sight. When he speaks about the ‘Crisis at the Third Pole’, he asks, ‘What does a rain of black soot have to do with this?’ He himself answers the question: “There is no doubt that greatly elevated CO2 emissions from both China and India are leading causes of warming on the Tibetan Plateau. But for glacial meltdown, another significant factor may be the rain of black soot...Lumps of coal burned in households in China result in a tremendous output of black carbon, or soot, also referred to as black soot. …Black carbon from cities in both India and China travels on air currents and gets trapped on the Tibetan Plateau.”

That is not all, the carbon particle, being black, absorbs the heat from the sun “both while floating in an air column or once settled on the ground — or the ice”. Everyone has experienced that wearing white clothes in summer is cool, as white reflects the light (and the heat) but if you have a black shirt, you will soon feel the heat. Scientists say that when the sun’s rays hit the earth, a certain percentage of the energy is reflected back into space. The amount of radiation reflected is called, the albedo. The sun’s energy at the poles reflects more rays (and heat), it has a high albedo. The more ‘black’ particles and the less snow and glaciers, the faster the earth will warm up with incalculable consequences for the small humans living on it. It triggers a vast exponential domino effect.

Chapter after chapter, Buckley enlightens us on the ‘Ecocide on the Land of Snows’; on why Tibet matters so much today; on the fate of the mighty rivers of Tibet and their damming (‘What on earth are China’s engineers up to?’); on China’s appetite for energy (‘Where is the thirsty dragon going to guzzle next’); on the fate of the nomads parked in new ghettos (‘Vanishing Nomads, Vanishing Grasslands’) or Plundering the Treasure House (‘How much can an ecosystem take before it collapses?’). He believes that Beijing’s water policies dictated by their new godhead, i.e. ‘Development’, will lead Asia to natural disasters.

In the chapter ‘Downstream Blues’, he mentions the consequences of the Third Pole’s environmental degradation for India and the possibility of a Himalayan Water War (if the Brahmaputra is diverted, for example). At the end, the author asks a vital question, valid not only for China (Tibet), but for India, Bangladesh or Pakistan too: “Why can’t they just leave the rivers alone?” It’s a difficult question, because development is today a ‘must’ for most modern states.

Is there a way out? A middle path? Buckley does not provide an answer, except mentioning the importance of trans-boundary collaboration. He rightly says: “Water, not oil, is now becoming the world’s most important resource. Though we live on a planet covered by water, very little of it is accessible.” The fate of the 21st century will indeed depend on water; spirituality could perhaps help in bringing some wisdom into humans’ brains and hearts, though it may soon be too late; as the Dalai Lama says in his preface: “We only have one Tibet. There are no backups.”

 
 
 

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