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Melting ice fields pose serious threat to water supply in Asia

July 6, 2010

The Irish Times
July 5, 2010

There are fears that in 25 years, 80 per cent of
local glaciers will vanish as warming bites, writes  CLIFFORD COONAN in Tibet

LOCAL PEOPLE selling trinkets and prayer flags at
the Karola Pass in Tibet are looking nervously at
the glacier behind, which has melted halfway up
the mountain because of global warming. The ice
fields at the roof of the world are shrinking.

"It keeps getting smaller," said one man, dressed
in traditional Tibetan garb, anxiously eyeing the
spectacular natural phenomenon that is his livelihood.

Meanwhile, in the Tibetan provincial capital,
Lhasa, the Lalu wetland reserve, known as the
"lung of Lhasa," is also shrinking because of
global warming and pressure from developers. It
generates oxygen for a city starved of air because of its height.

Lalu is the largest and highest natural wetland
in the world, covering 12.2sq kms (4.7sq miles),
and the Chinese Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) has introduced a 15.5 billion yuan (Euro
1.82 billion) plan to help protect it from destruction.

"Tibet is on the Qinghai plateau and the
ecological environment is very vulnerable," said
Gyanpel, director general of the Tibetan Environmental Protection Department.

The temperature in Tibet has risen by up to
one-third of a degree every 10 years between 1961
and 2008, which is well ahead of the rest of the
world, and nowhere is this more obvious than at
the Karola glacier. Ice on the Qinghai plateau is
retreating at the rate of seven per cent every
year. There are fears that in 25 years, 80 per
cent of the glacial area in Tibet and surrounding areas could be gone.

It’s bad news for the local herdsmen who rely on
the water from the glaciers for themselves and
their yaks and goats, but it’s also bad news for
water supplies in the rest of China, India and southeast Asia.

The mighty Yangtze and Yellow rivers, as well as
the Mekong and the Ganges, are in danger of
running out of water, threatening the livelihood
of millions in India, China, Pakistan and other parts of Asia.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau covers 2.5 million sq
kilometres -- around a quarter of China’s land
area -- at an average altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level.

Himalayan glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet highland
store more ice than anywhere on Earth except for
the polar regions and Alaska. But because of
global warming, all across the plateau, glacial
and snow run-off is evaporating, leaving
dwindling rivers dangerously clogged with silt.
Northern India relies on glacial run-off for much of its fresh water.

Chinese scientists believe the Rongbuk glaciers
have retreated by up to 230 metres in the past
three decades. These glaciers account for 47 per
cent of the total glacier coverage in China.

It’s not all grim. Gyanpel said efforts to rescue
the Lalu wetland had been successful.

"The wetland plays a crucial role in producing
oxygen and purifying the air. We call it the
city’s lung, and have given it the nickname ‘the
air purifier’. Lalu is part of Lhasa and we’ve
done a lot to preserve it, both at provincial and
national level," said Gyanpel.

This includes an investment of 150 million yuan
to preserve the wetland, and the Tibetan
Environmental Protection Department has restored
some parts of the area, and implemented measures
to stop landslides. The Lalu wetland has shrunk
by some 70 per cent, but the EPA was able to
restore 90 per cent of the area lost.

There are 43 species of wild animal living on the
reserve, including the black-necked crane and the
vulture, as well as 30 aquatic and 101 insect species.

"It’s by no means easy to protect such a large
area. The price of land is very high in Lhasa.
That we don’t develop the area shows how much we
value the environment in Lhasa," he said.

"In Lhasa we have very high restrictions on
polluting enterprises. For example, we moved a
big cement factory outside the city. Beside these
Lalu wetlands, there are 20 such areas in
counties around Lhasa. The central government has
set aside 15.5 billion yuan to develop a national
environmental security barrier for Tibet,” Gyanpel added.

The aim is to minimise the impact of industrial
development and to avoid polluting industries.

"Tibet is rich is minerals and natural resources.
There will be appropriate extraction of natural
resources without impacting on the environment.

"All projects must follow the principle of
protecting the environment first. If there is
serious damage to the environment during the
extraction, we will stop it, even if it’s gold or
other precious metals," he said.
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