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Story Publication logo August 16, 2012

China: Between the Glacier and the Dam


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Rising temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau in western China are causing melting glaciers and...


"Of course we are not happy with what has happened here. But what can we do?"

Dolkar (name changed to protect identity) looked out onto the tranquil water which disappeared between the valleys before him. Small waves lapped near our feet as we stood on the side of a huge reservoir that had risen up the mountain sides just two years before, changing the landscape forever.

On one side of where we stood lay a serene reservoir—on the other, the Maoergai Dam, a colossal 147 meter high, clay-core, gravel dam sandwiched between two mountains either side of it. A dry and gray channel disappeared off into the distance where the Heishui (Black Water) river had once flowed freely in the mountains of northern Sichuan, in the Tibetan region of Aba.

"Three villages had to be relocated because of this dam", continued Dolkar, a Tibetan man from a village nearby. "There were homes, schools, a hospital. All are now under the water. People did not want to leave. They even went to Beijing to protest but the local police from Heishui went to find them and brought them back."

It's a familiar tale, as China's rush to develop hydropower has seen the construction of over 25,000 dams across the country. With a recent focus on the rivers of the Tibetan Plateau, the environmental and social consequences of such projects in this region are increasingly becoming a source of friction between locals and the authorities.

Thirty kilometers upstream from the dam lies the town of Heishui, named after the river which passes through it. A small but bustling little town of nearly 60,000 people, it sits nestled among steep mountains, 3,500 meters high, and is made up predominantly of ethnic Tibetans. Prayer flags bounce in the wind across town, strung between trees, off bridges and above people's homes signifying its spiritual identity. The ever-present police cars and small army garrison building, however, hint at the underlying tension in this politically sensitive area.

On the outskirts of the town lie orderly rows of three-storied yellow houses, obviously recently built but as of yet, unfinished. "These are where the people from the villages near the dam were moved," I was informed by a local who refused to give his name. "The government built these for us, but now many people, especially young people, have moved away to the city because there are no jobs now." Another familiar story brought about by the relocation of more and more people across the plateau, making way for ever-expanding construction projects.

Heading further upstream and out of the town, large empty parking lots signify the entrance to one of the region's natural attractions, the Dagu Glacier National Forest Park. One of China's newest national parks, it was recently opened at a cost of $104 million—a significant and large investment for the region, hoping to capitalize on the millions of tourists who pass through this province each year. At the moment, the park is relatively unknown, hence visitor numbers only total about 100 per day even in peak season.

Spreading out through mountainous valleys, the park covers over 600 sq. km containing primeval forests, alpine lakes and a handful of small Tibetan villages. The main attractions, however, are the 13 glaciers that lie on top of the Dagu Snow Mountain, which looms over the park at a height of 5,100 meters.

The only glacier that is open to visitors is the spectacular Dagu Glacier, accessible via the world's highest cable car which transports visitors a headache-inducing 4,860 meters to the viewing platforms.

"The glacier is getting smaller, which is worrying us," my guide informs me as we step off the cable car and and look out onto the turquoise lake which has formed at the base of the glacier.

Catching the runoff water from the tongue of ice before us, the lake positively glistens on this rare clear day. Like the Hailuogou glacier which I visited last week, the Dagu glacier is slowly disappearing as a result of rising temperatures on the plateau. Retreat among the glaciers of the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau is widespread and alarming.

"Around 90 percent of the glaciers of West China (including the Tibetan Plateau) have retreated since 1980. Retreat rates have increased during the last 50 years," according to Wilfred Theakstone of England's Manchester University. Theakstone has spent his entire academic career studying the changes to glaciers across the globe, from the Arctic Circle to the Tibetan Plateau.

"Meltwater runoff from a glacier increases in the early stages of retreat but, as the ice becomes thinner and part of the tongue melts away completely, meltwater may decrease. Climatic changes which result in changes of the monsoonal regime will have major consequences for water supplies, as well as for the glaciers themselves. Increased frequency of major floods is a possible consequence," Theakstone wrote in an e-mail.

"In the southeast part of the Plateau, the monsoonal temperate glaciers are likely to receive more precipitation in a warmer climate. Combined with the increased melting and the steep terrain, this may cause increased hazards from avalanches, debris flows and floods. Outburst of glacier-dammed lakes may be an additional hazard," he wrote.

At the beginning of July, the Chinese central authority activated an emergency response plan in order to cope with severe flooding in Sichuan Province, which receives its water from the rivers that originate on the Tibetan Plateau. State media reported that more than 4.6 million people were affected, with flooding damaging more than 37,000 homes and leaving over 250,000 hectares of crops unusable.

Traveling back downstream, it seemed sad and slightly ironic that the turquoise waters that gathered at the base of the Dagu glacier and flowed freely through the valleys and primeval forests in the national park were ultimately destined for a stale and stifled reservoir behind the Maoergai dam, just 60 km away.

It was becoming increasingly clear that the issues in this region were intrinsically linked to one another through rivers such as the Heishui. From the glaciers to the dams, changes in climate in the region, coupled with the man-made alteration of the landscape are having volatile consequences, both environmental and social, that are ultimately affecting thousands of people across this important region of the Tibetan Plateau.


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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change

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