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Story Publication logo September 27, 2012

China's Three Rivers, Asia's Threatened Headwaters


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


"It is warmer now than it was 20 years ago when I was a child," said Chodag, a local Tibetan herder, as we looked out from the small mountain to the spectacular vista before us. A turquoise lake disappeared into the distance and the faint horizon shimmered and seemed to blend into the sky as the early morning light bounced across the almost translucent water.

We were standing above Gyaring Lake, located in the Sanjiangyuan, or Three Rivers Headwaters region of the Tibetan Plateau in western China. This was one of the first destinations on my journey and it had taken me two full days of driving to reach here from the provincial capital of Xining, in the east of the Tibetan Plateau.

The azure lake before us was ironically the source of China's second longest waterway, the Yellow River. Leaving this alpine region, the waters of the lake would carve their way through the eastern fringes of the plateau, picking up silt made up of mica, quartz and feldspar along its way, which would give the river its distinctive color. Passing through the north central plains, it would ultimately flow into the Bohai Sea, some 5,500 kilometers away in eastern China.

Chodag (name changed to protect identity) was one of the few remaining nomads who live in this harsh and remote high-altitude region, which for the majority of the year is plunged into permanent sub-zero temperatures. The people here live relatively simple lives, herding yaks and sometimes sheep across the vast grasslands, changing the location of their tents depending on the season.

The region's isolation has served to protect it in the past from outside human influence, but recent warming temperatures hint at the inevitable changes that are coming to this ecologically sensitive and important area.

"The North Pole, South Pole and Tibetan Plateau are changing more rapidly than elsewhere," according to Marc Foggin, executive director of Plateau Perspectives, an international organization that aims to improve local people's lives and protect the natural environment through community-based projects. "There is a demonstrated increase in temperature over time and it is doubling that of the global overall average increase in temperature."

The Sanjiangyuan region is home to the sources of not only the Yellow River, but also the Yangtze and Mekong, which ultimately feed water to millions of people downstream. "The whole Tibetan Plateau region is the source of these three, and four or five other major rivers," continues Foggin. "Altogether, the Tibetan Plateau watersheds, those rivers that have their watersheds originating on the plateau, encompass a human population of almost 40 percent of the world's population. So there is a very significant downstream effect."

Driving across the vast grasslands that encompass most of the region of the plateau, we pass small communities clinging to the side of the one highway which connects most of the towns in the region. People are scarce but wildlife seems almost abundant compared to many regions of China that have undergone a wide scale depletion of local flora and fauna. We spot birds of prey, foxes, rodents and even wild donkeys that roam freely in the distance.

Here on the grasslands, one of the most surprising things to witness is the emergence of patches of desert. The small dunes, more typical of north central China, have found their way to the plateau as conditions have continued to dry in recent years. Degradation of the grasslands has been one of the largest concerns of scientists and officials, who are fearful that any changes to the grasslands in this region could have consequences for the water supply of the area's major rivers.

"Grasslands and the peatlands within them serve effectively as a sponge. As there is a spring melt of the snows, the water comes into the upper watershed and is maintained in the grasslands, as a sponge," explains Foggin. "If that land is degraded, there is no sponge, and there is immediate runoff. So the quality there, in the Sanjiangyuan region, affects downstream in what in very general terms can be seen as the sponge that holds the water and lets it flow smoother, more regularly over a longer period of time, as opposed to simply flooding down."

Continuing our journey, we reach the remote town of Zaduo, a small and dusty town located near the border with the Tibetan Autonomous region. Hidden in a valley some 1,000 kilometers from the beginning of our journey in Xining, we are here to visit its most famous attraction, the Mekong River.

Arguably Asia's most important river, based upon the number of countries it passes through, the Mekong begins its journey in the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, winding its way through China's Yunnan Province, then into Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before finding its way into the South China Sea. Along its journey it is estimated that over 60 million people rely upon the river for transportation, water and food.

Twenty kilometers outside the town of Zaduo, we visit what has been dubbed by locals as "the first bridge of the Mekong," a colorful structure draped in Tibetan prayer flags of every color imaginable. It's a breathtaking scene, as the relatively narrow Mekong slips through a sheer-faced gorge, shadowed by the ever-present mountains above. It's an obvious draw for any tourists hardy enough to venture this deep into the plateau.

As we return to town, it doesn't take us long to find what must be "the first dam of the Mekong." As soon as the river passes through the town of Zaduo it is transformed into a small lake, trapped behind a hydroelectric dam.

"China's construction of dams and a navigation channel along the upper reaches of the Mekong threatens this complex ecosystem," according to International Rivers, which is concerned that projects in the upper reaches of the Mekong will "change the rivers natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded along the Thai-Lao border."

How China handles this water resource in the future will inevitably have important implications for its relations with neighboring countries.

As my journey in the Sanjiangyuan region came to a close, it was clear that changes in this region of the Tibetan Plateau would directly affect the millions of people throughout China and Southeast Asia who relied upon the water from this region. It seemed easy to visualize this process while traveling in the region but I wondered how the general public would be able to grasp the huge significance of this remote region and its water.

"The Tibetan Plateau seems really far away, but it's actually one of the most important hotspots in the earth's ecosystem. Scientists sometimes describe the Tibetan Plateau as the engine of the global climate system. It has a unique role in the natural cycle, climate system and water system," explains Li Yan of Greenpeace East Asia, a passionate woman who is determined to help the general public understand the importance of this region and the implications of the changes there.

"A change of one degree might not mean a big thing to people living in air-conditioned rooms in big cities, but that level of change, temperature fluctuation, will bring sometimes very visible and sometimes even profound ecological changes to the plateau," she says. "The tongues of the glaciers have been retreating hundreds of meters in the past decades. And it's not just the loss of beautiful scenery—it's actually melting away precious freshwater reserves on the surface of the earth. The far reaching impacts of that glacier and tundra melting will have a big impact on the water flows in three or four decades time. And those big rivers that originate from the plateau will face a bad time when the reserves are gone."

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