The World's Third Pole: Tibet and climate change
From a global environmental perspective, few places in the world are as important as the Tibetan plateau. Encompassing an area of over 2.5 million square kilometres, the Tibetan plateau is the largest and highest plateau on earth. With an average elevation of 4,500 meters above sea level, Tibet is encircled by high mountains - the Himalaya to the south, the Karakorum in the west and the Kunlun across the north.The world’s Third Pole: Tibet and climate change
Tibet, often referred to as the ‘roof of the world’ or the ‘world’s third pole’ because it contains the biggest ice fields outside of the Arctic and Antarctic, is threatened by melting glaciers and other extreme weather phenomena. Scientists believe that the Tibetan plateau offers an early warning of climate change and it is therefore a critical global climate barometer. Because Tibet plays a prominent role in the Asian monsoon system, the consequences will affect the lives of millions of people downstream as well as those on the high plateau.
The plateau is the source of most of Asia’s greatest rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong and Indus, and the water they provide is critical to the survival of millions of people downstream.
China is now pursuing massive inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects in Tibet which threaten to cause further damage to the plateau’s fragile eco-system. China plans to build nearly one hundred dams across the Tibetan plateau and several water diversion projects to move water into northern and eastern China. These projects disrupt already-overstressed water supplies of hundreds of millions of people in south and southeast Asia.
The Tibetan plateau is one of the earth’s important grazing ecosystems, encompassing about 1.65 million square kilometres of grazing land. It contains the highest grasslands in the world and with a severe climate, it is one of the world’s harshest grazing environments, yet these pastures supply forage for an estimated 12 million yaks and 30 million sheep and goats and provide livelihood for Tibetan pastoralists and agro-pastoralists.
More than 80%of Tibetans live in rural areas, and for centuries, the majority has sustained themselves through a nomadic herder lifestyle, uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions of the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau.
The implementation of Chinese government policies to settle Tibetan nomads and to resettle Tibetans in towns is now threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people and imperiling the Tibetan landscape. These policies, based on an urban industrial model and imposed by planners in Beijing, are counter productive: they have made nomads poorer and degraded Tibet’s vast grasslands.
Scientific research has established that the mobility of the herds keeps the grasslands healthy, that taking the nomads off the land does not help conserve water resources, and that herds people denied their livelihood become demoralised and dependent. One of the last examples of sustainable nomadic pastoralism on this planet faces extinction.
Tibet’s harsh and rugged climate masks a fragile ecosystem that is vulnerable to the effects of global climate change - studies have found the effects of global climate change more pronounced at higher elevations. The many civil engineering projects in Tibet, such as construction of the railroad, combined with a conscious effort by China to urbanise the Tibetan plateau, will lead to further and likely greatly accelerated population increases and land surface changes in the future.
(This is a shortened version of a briefing paper by International Campaign for Tibet.)