Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Black Brahmaputra: Looking at Possible Causes

Slag in Brahmaputra water. Photo credit: Times of India
The issue of Brahmaputra river pollution comes at a time of deteriorating ties between India and China. Following a tense border standoff between the two countries over the Doklam trijunction, there comes a news that China has stopped sharing hydrological data of the Brahmaputra River with India which China agreed to share. Before the situation is settled, the South China Morning Post published a report about the possible diversion of the Brahmaputra to Xinjiang through a 1000 km tunnel. This further increases misunderstanding between the two countries. Then came the more worrisome news of Brahmaputra River that rises in Tibet turning unnaturally black and murky for more than two months. With all these changes in the river, China is still silent or denying the factors affecting the international river. On the other hand, India is always afraid of China using the river as a strategic tool against itself.
With the unsettled disputes between India and China on Tibet-India border, the Brahmaputra River has also become one of the major sources of concern between the two countries.
The recent standoff between the two countries started with China's road-laying effort in the Doklam plateau and India's support for Bhutan which has sovereignty over the area and to halt China’s motorable road construction in the region. The dispute that began on 16 June 2017 and the standoff ended in August. Both sides gave contradictory statements for the border disengagement.
Meanwhile, during the confrontation, China stopped sharing hydrological data of the Brahmaputra River, which could have helped India to mitigate the impacts of this year’s flood in Assam. China shared data with Bangladesh while claiming the renovation work (data collection stations) as a reason for not giving data to India. The Doklam standoff between the two countries could be the reason for China's denial to share hydrological data with India.
The situation became tense when the news of water diversion to Xinjiang came up in the Chinese media. According to a report from the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, Chinese engineers were testing technologies that could be used to build the water-diversion tunnel. Though Beijing rejected these media reports as "false and untrue", but the water diversion news still continues to haunt India.
China's lack of transparency over the Brahmaputra River and India's suspicion of China using Brahmaputra water as a leverage against India will lead to further escalation of tensions between the two countries.
Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu inspecting the polluted Siang water at Yingkiong. Photo credit: Pema khandu
With the water of the Brahmaputra River turning unusual muddy, people who live along the river basin believe that it has been caused by Chinese activities on the upper part of the river. Ninong Ering, a member of parliament of the Indian National Congress from Arunachal Pradesh, wrote to the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and raised concerns about the issue of the Brahmaputra River turning black, and requested the Prime Minister to take up the matter with the Chinese government. He further opined that the changes in water quality, which is unusual during the winter season, could be due to a possible diversion of the river in Tibet.
With the water sample collected on 27 November 2017, the East Siang Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department has found that the waters of the Brahmaputra River are high in iron content.  Bimal Welly, executive engineer, in a report states that Nephelometric Turbidity Unit (NTU) of the Brahmaputra River is 425 NTU. Whereas, the permissible range is 0-5 NTU. The report further states that the NTU of the Brahmaputra River “is very high and if exposed for a long period of time, may affect aquatic lives.”
The source of this pollution could be natural or due to man-made factors. Some river pollutions occur naturally, originating from earthquakes, volcanoes, dust storms and forest and grassland fire. Human activities, such as construction, burning of fossil fuels, power plants and various industrial processes also generate a significant amount of particulates.
Railway construction in Nyingchi. Photo credit:

With so much of construction works going on in both India and Tibet, the contamination of water may have emanated from these construction sites. The surface water runoff and the groundwater close to any construction sites become polluted with the various material used in the construction work such as diesel, oil and other toxic material and cement. So some speculate that the reason could well be local construction of roads while other says that it might be from the Chinese construction of the Lhasa-Nyingtri railway line, extending its railway track all along the Yarlung Tsangpo.
According to Tage Rupa, a geomorphologist at Itanagar's Rajiv Gandhi University "Arunachal is seeing hectic construction, so maybe it's just that." She further added that "A lot of construction is close to the river, so it's possible it's just run-off from construction sites."
Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen, research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute states that "If the Brahmaputra River running black from the entry point of the river into India at the Indo-Tibet border as reported, then the source of the river pollution has to be from Tibet. If that is so, then there are a few possibilities as already reported, such as an earthquake or dam construction. But I think there is one more possibility that hasn't been raised yet, that is construction of railway tunnels or stations along the Yarlung Tsangpo or Brahmaputra River in Tibet, most probably construction of a huge railway station near Nyingtri city".
He further added "The Lhasa- Nyingtri section of the railway line crosses Yarlung Tsangpo 16 times, piercing through the mountains with 21 tunnels and 34 train stations. Nyingtri city is located close to the confluence of Yarlung Tsangpo and Nyang Tsangpo. Therefore any construction of a major railway station near the city could seriously muddy the river. With the lowering of river volume as well as fewer tourist traveling to the region during the winter, it's an ideal time for any major construction."
Meanwhile, responding to the report on the muddy Siang River (the Brahmaputra), The Global Times attributed a statement of Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of International Relations. He stated that “India should not point its finger at China on hydrological issues to incite anti-China sentiment, which cannot help repair the ties of the two countries.”
“This time India has made a mountain out of a molehill challenging China by citing slag. India should look for problems on their own side, otherwise, Sino-Indian ties can hardly improve”, he added.
There is not enough information yet to ascertain the reason behind such phenomena. Beijing's denial and silence on the issue creates an unhealthy misunderstanding between the two countries. If the source of pollution is from the Chinese side, then it would be bad for China’s reputation. It is Beijing's responsibility to protect the source of the river on which millions of people are dependent on for their livelihood. So it is pertinent for both the countries to find the source of the pollution and rectify it rather than arguing over who is causing the pollution.
Beijing's silence on the issue makes it difficult to find the actual source of the pollution and if the river remains polluted for a longer period it would affect the ecosystem, putting at risk the flora and fauna of the region as well as the health of human beings.
India can't ignore the fact that the water pollution from the source in Tibet could ruin the whole water system of the Brahmaputra River. So it is necessary for India to raise the issue with China and take a pragmatic approach towards preserving the sources of the major Asian rivers.
Beijing needs to improve its transparency over the shared river to fulfil the great Chinese dream of peaceful development and to be a responsible stakeholder in the international arena in the new era of China’s peaceful rise. This will further help China to enhance trust and reduce the risk of dangerous miscalculations.
* Dechen Palmo is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute,


Friday, 3 November 2017

Brahmaputra River: An Eternal Conflict between India and China

*By Dechen Palmo

The problem of water scarcity in the region
China having more than 20% of the world’s population has less than 7% of global freshwater resource at its disposal. Moreover, the available water is unequally distributed, with Tibet having more water than northern China. To relieve the enormous pressure on water resource in China’s north, the leadership in 2003 launched a gigantic South-to-North Water Transfer Project.[i] To satisfy its insatiable demand for electricity and as a part of its shift away from coal, China went on a dam building spree. However, the Chinese projects on the Tibet's transboundary river have negative impact on the downstream countries.

The frozen Yarlung Tsangpo River just before it enters India from Tibet (Image by Yang Yong) caption
One such issue is about the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra River which is also known as the Yarlung Tsangpo and has its source in Chemayungdung glacier in Tibet.  The river flows into three densely populated nations of the world--China, India and Bangladesh.  India, which is the middle riparian of the Brahmaputra River, has sour relations with China which control the source of this river in Tibet. 

For India, the Brahmaputra River is of great importance for two reasons: first, The River, accounts for 29% of the total run-off of India's rivers, is key to India's river linking project; second, The Brahmaputra basin possess about 44% of India's total hydropower potential.[ii]

But with Chinese construction of dams and water diversion projects, it threatens the downstream countries. In the meantime, there is need for Beijing to maintain relatively stable relations with neighbouring countries in order to provide conditions for China's peaceful rise.[iii]

Desecuritizing the water issue
To meet its surging energy demand, China itself seeks to utilize its huge hydropower potential of the Brahmaputra but on other hand, China has to maintain a stable relation with India and Bangladesh. Therefore, China follows the desecuritization policy to deal with the water sharing conflicts.

Desecuritization refers to the process of "moving issues off the security agenda and back into the realm of political discourse and normal political dispute and accommodation. Desecuritization is therefore about ‘turning threats into challenges and security into politics’.[iv]
Source: Environment and Development Desk, Tibet Policy Institute
China's desecuritization moves have primarily been of a reactive and short-term nature.[v] Whenever there is concerns raised about the Chinese activities on the upstream of the river, Beijing resorts to a volley of rhetorical comments. The main tool used by the Chinese is the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding sharing hydrological data with India and Bangladesh, not leaving any space for downstream to point finger to China for being uncooperative upper riparian country.

But, whenever the circumstances arise, China uses Tibet's river to achieve its foreign policy goal. During the Doklam conflict, the issue of Brahmaputra also came into play, this is because of the lack of cooperation or agreement between the two countries. Since there is no water sharing agreement or any dispute settling mechanism between the two countries, the issue of water is often mixed with border conflicts.

Existing apparatus between the countries on water is mostly a series of MoU on hydrological data sharing and a body of experts-level mechanism. However, these MoUs are non-binding and there is no overseeing organizational body that can ensure a fair implementation of the agreement.

With the recent Chinese policy of not sharing hydrological data with India, China has actually violated the bilateral MoUs. According to the MoUs, China is obliged to share a hydrological data from three upstream monitoring stations of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet during the monsoon season from May 15 to October 15 and India on other side has to pay for the hydrological data.  While China sells hydrological data to downstream countries, India provides such data without charging fee to both of its downstream neighbors- Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Mr. Raveesh Kumar, Indian foreign ministry spokesperson during a regular briefing said that "for this year, we have not received the hydrological data from the Chinese side".[vi]

Will the existing MoUs and the expert level mechanism between the two countries ensure future cooperation? Will there be any war between the two countries as predicted in case of any physical change in the flow of the river?

Until now, the existing MoU and the expert level mechanism worked for both countries. Beijing assured continuous flow of river despite damming of the river and the Indian government on the other hand also maintain a cordial relation with China over water issues, while simultaneously raising Brahmaputra River as an issue of concern with Chinese leaders.

Water Conflict

Due to rising demand, extensive use and climate change have all aggravated water security problems in the region.  According to a Mckinsey report (2009) it suggests that by 2030, water demand in India will grow by almost 1.5 trillion m3, against this demand, India’s current water supply is approximately 740 billion m3.  As a result, most of India’s river basin could face severe deficit by 2030, unless concerted action is taken. [vii] 

For whatever reason, either because of Doklam conflict or because of some technical reasons as China claimed, Beijing didn't provide the hydrological data to India for this year. This hydrological data is of great importance to the Indian side to predict or prepare for flood and to mitigate flood damage.
With the usual China desecuritization moves over water conflicts, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told media in Beijing that "for a long time we have cooperated on the river data with the Indian side. But to upgrade and renovate the relevant station on the Chinese side, we do not have the conditions now to collect the relevant statistics of the river." But the question of upgrading and reconstruction comes to light when Bangladesh, downstream to India received same hydrological data from China about the same river. Bangladesh's water resources minister, Anisul Islam Mohammad confirmed to the BBC that his country was receiving hydrological data from China.[viii]
Although, Beijing claimed the alleged paucity in data sharing is because of renovation, but Chinese observers have pointed to the escalating tensions in Doklam.

Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said that "Although China is a responsible country, we can't fulfill our obligations to India when it shows no respect to our sovereignty". He further added that China will not agree to carry out normal cooperation on hydrological data with India, unless it agrees to withdraw troops from Doklam.[ix]

So, from this it clearly indicates that Beijing is using the Brahmaputra as a leverage against India to achieve its political goal. Since the problem of border conflict is unlikely to be solved in the near future, so does the problem of Brahmaputra River.

If China continues with the lack of transparency over its project, and not adhere to the MoUs, the mistrust between the countries will continue to increase and it could lead to conflicts in the future.
Therefore, it is necessary for both countries to set up a joint institutional mechanism to encourage further cooperation on disaster management, climate change and environmental protection. If the current situation remains the same, then this is likely lead to a war over water as predicted by some of the experts.

*The author is an environment Research Fellow at the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute

[i] For more information, see South-to-North Water Diversion Project, China, Accessed on 30 October, 2017,Retrieved from:
[ii] Muhammad Mizanur Rahaman and Olli Varis, ‘Integrated water management of the Brahmaputra Basin: perspectives and hope for regional development’, National Resources Forum 33(1), (2009), pp. 60 – 61.
[iii] For more information on peaceful rise, see Peaceful rise, Accessed on 29 October, 2017. Available at
[iv]  Williams, ‘Words, images, enemies’, p. 523.
[v] Ole Waever, ‘Securitization and desecuritization’, in Ronnie Lipschutz, ed., On Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 60.
[vi] Hindustan times, accessed on 29 September, 2017, available at
[vii] As quoted in ('the Mckinsey Report') by IDSA, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 'Water Security for India: The External Dynamics,' IDSA Task Force Report, September, 2010, ISBN# 81-86019-83-9
[viii] Navin Sigh Khadka, 'China and India water 'dispute' after border standoff, 18 September 2017, retrieved from BBC,
[ix] Zhao Yusha, Global times (2017). China has to halt river data sharing as India infringes on sovereignty: expert

Friday, 27 October 2017

UN Climate Change Summits: With or Without Tibet

*By Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen


The 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) or the UN Climate Summits will be organized by the government of Fiji. But due to logistic issues to accommodate tens of thousands of delegates from 197 member states, the conference will be held in Bonn, Germany from 6-17 November 2017. This mega event is the world's biggest climate conference attended by heads of states, government delegates, climate scientists, environment researchers and activists from across the globe.

Fiji, which is home to over 870,000 people, is frequently hit by cyclones and floods as a result of climate change. Rapid sea-level rise has threatened the island nation and forced villages to move to higher grounds.

Tibet the Roof of the World

Located far away form the pacific island nation of Fiji, the Tibetan Plateau is another region that is facing the brutal brunt of climate change. A small team of Tibetan delegates, though unrecognized as a sovereign member delegates, have been faithfully attending the UN climate summits since 1992 to voice its plight. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the first ever Tibetan to speak at such summits on Tibet's environment.

Why Tibet need to be at the UN Climate Change Summits

Tibet, known as the “Roof of the World”, is an environmentally strategic area and critical to the health of the planet. As the world focuses on climate action at COP23 and beyond, Tibet must be central to any progress made on climate change.

The Tibetan Plateau, with an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level and covering an area of 2.5 million square kilometers, is the highest and largest plateau on earth. Tibet is also the head source of Asia's greatest rivers[1] supporting livelihood in 10 most densely populated nations in the world, such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China

After the Arctic and Antarctic, the Tibetan Plateau with 46,000 glaciers, is home to the third largest concentration of ice on earth. Hence is rightly referred to as the planet’s 'Third Pole' and any drastic land cover change on the third pole will resonate across Asia and beyond.

But due to its vast surface area at an extreme elevation, the temperature rise on the Tibetan Plateau is twice more the global average.  This has led to rapid glacial retreat and permafrost degradation. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, 82% of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau have retreated in the last fifty years. If the current rate continues, then 2/3 of all glaciers on the plateau would be gone by 2050 (Tandong Yao). The fast thawing of permafrost on the plateau would result in the release of vast quantity of carbon into the atmosphere. This could further exacerbate the rising temperature and cause extreme climatic conditions across the world. The plateau not only influences the timing and intensity of Asian monsoons but the increasing heat waves in Europe are also linked to the decreasing glaciers on the Tibetan plateau.

The rapid melting of glaciers would cause sudden surge in river flows in the next few years, causing floods and landslides. But the river volume could reach peak by 2030 and then would start to decline, causing unimaginable difficulties across Asia.

History of Tibetan Participation at the UN Climate Change Summits

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the first ever Tibetan participants at UN climate summits when His Holiness was invited at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. His Holiness spoke on the issue of the Tibetan Plateau and its environmental significance.  Around the same time the Environment & Development Desk (EDD) of the Central Tibetan Administration also came into existence. Since then, EDD has been working on Tibet's environmental issues to understand the environmental conditions in Tibet, to highlight the global significance of the plateau and work for the protection its environment.
After His Holiness's presence at the Earth Summit, the second batch of Tibetan delegates to attend such summit was in 2009 when a strong team of Tibetan delegates led by EDD attended the COP15 in Copenhengen. The successful Tibetan presence at Copenhengen resulted in the continued participation of Tibetans at the subsequent UN climate conferences. The Tibetan participants, despite without negotiating rights, sincerely devoted their presence at UN climate conferences on environmental issues in whatever little possible way they could.
After 10 years of His Holiness's presence at the Rio Earth Summit, a lone Tibetan participant at 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit was a memorable experience for this writer. The experience instilled sense of hope and desire to do whatever little one can in protecting Tibet's environment and contributing to the success of UN climate negotiations. 

Tibetan delegates with Climate Action for Tibet pose at the COP21 UN Climate Summits in Paris 

The 2015 participation at the COP21 UN climate summit in Paris was probably the biggest and most successful Tibetan participation. Seminars and side events were held, Tibet Climate Action slogans resonated across the globe. His Holiness the Dalai Lama delivered a powerful and passionate video messages for the world during COP21. In the message, His Holiness said "this blue planet is our only home and Tibet is its roof".

Therefore, the world need to fix the leaking roof instead of playing politics on non-political issues like environment.

Possible Partners: Tibet, China and the World

Environment is an issue that concerns us all. It knows no political boundary as His Holiness the Dalai Lama rightly said in his COP21 message. His Holiness also emphasized that the environmental issues of Tibet is something that concerns not only the Tibetans but over a billion human lives in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other southern regions of Himalaya. Tibetans have always lived in harmony with nature and protected the environment in which they lived, as they have great love and respect for nature.

Tibet witnessed unprecedented number of natural disasters across the plateau with glacial avalanches, droughts and mud floods in 2016. This signaled a drastic climatic shift and a new weather pattern on the plateau. This year the situation got worse with simultaneous floods across much of the South-eastern regions of Tibet, clearly indicating urgent need for action.

There has been some positive environmental changes in recent years and months as the world unitedly signed Paris Agreement in 2015 and Chinese President Xi gave great importance to environment in his opening speech at the recently concluded 19th National People's Congress. There seem to be a common desire among all, the Tibetan people, the Chinese government and the international community to collectively work for a greener and more sustainable future. This is absolutely possible and necessary.

Beautiful Tibet
It's time the Chinese government and the world live up to their pledges and promises in combating global warming and protecting the environment. For a genuine effort in combating global climate, the protection of the Tibetan plateau is paramount. According to V Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist 'our understanding of global climate change would be incomplete without taking into consideration what's happening to the Tibetan plateau'.

Environment should be considered an apolitical issue that Tibetan people and the Chinese government can work together. We must respect and consult each other on any environmental issues that concerns the Tibetan plateau.

The United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should
  •          Launch a scientific research studies to better understand both the impact of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau and the Plateau’s critical role in reversing the effects of global climate change. Such studies would inform and enable Tibetans, the Chinese government and the international community to protect, mitigate and adapt to climate change on the Tibetan Plateau.
  •        Recognize the global significance of the Tibetan Plateau and world leaders gathering in Bonn must make Tibet central to global climate change discussions.

To avoid a socio-environmental catastrophe, the world need to set political games aside and  act now to protect the Tibetan Plateau’s fragile ecosystem. For which, the Tibetan participation at such climate summits are important and Tibetan voices at climate debates are necessary.

 *The author is an environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute

[1]  Drichu/Yangtze, Machu/Yellow, Zachu/Mekong, Gyalmo Ngulchu/Selween, Senge Tsangpo/Indus, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra),  

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Tibetan Researchers speaks at the Biodiversity and environment conference in South India.

Two Environment Research fellows form the Tibet Policy Institute presented their papers at the International Conference on Biodiversity, Climate Change and Environmentl Science 2017, in Coimbatore, South India.

Around thirty different papers were presented at the two day conference. Most of the participants were young Indian scientist and researchers who presented their new finding of their respective field works.  Some of the participants even introduced new data apps that can quickly map biodiversity in a particular region.

Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen, an environment research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI) presented his paper on ‘Climate change on the Tibetan Plateau: Looking at increasing cases of natural disasters on the world’s highest plateau’. 

Mrs Dechen Palmo, environment research fellow at the (TPI) presented her paper on ’China’s strategic interest in the Yarlung tsanpo (Brahmaputra river)’. The talks on Tibet’s environment by the two Tibetan delegates were very warmly received by the organizers and the audience as highly informative. An information that people in this part India has very little knowledge of.

There were some very interesting papers such ‘Rapid urbanization influencing remnet-ecosystem, changing biodiversity in certain areas in West-Bengal’, ‘prioritization and conservation of biodiversity hotspots in western ghats of Maharashtra’.

The conference was organized by the Department of Botany, Nirmala College for Women in Coimbatore, in collaboration with the International Multidisciplinary Research Foundation (IMRF).

The two TPI researchers would also give a talk on Tibet’s environment at the Dalai Lama Institute of Higher Studies, Bengaluru on September 11, 2017 another talk at USI in Delhi on September 15, 2017.

Flooded Tibet: Struggling to adapt to the new reality

Golok Machen Rabgya landslide
On 30 August 2017, a massive landslide buried nine people in Golok Machen region of north eastern Tibet. The horrifying disaster occurred in the early hours of the day (4:30am) while residents were still in bed. The day could have been, otherwise, a beautiful summer morning with nomadic melodies echoing across the valley as residents carry on their daily chores. But life on the Tibetan plateau is no longer the same. According to Science Daily (9 December 2016), climate change may now be affecting the once stable regions of the Tibetan Plateau.

The impact of climate change is evident with unprecedented number of natural disasters across the plateau since 2016, mostly floods and landslides due to torrential rainfall.

As such in 2016, an unusual glacial avalanche in (Aru) Ruthok County of Ngari killed nine people and buried more than 110 yaks. Mud floods and landslide in Labrang, Sangchu, Tsolho and other regions of Amdo injured more than 30 people and caused huge damage. Thus clearly signals drastic shift in the climatic pattern on the Tibetan Plateau.

The shift was apparent as 2017 saw simultaneous floods in many parts of parts of Kham in Tibet.
There is growing worry of the increasing natural disasters and their imminent threat to life of millions. This writer published an article titled 'Natural disasters in Tibet: Is it the new normal' on 8 August 2016, asking the People's Republic of China (PRC) to make necessary arrangements to minimize the impact of increasing natural disasters. The PRC should be applauded for the massive drive to plant trees across Tibet which would have an immense benefit in the future.

Jomda Flood July 8, 2017
But the recent flood damages in Golok, Dege, Jomda, Sokzong and Rongdrak could have been avoided had the Chinese government proactively pursued a policy of safety first in any infrastructure development in Tibetan areas. The government has been forewarned of increasing natural disasters including landslides, torrential floods, snow disasters and forest fires in a 2015 scientific Assessment Report by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research under Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing. The question is, has the relevant governments taken any measures or framed any policy guidelines to face the new challenges.  Who should be accountable for the loss of life and damage to property?

The plateau is witnessing a rapid rise in both temperature and precipitation in recent years. This inevitable change caused by climate change cannot be avoided but damages could be easily reduced if impact of climate change is taken into consideration while framing any development policies.
To frame any such policy, a thorough study should be done to understand the factors or the causes behind recent natural disasters in Tibet. So following are the few possible causes as per the understanding of this writer.

Climate Change

Climate change is certainly the primary cause for increasing natural disasters in Tibet. The plateau has been witnessing consecutive rise in both temperature and precipitation, especially in recent years. At 0.3–0.4°C per decade, the temperature rise on the Tibetan plateau is twice the global average. This has led to massive permafrost degradation in northern regions of Tibet, resulting in increased water flow as frozen grounds quickly melts and degrades into desert.

According to Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the temperature rise has also caused 82% of glacial on the Tibetan plateau to retreat in the past 50 years.  In many parts of Kham and Amdo, glacials are drastically retreating and mountain slopes are dangerously thawing. As mountain slopes thaw and frozen ground loosen, villages and towns located on hillsides and in narrow valleys are in constant danger from impending landslides.

The situation is further exacerbated by the increased rainfall, especially in the eastern regions of Tibet. This is evident from the Tibet Summer Climate Report (2016) which stated that Tibet experienced higher than average temperature and highest record of monthly total precipitation in the same historical period.

 Rapid Urbanization

Chamdo City
Rapid urbanization has led to land grab as most of the towns and cities in Tibet are located in narrow valleys with little space to extend in either direction. This has led to construction of high rise buildings and over congestion. According to a Chinese government report, the number of towns and cities in Tibet increased from 31 to140 between the years 1990 to 2013.  China has set target of reaching 60% urbanization by 2020 from its 56.1% in 2015. The so-called Tibet Autonomous Region plans to reach its urbanization rate at 30% by 2020 from its 25.7% in 2014. This is 0.4% faster than overall target rate pursued by the Chinese government.  The rush for urbanization is apparent with cluster of buildings coming up in every Tibetan towns and cities.

Chamdo, Shigatse, and Nyintri were declared prefecture level cities. Soon all of the 18 prefecture headquarters across Tibet would be upgraded into prefecture level cities. There are around 150 county level towns that could also grow  into cities.

Poor construction

From the recent floods in Jomda and other Tibetan areas clearly demonstrated poor construction standard. Collapse of many of the buildings could have been avoided had they been built with better standard to withstand floods and earth quakes.

Location or Topography

Most of the towns and cities in Tibet are located in narrow valleys along major rivers, such location are highly prone to floods and landslides. As these towns grow in size, homes cram up on the steep slopes or encroach into the river banks, thus exacerbating the situation to a point where even a small natural event could cause massive damage.

Lack of Adaptation

Lack of adaptation is apparent as both the government and the communities were unprepared when disasters struck. There has been no climate change impact awareness program as both the government officials and general public are unaware of the socio-environmental impact of climate change. Hence natural disasters are taken as local events.


The summers are the best time of the year for Tibetans. People celebrate summer with festivals and picnics. Such a joyful occasion could turn into a nightmare if natural disasters continue to strike. Climate change is a global phenomenon but impacts vary from place to place. The magnitude of climate change related damages depend on how individual governments proactively pursue policies and take measures.  Adaption and Mitigation are the two universally accepted principal solutions in facing the new climatic reality. Lack of awareness weakens any effort in dealing with climate change; hence both the government official and general public should be educated on the possible impacts of climate change
The increased number of natural disasters occurred in the last two years were primarily due to climate change, but it was also partly due to rampant mining, rapid urbanization and irresponsible development works. Necessary mechanism to deal with natural disasters should be put in place for quick response.  A thorough post disaster assessment should be carried out to both understand the causes and to hold those responsible accountable. 
For any future development policies in Tibet, impact of climate change and local socio-ecological conditions should be taken into consideration

Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen is an environment research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute.