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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Vanishing glaciers jolt smokestack China

November 11, 2009

Michael Sheridan
The Sunday Times (UK)
November 8, 2009

AS an expedition from Chinese state television
worked its way across the remote Tibetan plateau
earlier this year, the explorers were amazed by what they found.

The plateau has been called the world’s third
largest ice store after the North and South
Poles. Yet according to Chinese scientists, the
“third pole” is warming up faster than anywhere else on earth.

The TV team found bare rock where glaciers had
retreated. Lakes had dried up. Lush grassland had
turned to desert. The livestock was dead, the farmers impoverished.

They brought back a visual lesson in global
warming so stark that censors allowed the
programme makers to broadcast a frank exposé.
Their film attracted the attention of the
Communist party’s leaders and has put climate
change at the centre of a remarkably open debate
in China ahead of a summit on the issue in Copenhagen next month.

It means that when President Barack Obama arrives
in China next weekend he will find his hosts
ready to talk about dozens of measures to slow
the rate of global warming. He will not find them
willing to agree to calls by rich countries for
Beijing to accept a binding cap on carbon
emissions — a condition that commentaries in the
Chinese media have defined as politically unacceptable.

Any compromise might break an international
deadlock and allow a treaty to be signed.
However, even if that now looks unlikely to
happen — and the United Nations official leading
the talks accepts this — the fact is that China
has woken up to the damage in an unprecedented way.

The speed and scale of change on the Tibetan
plateau have made Chinese leaders react to
something they understand -- a potential threat to the future of China itself.

They are clearly seeking to mould opinion in
favour of "greener" policies after decades of a
highly polluting dash for economic growth that
has poisoned China’s rivers and darkened its skies.

Last month, for example, researchers discovered
that levels of black carbon in the ice core of
the Tibetan plateau had soared since the 1990s
because of smokestack industries and coal fires in millions of homes.

The plateau’s 36,000 glaciers, which once
extended for 18,000 square miles, could vanish
before mid-century if present rates of warming
persist. More than 80% of them are in retreat.
The overall area has shrunk by 4.5% in the past 20 years.

Most ominous of all, in the area that Chinese
know as Sanjiangyuan, where three mighty rivers
rise -- the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Mekong —
the headwaters run shallow and weak, threatening
the water supplies for hundreds of millions of people.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, here was rich grassland
and sheep grazed everywhere, but the weather has
become hotter and drier," a Tibetan herder, Sonarenqin, 39, told the TV crew.

"Five years ago my family had 300 sheep and 30
yaks. Now I have no sheep at all and merely a few
yaks," an 80-year-old Tibetan named Seluo added.
“Our life has become so hard that we live on handouts.”

In the past 30 years the thawing of permafrost, a
layer of soil that is usually frozen all the year
round, has changed the landscape profoundly.

"There were 4,077 lakes and now 3,000 of them
have disappeared," said Xin Hongyuan, a geologist
in Qinghai, which shares the huge expanse of
plateau with the Tibet autonomous region and the
provinces of Sichuan and Gansu.

"The snow is thawing and the snowline has risen
from 4,600 metres to 5,300 metres. The
Jianggendiru glacier, which is the main water
supply of the Yangtze, has been degenerating fast
since 1970, and when the glaciers shrink there
will be a water crisis in the Yellow and Yangtze rivers."

The Yellow river, for example, supplies water to
a fifth of China’s 1.3 billion population and
serves 50 big cities along its 3,395 miles.

In recent years it has sometimes slowed to a
trickle. Once it virtually stopped flowing for
226 days, causing urban waterpipes to run dry and
confronting downstream provinces with huge financial losses.

Qin Dahe, an eminent scientist and explorer, has
been permitted to disclose alarming official
assessments of the causes to Xinhua, the state
news agency. “Owing to global warming, glaciers
on the QinghaiTibet plateau are retreating
extensively at a speed faster than in any other part of the world,” he said.

Temperatures on the plateau have risen by an
average of 0.32C every 10 years since 1961, about
six times as fast as in the rest of China. In
Tibet, it is hotter than at any time in the past
half century, while in the south and west of
Tibet there is between 30% and 80% less rainfall.

Qin said floods, mudslides and other calamities would become more frequent.

It is not just China that is at risk. Its giant
neighbour, India, also faces the consequences of
climate change in Tibet, whose glaciers nourish
the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers. Qin
said the breakdown of permafrost would eventually
destroy the ecological balance and change the
summer monsoons, to devastating effect. There
would be droughts in northern India, more intense
floods in southern China and parched lands in the
wheat-growing north, he predicted.

Greenpeace said recently that if the glaciers
vanished, it would put at risk water supplies for
900m people in China and India alone.

At present, there is no sign of co-operation
between the two countries to meet the threat.
Instead they are frozen in a diplomatic and
military dispute about the Himalayan border, over
which they went to war in 1962. Indeed, tension
has intensified in recent weeks because of a
visit by the Dalai Lama to a monastery in a contested area.

If Obama cannot save the climate in his visit to
China, he might at least be able to lower the
temperature between the Asian giants and start
them talking about the diminishing "third pole."
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