Climate change, not grazing, destroying the Tibetan Plateau (Google / Chinadialogue)

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by Lei Dongjun

Forcing herders to abandon nomadic way of life failing to stop desertification near the source of the Yellow River, an investigation reveals.

Sanjiangyuan – which literally translates as the ‘three river source area’ – feeds China’s mightiest rivers. The 300,000-square kilometre region, high on western China’s Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, provides a quarter of the Yangtze’s water, almost half of the Yellow River’s and 10% of the Mekong’s.

Crucial as this area is, its environment is deteriorating, with rising snowlines, shrinking lakes, wetland degradation and reduced runoff. As early as 2001, over 90% of Qumarleb county’s wells were found to be empty, while 100 of Madoi county’s 4077 lakes had dried up.

More than half of the usable grassland is severely degraded, suffering desertification or over-run with pests.

The situation has been compounded by a sharp drop in biodiversity, both in absolute numbers and types of species. More than 100,000 Tibetan antelope – a “grade one” state protected species – used to roam the plateau. Numbers fell to just 30,000 at their ebb, though recently the population has been rising again. The alpine musk deer is on the brink of extinction, and there has been a sharp drop in the numbers of white lipped deer, red deer and snow leopards.

Ecological degradation in Sanjiangyuan is plain to see. But is it a natural disaster or a man-made one? It was with this question in mind that I set off late last year on the “Yellow River Decade Journey”, a mission to survey the region’s ecology organised by Chinese NGO Green Earth Volunteers. The trip took me from Madoi county to the Yellow River source in Qumarleb.

Believing that overgrazing of livestock is behind the ecological degradation of Sanjiangyuan, China’s government has implemented grazing bans and policies to resettle herders – so-called “ecological migration”. But were nomadic herders really the problem? Our trip to the Yellow River source conservation area to carry out this field survey finally gave us a chance to find out the truth.

Controversy over role of Tibetan herders



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Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.