Book Review: Meltdown in Tibet

Michael Buckley is a travel writer who first went to Tibet to raft its rivers and describe its vast landscape in 1985. In the ensuing 30 years, according to a searing new book on environmental destruction at the hands of the Han Chinese, he has seen half of the territory’s forests disappear and its mighty rivers increasingly dammed.

It is a story that has been told piecemeal by magazines and newspapers – and in Asia Sentinel at regular intervals – and environmental publications. But Buckley has put Chinese depredations in Tibet all together in a single volume that should be read across the world, not just because of its depiction of the Chinese cultural, political and environmental takeover of Tibet but what China’s actions portend for a huge section of the world’s environment, populated by hundreds of millions of people. It is nothing short of a frightening disaster.

Since the takeover of Tibet in 1950, according to Buckley, what has happened on the Tibetan plateau is not just a kind of cultural genocide. The situation has far-reaching implications for almost all of the countries of South and Southeast Asia.

Titled “Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia, the book gets off to a fast and depressing start, and it doesn’t let up through its 248 pages. There is almost nothing in this book that gives any cause for optimism.

The widespread belief among the Han Chinese appears to be bewilderment. Successive Chinese governments have poured vast amounts of development into Tibet, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles of new roads and highways and airports and the world’s highest-altitude train. Peoples who for centuries lived a poverty-stricken nomadic existence have been moved out of yak-hide huts and into concrete apartment blocks. It has put social programs into place to care for the people. But what they have done is taken Tibet away from the Tibetans.

Until the Chinese poured into the region, as Buckley points out, Tibet, most of which ranges above 13,000 feet, was in a solid ecological balance, not so much because the Tibetans themselves were environmentally aware, but because there were so few of them – 6 million Tibetans in a country the size of Europe. Outside the few cities, they were nomads, following their yak herds and using every big of the ponderous animals – for clothing, for food, for housing, for sustenance itself.

The first casualty of the occupation, he writes, was deforestation as Chinese loggers poured into Tibet, cutting down half the forests of eastern and southern Tibet. When he first entered the country, he said, “I saw long lines of Dongfeng trucks filled with huge logs going the other way. I was witness to China’s highly destructive practice of clear-cutting the forests of eastern Tibet.

The repercussions, he writes, are “evident in mudslides, landslides and flooding all the way from western China to Bangladesh.”

The second major casualty was wildlife. As habitat has disappeared, virtually all animal life has disappeared along with it. Given exotic Chinese culinary tastes, the exotic birds of Tibet graced Chinese tables. Antelope were slaughtered for their wool. The horns and other parts of unfamiliar animals have become part of the Chinese pharmaceutical lexicon, despite the fact that there is little or nonscientific basis for their inclusion.

Even more troubling, Chinese engineering is wiping out Tibet’s wild rivers with innumerable numbers of dams that are diverting the waters away from far downstream such as the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy and many more. As the waters are diverted away, they not only dare widespread changes in the downstream environment, they are turning vast sections of Tibetan grassland into desert. As Buckley writes, the government in Beijing awakened with a start to the damage desertification caused and began a huge program of reforestation.

The rivers into South and Southeast Asia, most of which originate in the high reaches of the Tibetan mountains, are fed from snow off the glaciers of what is called the globe’s third pole. That third pole, Buckley writes, is fast disappearing, not only because of China’s gouging of the environment but because of climate change that many, particularly in the United States congress, continue to deny exists.

In terms of human impact, Buckley writes, “meltdown of the Tibetan Plateau glaciers will have far greater repercussions“ than anything happening on either the North or South Pole icecaps. Tibet, he says, “is the icebox of Asia. There are numerous sources of water in Tibet – lakes, rivers, permafrost, glaciers, snowpack, groundwater and springs.”

Glaciers are enormously important. They meter water into the rivers. Keeping them full in dry spells and allowing for winter storage. Without them, the great rivers downstream face calamity. And they are disappearing, losing mass. Chinese scientists believe that by 2050, at current warming rates, 40 percent of Tibet’s glaciers will be gone.

There is simply nothing in this book that gives any hope, either for Tibet or for Asia at large. The Chinese government in Beijing, according to Buckley, is guilty of nothing less than ecocide. Mining companies, he says, exclude the locals from participation, as do the logging companies and most of the other operations despoliating Tibet.

Mining companies are guilty of “land grabbing, excluding locals from planning, no concern for pollution, and the suppression of any protest with brutal force...” China, he says, “is doing what the worst colonizers have done – completely exploiting its neighbors with scant regard for the environment, or for the welfare of the peoples.”

This is a frightening book. But it should be read by as many people as possible, including the Chinese leadership in Beijing. It won’t be.