Chinese mining activities in Tibet are being conducted with little regard for the region’s environment and have led to widespread damage, including the pollution of water sources for both livestock and humans, experts say.
Tibet is called Xizang, or Western Treasure, by China and has become an important source of minerals needed for China’s economic growth.
“Large-scale mining of several major deposits of copper, gold, and silver is rapidly scaling up in several areas, all close to major Tibetan and Asian rivers,” said Australia-based Tibet environmental expert Gabriel Lafitte.
“Those rivers have been found by scientific baseline survey to naturally carry high levels of heavy metals,” said Lafitte, author of a forthcoming book on Chinese mining operations called Spoiling Tibet.
Mining close to the upper reaches of the Mekong, Yangtse, and Yarlung Tsangpo, which flows into India and Bangladesh as the Brahmaputra, “will only increase the danger of toxic runoff,” Lafitte said.
“[Also], the soils and subsoils of Tibet are naturally high in heavy metals that are toxic to humans … So any mining that churns up soil and rock liberates these toxic metals to be washed or leached into the river flow.”
Operations at the Gyama mine in Tibet’s Maldro Gongkar county, scene of a catastrophic landslide that killed 83 in March, have already fouled local water sources, experts say.
“Reports of environmental pollution leading to water contamination, illness of local Tibetans and loss of animals are common in the Gyama Valley,” according to an April 9 report released by the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, or Central Tibetan Administration.
“The mining, which has been going on in the upper hills of Gyama for nearly two decades has led to toxic wastes being dumped into Gyama Shingchu river resulting in the death of a large number of cattle,” the Assessment Report of the Recent Landslide Event in the Gyama Valley said.
“Villagers in the valley depend on Gyama Shingchu for their drinking water supply and irrigation,” the report said.
“We appealed to the authorities not to mine in the Gyama area for fear of polluting water in the region,” Yeshe Togden, a former resident of the area now living in Boston, told RFA’s Tibetan Service on April 2.
Of particular concern, Togden said, was the mine’s proximity to the Kyichu river, a major source of drinking water for Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa.
“When water experts tested the water at the Gyama mine site, they found water poisoned with pollutants from the mining activities,” Togden said, adding, “Later, this was hushed up and the public was not informed.”
In January, Tibetan sources told RFA that Chinese-operated mines in Lhundrub county, also near Lhasa, have caused “severe” damage to local forests, grasslands, and drinking water.
Waste from the mines, in operation since 2005, “has been dumped in the local river, and mining activities have polluted the air,” one source said.
“Pollution has hampered the growth of grass in the area, and many animals have died of hunger,” the source said.
The spread of pollutants even farther downstream into neighboring regions is an additional concern, said Darrin Magee, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.
“There’s definitely potential,” said Magee.
“Actual downstream impacts would of course depend on the nature and extent of any pollution events,” Magee said, adding, “We’ve certainly seen egregious pollution incidents on China’s rivers, including a major transboundary event [into Russia] with the 2005 Songhua benzene spill in northeast China.”
More primitive efforts at resource extraction have also damaged Tibet’s environment, said Lafitte, pointing to “the ongoing pollution legacy of literally hundreds of surface gold extraction operations in almost every streambed in Tibet.”
This was the result of an “unregulated boom” in the 1980s and 1990s when poor Chinese peasants came to Tibet from Sichuan and other nearby provinces because they were no longer able to make a living on their own land, Lafitte said.
The poorest used mercury and cyanide to extract the gold, Lafitte said.
“The bigger operators, often local governments technically responsible for enforcing environmental regulations, set up operations using dredges to chew up streambeds and pasture on the banks, leaving behind a muddy toxic mess wherever they went.”
“Then they suddenly left, and no one is responsible for the sludge,” said Lafitte.