According to one of the latest WikiLeaks cables, the Dalai Lama told the US that the international community should shift its focus to climate change in Tibet, the world's highest and largest plateau. It is a message that China's top leader Hu Jintao, a hydrologist by profession who keeps a firm grip on Tibet policy, needs to hear.
The Dalai Lama's urgent appeal reflects the little-known but stark reality that Tibet is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. This matters to the world, not only to Tibet. As the earth's 'Third Pole', Tibet contains the biggest reserves of freshwater outside the Arctic and Antarctic, and it is the source of most of Asia's rivers, including the Yangtze and the Mekong. The fragile ecology of the Tibetan plateau is of critical importance to the water-dependent societies in downstream nations.
China is now pursuing a number of dams and inter-river water transfer projects in Tibet which threaten to cause further damage to the plateau's eco-system, and possible devastation in downstream communities. As the populations of South and Southeast Asia continue to grow, water scarcity will become more acute, which could lead to conflicts between China and its neighbors over water resources.
Until now, Tibet's landscape and ecosystem remained relatively intact -- Tibet's high altitude, rugged terrain and harsh climate had resulted in the creation of sustainable systems of traditional agricultural and livestock rearing. But policies imposed from the top-down in Beijing, based on an urban industrial model, are threatening to alter the natural hydrological regime of the plateau, and depriving Tibetans of the stewardship of their land at a time of environmental crisis. Scientists have warned that increased urbanization and infrastructural development (such as the Qinghai-Tibet railway that runs across the shifting permafrost of the plateau) may even be contributing to the adverse effects of climate change.
The Chinese authorities have also been implementing policies of settling Tibetan nomads, confiscating their land, and fencing pastoral areas. Nomads are losing their livelihoods and living in isolated encampments, leading to a cycle of increasing poverty and social breakdown of communities. Not only is this threatening one of the world's last systems of sustainable pastoralism, but scientific evidence shows that these policies are endangering the survival of the rangelands and Tibet's biodiversity.
Chinese, Tibetan and Western scholars concerned about the impact say that settling nomads runs counter to the latest scientific evidence on lessening the impact of grasslands degradation, which points to the need for livestock mobility in ensuring the health of the rangelands and mitigating negative warming impacts.
There is an increasing consensus among Chinese, Tibetan and Western scholars that the traditional ecosystem knowledge of nomadic pastoralists protects the land and livelihoods and helps restore areas already degraded. The involvement of Tibetans -- and nomads in particular -- is essential to sustaining the long-term health of the land and water resources that China and Asia depend upon.On a deeper level, says environmentalist and scholar Katherine Morton:
The threat of large-scale environmental catastrophe reaffirms the need for a 21st century view of progress that moves beyond the 19th century model of nation-building based on the expansive exploitation of natural resources.
Twenty-first century thinking requires a halt to the displacement of nomads from the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, and the integrated participation of Tibetans in decision-making and management of the land. New strategies are required, and should be based on inclusive dialogue that brings together vulnerable communities, regional and local governments, Chinese, Tibetan and other Asian scholars, scientists and NGOs. A regional framework for the governance of water resources could be developed among nations in South and Southeast Asia, including China, in which the results could be shared and adaptive management approaches developed to take account of risk relating to climate change.
The Dalai Lama's promotion of global interdependence and protection of the environment was one of the reasons that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. In his acceptance speech, he said: "Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things. This understanding is crucial if we are to take positive and decisive action on the pressing global concern with the environment."
It is the world's loss that, as a leader exiled from his country, the Dalai Lama could not be at the table in Copenhagen or Cancun. As his comments to the US government published in WikiLeaks indicate, Tibet needs serious attention in global talks on climate change, and China's strategies to address climate change need to involve the Tibetan people.