“Tibet’s mining menace”

China Dialogue has a post on mining in Tibet- hardly a shock that massive environmental damage is being predicted as mining steps up on the Plateau:

China has long known of the mineral wealth of the Tibetan Plateau but until now it has been easier and cheaper to buy minerals overseas. Tibet has been too remote, too cold, the air too thin and the infrastructure absent. Small-scale extraction of surface gold from riverbeds has been frequent, and environmentally destructive, with much use of dredges, cyanide and mercury that kill aquatic life and poison streams; but large scale exploitation is new. Publicly, small-scale mining is now banned, but in practice it persists, especially in districts where there are no longer Tibetans on their lands to protect it, having been removed in the name of watershed protection.

Now a new era is under way. The state has paid for the necessary infrastructure of roads, railways, power stations and urban facilities. State geological exploration teams have spent decades mapping known deposits, preparing sites for full-scale extraction. Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) chairman Pema Choling, reporting on the achievements of 2010, said: “With the focus on opening up to the country’s hinterland region, we have actively merged with the Chengdu-Chongqing economic sphere.”

The biggest copper and gold deposits in Tibet, from west to east, are in Shetongmon, Gyama and Yulong districts, where central planners say there will be many mines, ore crushers, chemical concentrators and smelters. Large-scale industrial mining has arrived. These mines contain silver, lead and zinc as well as copper and gold, although the lead and zinc will go to waste. And all these mines are situated in the watersheds of Asia’s major rivers that support hundreds of millions of people downstream.

Shetongmon mine was the first major project to attract publicity, partly because of its sensitive location so close to the Yarlung Zangbo and Shigatse city, the historic seat of the Panchen Lamas; and partly because it was for some time owned by Canadian investors. By the time the railway to nearby Shigatse is completed in 2014, the mine will be operational.

Its proximity to a major river raises serious environmental concerns, since the steep site will have to securely hold at least 75 out of every 100 tonnes of rock mined and crushed to powder to extract a concentrate that can be sent by rail to a distant smelter. According to recent research by Tibetan scientists, there is already a natural heavy-metal load in the river; any leakage from the hillside dam waste tailings could be disastrous. Not only would downstream India and Bangladesh be affected; if the planned water diversion of Tibetan rivers to the Yellow River includes capturing the Yarlung Zangbo, downstream China’s water purity would be threatened too.

Gyama mine, controlled by Vancouver-based China Gold, is already operational and, located just upstream of Lhasa, poses a threat to the purity of the water in Tibet’s most sacred city. Like most of Tibet, the area is seismically unstable, vulnerable to earthquakes. A study of water quality below the Gyama mine carried out in 2010 revealed that “elevated concentrations of heavy metals in the surface water and streambed at the upper/middle part of the valley pose a considerably high risk to the local environment…and to downstream water users. Environmental changes such as global warming or increased mining activity may increase the mobility of these pools of heavy metals.”

Local Tibetans have protested and sent a petition to Chinese authorities demanding the closure of the mine. The mining operation has reportedly dried up spring waters, poisoned drinking water, killed 1,000 domestic animals and destroyed flora and fauna in the region. Despite this, in August 2011, China Gold announced that it had boosted the resources of the mine by over 400% and will proceed with a major expansion of the project.

Note that Tibetans themselves have little or no stake in these operations, instead merely benefiting from them in terms of polluted air and poisonous water.

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Filed under environment, mining, pollution, Tibet

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