“Tibet’s resource curse”

ChinaDialogue has a big article about what resource extraction is doing to Tibet- while reading, keep in mind that little or none of the profits ever make their way to the people who have lived on the land for generations:

Chinese geologists exploring Tibet in the 1960s criss-crossed the plateau, searching for the mineral wealth they assumed must be abundant, but had not yet discovered. In remote alpine deserts, the geological expeditions came upon lakes which were slowly drying-up due to long-term climate shifts. High on the empty Chang Tang plain in western Tibet, they found lakes already dry, their beds a shimmering salt pan.

Testing the various salts, the geologists discovered a scientific curiosity. One lake in particular, Drangyer Tsaka (Zabuye), held an extraordinary concentration of lithium salts; measurements of 660 parts per million (ppm) of lithium were recorded. Only in the Atacama Desert of the Andes had such levels of lithium been discovered.

In the Tsaidam Basin of northern Tibet, geologists found not only salt lakes, but also oil, asbestos, lead, zinc; and in Tso Ngonpo (Qinghai Lake) they found minerals that could be used for developing submarine-based nuclear missiles.

So valuable were the lakes in the Tsaidam Basin that a railway was built more than three decades ago, enabling tanker wagons to haul millions of tonnes of oil to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The availability of so many minerals in one basin, as well as gas fields discovered and exploited later, provided the raw materials for a major industrial base. Golmud, formerly a camel-train stop on the long haul between Lanzhou and Lhasa, became an industrial city, with petrochemical plants that produced plastics, fuel, fertilisers and explosives. The salts of the many salt lakes were essential inputs.

Around the turn of this century, China began to separate the mixed salts of Tsaidam Basin lake beds on a large-scale. Separating naturally crystallised sodium, potassium, magnesium and lithium salts requires heavy-duty toxic solvents (such as isobutanol and chloroform), known to cause cancer. Since the Qinghai authorities were keen to industrialise their province – known for its poverty, remoteness and cold climate – land-use controls and environmental regulations were not a priority. From the provincial capital Xining, spreading out to the famous Kumbum Monastery, industrial plants took up land, pouring effluents into nearby streams. Potash and magnesium plants were built and expanded in Gormo, Xining and along the connecting railway line.

Obtaining lithium, magnesium and potassium from salt lakes remains a dirty business. Environmental regulations are ignored, particularly in western china, where mineral extraction pollutes the air, soil and water. The sexy green electric car of the future may not be as green as people hope. Not only does li-ion battery manufacture consume a lot of energy, but given the solvent extraction methods used, there is a major risk that lithium will leak into water supplies.

But the environmental impacts of mineral extraction will intensify in the Tibetan Plateau, in arid areas where pollutants accumulate in basins with no external drainage. Both the Tsaidam Basin and Drangyer Tsaka lithium salt lakes cannot naturally dispose of toxins generated by solvent extraction, and so waste products stay where they are dumped, or evaporate into the thin air and intense heat of a Tibetan summer. No longer will lithium extraction be confined to Gansu, as in the past.

The first large-scale lithium extraction factory in the Tsaidam basin is due to begin operation soon according to Metal Bulletin, and even Drangyer Tsaka is now scheduled to produce thousands of tonnes of lithium annually. It may not be long before your latest handheld passport to mobile connectivity is powered by Tibetan lithium.

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Filed under environment, mining, pollution, Tibet

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