Category Archives: environment

“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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“Holding Our Breath”

Getting on Twitter today I was immediately struck by dozens of posts by Beijingers, who have endured astonishing levels of air pollution recently. Apparently it’s gotten so bad that the uncensored air quality feed provided by the American Embassy can no longer detect it- it’s off the charts. Absurdity, Allegory and China has a great post about this:

I have my curtains drawn and my office door shut and an IQAir filter cranking away. But that’s still not enough to keep the filth of Beijing air out. Periodically I look out the window, but then quickly draw the curtains again. I just don’t want to look at what is happening outside. It’s disgusting. This past Friday it snowed, perhaps the most depressing snow I’ve ever seen. I thought, “If there were enough of it, would you let your child play in that?” I remember those early life moments of scooping up a handful of snow, eating it, rolling in it, coming home frozen wet and red. That wouldn’t happen in this place. @bokane expressed it best: “Signs you’ve been in Beijing too long: you look out the window onto a snowy morning and just assume that it’s ash of some kind.”

On November 22 I went to the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Airport to meet a friend who was to stay with us for a week. At 11:00 AM when she arrived the air was ‘Very Unhealthy.’ According to the air quality readings tweeted nearly every hour by the U.S. Embassy – much to the chagrin and protests of the Chinese government – the PM2.5 reading was 273. (PM2.5 is the invisible particulate matter that works its way into your lungs and does the most damage, a standard international measurement that the Chinese have, though they refuse to make their readings public. As we left the airport I told her that the smog would probably clear over the next few hours since the wind was predicted to rise. And rise it did, taking all the nastiness south that day. By 15:00 it was a ‘Good’ 39 and the wind was ripping.

The days between then and now have not been all that different: a few ‘Good’ and ‘Moderate’ periods, though mostly ‘Unhealthy’ and above. The exception has been the period we are in at the moment. As I write the PM 2.5 readings have been pegged in the ‘Hazardous’ zone since yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, 12-04-2011; 16:00; PM2.5; 406.0; 438; Hazardous, more than 19 hours ago. A few hours after the air quality entered the ‘Hazardous’ zone it reached the unmeasurable range (what some have unofficially deemed “Crazy Bad”) @ 12-04-2011; 19:00; PM2.5; 522.0; 500; Beyond Index , which is somewhat akin to WWI trench warfare air. How far ‘Beyond Index’ was it? There’s no way of knowing that, though if the CN.gov folks do, they aren’t about to tell anyone. In fact I’m surprised they haven’t sniped the measurement machine on top of the U.S. Embassy, yet. They hate it.

But this isn’t about us, China. This is about the Chinese. The majority of people who are affected by this insane level of pollution are your parents and grandparents. But it will all catch up to you later.

My city is bad enough, I can’t imagine living in Beijing.

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“Under Public Pressure, Beijing Opens up Air Quality Monitoring Center”

They’ve gotten blasted for years for claiming that the air is fine and dandy while the skies look like a mixture of Mordor and Geidi Prime. Now the WSJ reports that the authorities in Beijing are giving in:

Beijing authorities have opened their air quality monitoring center to the public following a wave of online demands for them to measure pollution more accurately by adopting standards used by the U.S. Embassy, according to state media reports.

Beijing authorities have come under mounting public pressure to improve their air quality measurements since 2008, when the U.S. Embassy began using Twitter to publish contradictory readings from its own monitor which measures smaller air particles that experts say cause most damage to the lungs.

Beijing officials admit that they currently only measure larger air particles, and say they plan to adopt the more sensitive standard in the future, but they dispute the accuracy of the Embassy’s readings and say a series of particularly smoggy days at the end of last month were caused mainly by fog, rather than pollution.

My city isn’t exactly a bastion of fresh air… but pictures from Beijing blow away the worst days I’ve ever seen here.

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“Heavy metals pollute a tenth of China’s farmland”

Via Reuters, some news that shouldn’t much surprise anyone:

About one tenth of China’s farmland is polluted by lead, zinc and other heavy metals to “striking” levels exceeding official limits, a government expert said according to reports on Monday.

Wan Bentai, the chief engineer for China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, said a survey of soil pollutants this year found heavy metal from smelter chimneys, water run-off and tailings meant “in total about 10 percent of farmland has striking problems of heavy metal levels exceeding (government) limits,” the Southern Metropolitan Daily reported.

The Chinese government estimates the country has 1.22 million square kilometers of farmland, and says protecting that land is a priority. But many rural areas support smelters and foundries that spill pollution into soil and water supplies.

China’s environment ministry has called for urgent measures to tackle heavy metal poisoning. But Beijing has often failed to match vows to tackle polluters with the resources and will to enforce such demands, and local officials often put growth, revenue and jobs ahead of environmental standards.

And why would Beijing actually try to tackle this one? They’re eating safe food delivered from organic farms, this isn’t really even an issue for them.

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“Beer company threatens Tibetan antelope”

Argh:

A promotion for the world’s best-selling beer encroaches on the protected breeding ground of the Tibetan antelope, according to Chinese conservationists who are campaigning against the commercial exploitation of one of the planet’s most unique nature reserves.

Snow Beer is offering its customers an expedition to Kekexili, a remote region high on the Tibetan Plateau that is supposed to be off-limits to everyone except scientists with permission from the national government.

Kekexili – also known as Hoh Xil – is one of the least populated areas on earth. It has been a national reserve since 1995, but for many years after it was the site of a murderous conflict between poachers and the Wild Yak Brigade, a patrol of vigilantes committed to protecting endangered species.

Chief among them was the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, which was almost hunted to extinction due to the demand of wealthy foreign consumers for its fine shahtoosh wool. A gritty 2004 film about their plight and the killing of the brigade’s leader prompted the government to strengthen protection. Chiru numbers have since started to recover and the animal was made a mascot for the Beijing Olympics.

Conservationists say the brewery’s proposed tour would be a setback.

“This is China’s most precious nature reserve. There are explicit prohibitions against crossings,” said Wu Zhu, the conservationist heading the campaign against the promotion tour.

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“In China, what you eat tells who you are”

Remember the story about Greenpeace China testing in supermarkets and finding enormous problems with tainted vegetables? The Chicago Tribune has the other side of the story:

At a glance, it is clear this is no run-of-the-mill farm: A 6-foot spiked fence hems the meticulously planted vegetables and security guards control a cantilevered gate that glides open only to select cars.

“It is for officials only. They produce organic vegetables, peppers, onions, beans, cauliflowers, but they don’t sell to the public,” said Li Xiuqin, 68, a lifelong Shunyi village resident who lives directly across the street from the farm but has never been inside. “Ordinary people can’t go in there.”

Until May, a sign inside the gate identified the property as the Beijing Customs Administration Vegetable Base and Country Club. The placard was removed after a Chinese reporter sneaked inside and published a story about the farm producing organic food so clean the cucumbers could be eaten directly from the vine.

Elsewhere in the world, this might be something to boast about. Not in China. Organic gardening here is a hush-hush affair in which the cleanest, safest products are largely channeled to the rich and politically connected.

Many of the nation’s best food companies don’t promote or advertise. They don’t want the public to know that their limited supply is sent to Communist Party officials, dining halls reserved for top athletes, foreign diplomats, and others in the elite classes.

“The officials don’t really care what the common people eat because they and their family are getting a special supply of food,” said Gao Zhiyong, who worked for a state-run food company and wrote a book on the subject.

In the western foothills, the exclusive Jushan farm first developed to supply Mao’s private kitchen still operates under the auspices of the state-run Capital Agribusiness Group, providing food for national meetings. A state-owned company, the Beijing 2nd Commercial Bureau, says on its website that it “supplies national banquets and meetings, which have become the cradle of safe food in Beijing.”

The State Council, China’s highest administrative body, has its own supplier of delicacies, down to salted duck eggs.

“We have supplied them for almost 20 years,” said a spokesman at the offices of Weishanhu Lotus Foods, in Shandong province. “Our product cannot be bought in an ordinary supermarket as our volume of production is very little.”

When people ask if the government will clean up the food supply… well, why would they? They’re getting safe food already, and no one is in a position to hold them accountable. It’s like asking if the government will move against corruption. It’s their bread and butter, what could possibly drive them to move against it?

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“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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