Qinghai-Tibet Railway Highlights Discrepancy in Protection at Central and Provincial Levels

With the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway this summer, China is now home to not only the world’s largest dam and longest wall, but also its highest railroad. “China has rewritten the world’s history,” the railway’s official website proclaims, sporting photos of the train conquering the “unsurmountable” Kunlun Mountains as children wave from thriving grasslands below. Developers and planners even have reason to boast about the project’s environmental protection efforts, thanks to the 1.54 billion yuan (US $192.5 million) set aside to protect animals and habitat during railroad construction.

According to Yang Xin, founding president of the Sichuan-based environmental group Green River, the attention given to the environment during construction of the 1,142-kilometer Golmud-to-Lhasa route was “unprecedented” in Chinese history. His sentiments are more than just a bow to government propaganda. Green River, which has worked for the protection of the wildlife and ecosystems of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau for more than a decade, collaborated closely with the rail planners and construction crew over the five-years of construction to ensure that environmental considerations were included. Measures to minimize construction damage included backfilling, setting specified routes for work trucks, and building suspended wildlife corridors for the plateau’s endangered Tibetan antelope.

This is not to say the project had no impact. Yang is quick to point out that any major development effort, no matter how careful, will cause at least some damage to the surrounding environment. This is especially true of the fragile Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. With elevations starting at 4,500 meters and temperatures below freezing year-round, it is one of China’s most unpopulated and fragile ecosystems. The Tibetan antelope and other rare and endangered species, such as the Tibetan donkey, Tibetan wild yak, and snow leopard, roam the plateau’s Kekexili Wildlife Protection Reserve, which protects some 30,000 square kilometers of critical grassland habitat.

If seriously disturbed, Yang says, the plateau’s delicate ecosystem balance would be nearly impossible to restore, and it could take 100 years or more to rebuild damaged topsoil or grass crest. He notes that the railway construction did disturb sections of the grass crest as roads and rock quarries were dug to source materials for the rail bed. The project also presented significant barriers to the migration and mating patterns of wildlife. Green River continues to monitor these impacts closely and to advocate for both the local wildlife and nomadic peoples.

But the key lesson to be learned from the project, according to Yang, is that sufficient funding and mindful development can make a huge difference in preserving China’s environment. Unlike the thousands of smaller development projects nationwide (many of which have caused serious damage because of a lack of attention to environmental protection), the rail project was a high-profile endeavor. The central government allocated generous funding for a thorough environmental impact assessment (EIA) during the planning stage, and Green River involved from the beginning. The group’s Suonandajie Station, located near the train line, conducts scientific studies of the Tibetan antelope and other local species, and Green River scientists were able to use this research and other detailed ecosystem assessments, as well as educational efforts and written recommendations, to convince the planners to alter the original route. Developers responded by avoiding critical habitat areas, building bridges and corridors for the antelope, and even halting construction altogether during key migration times.

If the generous budget, thorough research, and extensive nongovernmental and media involvement contributed in large part to the minimal impact of the rail project, then the alternative—misinformation, poor public participation, and a lack of funding—is the recipe for environmental damage in most Chinese development projects, particularly those implemented at the provincial level. For example, the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, an ongoing road project that began over 50 years ago, has led to serious documented decline of the endangered Tibetan antelope population. “These roads crisscrossing the fragile alpine grasslands not only affect the land itself, they also fragment the habitat for native animals, disrupting their migration patterns and food sources,” says Yang. Studies conducted by Green River have shown that the antelope’s greatest barrier to reproduction over the past 50 years has been the highway, which hinders the movement required for mating and birthing practices.

Provincial-level projects implemented in the absence of EIAs tend to badly erode local ecosystems. A recent U.S. embassy report on the environmental impacts of the new rail project observed that ongoing repairs to the older, high-altitude highway were in fact doing more damage to fragile grassland than the rail building. Studies conducted by Green River show that the grasslands are degrading at a rate of 2 percent per year. “When people think of the Qinghai-Tibet plain, they usually think blue sky and white clouds, prairie surrounded by snow-capped mountains,” says Yang. But the highway construction has eroded nearby vegetation and topsoil, creating large dust storms. “It is not uncommon now for the region to be engulfed in sand clouds several hundred meters high,” Yang explains.

Experience with the highway is cause for concern about the future of the plateau now that the new railway is completed. Previously, the region had been somewhat protected because of its relative inaccessibility. But the train offers a convenient, inexpensive mode of transport for both mass tourists and industrial goods. “Over its five-year planning and construction process, the rail has already encouraged the building of numerous new roads, hotels, and other buildings, as well as cheap industrial throw-away goods, not just in Tibet, but all along the route,” notes Yang. He worries that these developments have potential for serious, irreversible environmental impacts, as nomadic populations gradually adopt industrial food production methods, a “plastic products lifestyle,” and motorcycles and fossil fuels for transportation—“in place of the cattle and sheep which provide all of this in a dynamic relationship with the prairie ecosystem.”

Even before tourists arrived on the first train in July, the increase in inexpensive industrial products brought in by the railway had begun filling local rivers with trash. In the absence of government collection services, the waste “runs its own course, dancing through the air and spreading urine and feces from the open sewers until the entire town is surrounded by trash and deadly bacteria,” according to Yang. The costs for piping and for sewage and wastewater treatment in the new towns springing up along the rail route fall on local authorities, a burden that remains too high for these poorly developed areas. Most of the area’s nomads have not yet developed resistance to diseases common among settled peoples, and still own large numbers of animals that could easily fall ill.

According to Yang, little thought and even less funding has been allocated to assessing and minimizing the impacts of these new developments, which are left to under-funded provincial management. While the rail project itself has received top funding and resources for environmental impact assessment and planning, the many related building projects and roads have not received equal attention. Government officials, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, and the media have focused mainly on the railway and its endpoint in Tibet, but the project’s multiplier effect is largely ignored, leaving related projects ill-equipped to conduct EIAs or to adjust for their negative impacts.

According to Chinese government officials and others, these disadvantages will be offset with increased revenue from tourism and trade, as greater access to markets, information resources, and communication with the outside world promises to benefit countless rural areas. But in practice, Yang believes, the local nomadic peoples will be the last to see any reward. “Benefiting from the advantages of the market economy requires a shift from a nomadic to a settled, agriculture-based livelihood, a Han education and language ability, and a business savvy that is easier said than achieved,” he explains. So far, “the restaurants and management positions along the highways and rail are all monopolized by people from other places. There is considerable prejudice among these city people against the nomads.”

To avoid what Yang foresees as “one misfortune after another” for the region, he says smaller development projects at the local and provincial levels must incorporate the lessons of the larger Qinghai-Tibet rail effort. This includes greater involvement of environmental groups such as Green River, continued media attention, strengthened authority of local environmental protection bureaus, and the sincere efforts of China’s central government to allocate resources and training for environmental protection at all levels of the nation’s development.

Source – Worldwatch.org